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  • Stevie Seibert Desjarlais

NOT NORMAL: Reality TV, Competitive Dating and a Concept to Question in These Trying Times

If you religiously read Watershed (LIKE I DO) then you’re probably aware of many recent aspects of U.S. politics and society that can be loosely (neutrally) described as “thought provoking.” As we collectively tell ourselves: “This is not normal. THIS is not normal. THIS is NOT normal. THIS IS NOT NORMAL,” a question gets begged: what is “normal”? Sometimes the idea of normalcy gets paraded around without thorough consideration of the power and assumption wielded behind the term.

Allow me to make an analogy. I have a habit. Some might call it a bad habit. Some might call it an utter waste of time. Some might pooh-pooh this habit when I confess it (though I do often refer to this habit as “research”). Folks, in addition to diligently reading Watershed, I am also a dedicated watcher of ABC’s The Bachelor, The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise. Yes, these are three distinct programs, but for the sake of articulating my habit and this analogy I will often refer to them singularly as the Bachelor franchise or (more fondly) as the Bach. For those of you not in the know, the Bach has been on air for over 20 iterations and the franchise has an established and loyal fan base largely because, as studies have shown, the “two characteristics most salient to audiences when thinking about reality-based programing are romance and competition” (Nabi 383).

Currently, Nick Viall (pronounced “vile”) is the poor lonely heart that was rejected TWICE on national television by Bachelorettes Andi Dorfman and Kaitlyn Bristow. With his turn as the Bachelor, Nick finally has his moment to pick a lucky lady from a pool of 30 eligible women. No, this is not the premise for a salacious novel or a polyamorous porn plot. This scenario is actually the start of a promise: a promise that, according to ABC and the Bachelor franchise, only occurs between a woman and a man, is played out over a designated 12-episode time period, requires traveling that circles the globe, routinely only includes a few token people of color, and ends in a successful monogamous marriage—all to be televised during primetime. This promise is ROMANCE. It’s a promise that is very mainstream, ever palatable nationwide—even in the flyover states—with millions tuning in every week to see who Nick will propose to this time.

Herein lies the parallel I want to highlight: Many critics say that the dating situation presented in the Bachelor franchise is unrealistic—NOT NORMAL! Let’s break the show and its perceived lack of normalcy down a little bit:

  • Not normal = a person dating multiple people at the same time [1];

  • Not normal = two people falling in love and getting engaged over the course of 10 weeks [2];

  • Not normal = people competing—both in physical and emotional shows of strength—for a possible mate [3];

  • Not normal = people affirming heterosexuality on primetime network television [4];

  • Not normal = a group mostly comprised of white people appearing on primetime network television [5];

  • Not normal = a group mostly comprised of conventionally attractive people appearing on primetime network television [6];

  • Not normal = 24-hour camera coverage of people’s dating lives [7].

This list could go on, and on. As is the case with much of our U.S. popular culture, there are aspects of the show that act as a mirror held up to our society, because, these things are far more common than we might admit (see the endnotes if you are still unswayed). For those who point at the show (or our current political situation) and say: NOT NORMAL, there is certainly reason to ask: What if what we think is the norm isn’t really the norm?

In Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, Hanne Blank points out the underpinnings of our dichotomous societal discourses framing sexuality. Blank explains doxa as our cultural knowledge, or “the stuff that ‘goes without saying,’ the assumptions and presumptions and ‘common sense’ ideas we have about our world and how it works” (26). Like many longstanding oppositional constructions of gender, in relation to sexuality, doxa operates on a discursive level through our categorizations of homosexual and heterosexual. This relationship between sexuality and discourse is important because doxa has the potential to separate the socially “normal” from the “not-normal” (Here, I use these terms in quotation marks because the distinction is dubious in nature given the subjective social constructions of normalcy and sexuality). Blank points out that because of the ways that discursive naming works, both labels of homosexual and heterosexual should work as marked categories, but the designation of heterosexual resists marking as different (33). And that resistance of visibility carries an enormous potential for privilege. To fall in with what is socially recognized as “normal” is to be (mostly) free from scrutiny. The advantage of being deemed normal should not be taken for granted. For those who are often subjugated by societal mores, feigning (or closely aligning to) normalcy can become a survival tactic, or even more notably, total subversion of doxa.

