are reality dating shows romantic?

Review: One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London

One to Watch

In this novel, Bea is a popular plus-size fashion blogger who goes viral for a posted complaint about all of the female stars on reality dating show Main Squeeze being model-thin; for a show whose purpose is to uphold the prospect of fairytale love for the ‘average’ American, shouldn’t the cast be more… representative of actual Americans? Bea would like to know.

She’s been unlucky in love herself, but when the season of Main Squeeze that she criticized flatlines and the producers decide to try a new tactic by hiring Bea as the next star, it’s not exactly love she signs on for. So much of reality dating tv is staged, she knows, and the engagements from each season’s final episode tend to last the contractual six weeks before the couple cuts ties. But going on the show would boost Bea’s fashion business and help show women who look like Bea that they can have fairytale love, too. With twenty-five eligible men vying for her hand though, will Bea be able to keep love out of the arrangement?

“…a lot of people find the existence of a fat woman something to get worked up about.”

CWs: body shaming, fatphobia, sexism, infidelity

I’m afraid this review is going to come off as a rant by the end, but I did appreciate a lot of things about this book and enjoyed the read, so I want to start off with some positives.

The body positivity and critiques of fatphobia first and foremost are incredible here, as one might expect from the premise. Bea is the main narrator throughout the book and is presented as a full, complex human being who calls out those who wrong her and deals with trolls on the internet and occasionally makes a bad call, as do we all. She’s humanized through and through, and while her experience as a plus-size woman colors every part of her life, Stayman-London avoids the mistake of letting Bea’s fatness make up her entire characterization.

“If the other kids just didn’t pay her any mind, that meant they weren’t being cruel, either. But being ignored is its own kind of hurtful.”

There’s some great diversity among the rest of the cast, as well. Main Squeeze has just changed hands from a lazy old white guy producer to a young woman on the rise and eager to move the show in a more inclusive direction. Bea’s bachelors include a Black man, a Frenchman, a single dad with a gender-nonconforming child, an asexual and aromantic man, a fat man, and more. Bea’s best friend is a lesbian. The best part is that all of these characters are given great scenes in which they get to just be a person- they’re not stereotyped, but their actions and advancement on the show make some great statements as well. I don’t want to say more and spoil any of the twists of Bea’s Main Squeeze episodes, but let me assure you that there are so many positive messages in One to Watch, both directly in the prose and also in the structure of the plot. (Watch out for those internet trolls though, they do spew some absolute venom along Stayman-London’s road to incredible commentary.)

And it’s not only the inclusivity. One to Watch is FUN. Woven in with the narration are bits of multimedia related to Bea and Main Squeeze– texts, group chats, think pieces, blog posts, tabloid articles, contracts, emails, tweets, interviews, and more. Though the book did get off to a bit of a slow start for me, once Bea is on Main Squeeze even the chapters are laid out as episodes of the show, complete with bits of script and film direction. All of this formatting keeps the story feeling fresh , fast-paced, and realistic, and most of all, it brings the Main Squeeze fandom to life.

I actually do not watch The Bachelor or any of its spinoffs- I am not a part of that fandom, which One to Watch is clearly mirroring. But it is so easy to get sucked in right along with the fans in the book: hashing over who’s been cut from the show, guessing who’ll stick around for the next episode, wanting to comment over every shocking comment and gesture. The drama is all there, and allows for a high level of reader engagement. It had all the appeal for me that murder mystery whodunnits usually do, only without bringing death into the equation. This would be a fantastic book to read along with a group or buddy, to weigh in every chapter or two and talk over what’s happened and predict what will happen next. It’s juicy in a way that’s exciting to share.

But it didn’t sell me on reality dating TV. And here is where I run out of praise, even though I did know going in to expect a Bachelorette-type story- One to Watch is upfront and correct about the sort of book it is, so my complaints do not lie with the novel, exactly. I saw a few reviews from readers who aren’t Bachelor franchise fans but loved this book, and I decided to take a chance and hope Bea would be doing some dismantling. Bea does dismantle stereotypes, but aside from wanting to make Main Squeeze more inclusive she accepts the show as is, questionable ethics and all, and that’s essentially where my issues lie. I do understand that the people on these shows sign contracts and know what they’re agreeing to and do actively agree to participate, and that in this case those characters are also entirely fictional, all of which is good. But humiliating someone on live TV as a “plot twist” to boost ratings? Keeping “villain” suitors around for intrigue? Filming personal conversations for public consumption. Having to take all these random suitors you hardly know into your family’s home for someone else’s entertainment. Broadcasting genuine heartbreak for the sake of the fans. It just feels gross to me, so the TV part of this book was never going to be the right fit.