Blank’s examination of heterosexuality includes an acknowledgement of the cultural unconcern with heterosexual marriage—even in spite of lengthy history in religious and legal restrictions placed on women. Historically, marriage was largely premised on the understanding that “Men needed wives; women needed husbands” (Blank 70). The label of “’Heterosexual’ was coined for a world in which the ideal of economically and socially viable adulthood meant marriage, children, and middle-class domestic respectability. It was a society that was fairly comfortable with hierarchy, where political and social egalitarianism had become aspirational ideals but were by no means everyday practices” (Blank 148). Heterosexuality came to be taken for granted as doxa because it was (and still is for some parts of society) understood to be the norm. Case in point: the Bach.

On one hand, The Bachelor franchise, as it turns out, is normal when placing it amid other pop culture phenomenon. It’s normal in the sense that mainstream media representations tend to flatten gender, sexuality, race and class into a seemingly monolithic portrait of romance for easy consumption.

Yet, on another hand, when heterosexuality is scrutinized—or labeled NOT NORMAL, as is the case with the Bach—we have a rare opportunity to dissect what has frequently been taken for granted. As Blank notes, “Scientifically speaking, we don’t know much about heterosexuality… This isn’t too surprising. We haven’t been looking. No dedicated neurologist has ever hunched over microscope slides of brain tissue teasing out telltale details that make a ‘heterosexual brain’ heterosexual” (41). Thus, in the moment that we put heterosexuality under the microscope we can problematize that label of normalcy, possibly tip the scale of privilege and assumption. I can speak from personal experience that I put those relationships under strict scrutiny when I watch each and every episode.

So, who gets to decide what is or isn’t normal? There is certainly power wielded when a person or idea gets labeled “normal.” Just as Blank shows in tracing the history of heterosexuality, attaining the level of doxa is akin to getting a green light of approval, and with that comes quite a bit of privilege—a right to be, exist. Included in this power to define what is normal is a normalization of power. (Here’s where things become a little cyclical in my musings…) Power is negotiated, but often appears as a given. Normal is negotiated, but often appears as a given. Where do we find the beginning and the end of when something transitions from being not yet normal to normal, and then maybe back out to not normal again?

A friend and I were recently discussing the idea of “new normal.” When circumstances shift over time, people who care to notice these shifts often employ the label of “new normal” to signal a change of the guard. New normal feels like a term that is unique in its ability to recognize what often goes unrecognizable—what is normal can cease to be normal and can be totally replaced with something new (which would seem to imply NOT NORMAL, in comparison to the previous). The normalizing of a norm is characteristically unnoticeable until one goes to the effort to trace its origin. Being normal means being timeless.

Much like the moment of scrutiny afforded in labeling the somewhat normal heteronormativity (among other baggage) of the Bach as NOT NORMAL, the collective discussion about Normal/Not Normal in conjunction with our current trying political times is a moment where we can take stock of our cultural histories leading up to and the present moment. Rather than produce a static response, the question what is normal should evoke from us a thought process.

Last question: Is this normal?


[1] According to this study published in 2016, more than one in five single adults in the U.S. have engaged in consensual non-monogamous relationships.

[2] There isn’t a great deal of data collected on dating-to-engagement trajectories for U.S. populations. But this article does point to a normal period of less than two years to engagement, and that quick engagements routinely occur.

[3] This study notes that competition for mates is NORMAL.

[4] In this 2015 study published by GLAAD, “of the 881 regular characters expected to appear on broadcast primetime programming… 35 (4%) were identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.” Things may be getting better but heteronormativity is very much alive and well in mainstream media.

[5] Read this report by The Status of Women in the U.S. Media from 2015 for stats on just how prevalently white folks dominate our television media (see pages 30 – 35).

[6] A feminist collective offers a list of the ways that traditional rules of attractiveness (a.k.a. beauty standards) perpetuate the gender binary, racism, and billions of dollars in profits for corporations—all the while keeping us worried about our external selves over the intellectual pursuits we might otherwise use the energy for.

[7] While the average American life may not be televised, the connectivity of younger generations via social media is an undeniable parallel. Many of us choose to broadcast aspects of our lives—including our dating experiences—to our followers.

Sources Cited:

Blank, Hanne. Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality. Beacon P, 2012.

Nabi, Robin L. “Determining Dimensions of Reality: A Concept Mapping of the Reality TV Landscape.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, vol. 51, num. 2, 2007, 371-390.

Image: ABC

#stevieseibertdesjarlais #normal #popculture #realitytv #heteronormativity

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