“This is reality television, not a symposium on ethics and moral philosophy.”

Not only do I dislike the general premise and practice, but a story using this format is also necessarily going to rely on some of my least favorite tropes- there’s the instalove factor (the show takes place over several weeks, but there are so many people involved that a lot of decisions are made based on first impressions), the fake dating (these people have signed contracts and are getting paid to act as love interests; even if they are actually looking for love there are mixed motivations here, especially in Bea’s case, as she goes through several episodes and dates without her heart in it at all), and dating as a competition (Bea has to judge these men against each other and they are competing- the drive to “win” perhaps does not always coincide perfectly with the goal of finding real love). If these tropes are more your jam than mine, that’s totally fine, of course! Personally I’m into romance novels more for the angst, for relationships (of any sort: friends, enemies, coworkers, etc) that slow-burn develop into something more, and for characters pretending they’re not in love when they secretly are. I like my love stories a bit more on the emotionally torturous side, apparently. The fairytale/fantasy/money-is-no-object stuff just isn’t what I’m generally looking for, and again, I did read the synopsis of this book and decide to chance it, so any disappointment over finding what I expected not to like in these pages is on me.

But weighing my likes and dislikes here, I’m realizing that I did enjoy One to Watch, I just didn’t find it romantic. I wanted to know who Bea would choose in the end because I wanted to be right about my guess, not because I felt chemistry between any of these characters. A comment from one of the fans in the book about one contestant potentially winning an engagement “by default” when love gets messy toward the end of Bea’s season left me wondering whether fans of reality dating shows (and/or this book) are in it for the romance, or the game? What makes a romance a romance- are dates enough to put a book in the romance genre, even if they’re paid, even if they’re fake? I don’t mean to push anyone’s trope-loving buttons here, I’m genuinely curious to hear about what draws you (or doesn’t) to reality dating, whether you find reality dating truly romantic, and what you look for in romance media.

Because with this book, even though a few of the guys are very decent, I was surprised to find that the only one warming my heart was Bea.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’d definitely recommend this book if the premise appeals; it delivers exactly what it says it will, and does it well. I found it inspiring and encouraging even if not exactly romantic, and I’ve already loaned out my copy to someone who barely reads because I think this is an easy book to love and a fun one to talk about. The only downsides for me were ones I foresaw from the start, so I’ll absolutely be keeping an eye out for any further work from Stayman-London, especially if it steers away from reality dating!

The Literary Elephant

22 thoughts on “are reality dating shows romantic?”

  1. Having been in the fringe of the biz, I was always annoyed at how many people believe that reality shows are real. Those same people are the ones who think “based on a true story” or historical fiction is what really happened. My family members should know better but still don’t want the truth. Or umm want to believe in their version of the truth – fake reality.
    x The Captain

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    1. Ah yes, there does seem to be a crowd of viewers who hold on to reality TV as actual reality- some who really seem not to know better but also some who do and just can’t let go of the dream anyway! And I think to some extent that seems to be the purpose of the shows, especially when it comes to fairytale romance as reality TV… people just WANT it to be real badly enough that the shows can play into it and capitalize. I bet it’s an interesting experience to be involved in though, even at the fringe!

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    1. Thanks, it does seem like the perfect sort of read for group discussions! Both for the fandom fun and for the social commentary- plenty of conversation starters all around.

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  2. This sounds fun and, as you mention, like it would be a fun buddy read. I used to watch The Bachelor. I’d get together with a few friends and we’d watch it. When I moved away, I tried watching it on my own but most of the fun was gone.

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    1. That’s interesting! The fandom aspect, being able to share commentary and guesses, seemed like a huge draw to me both for this book specifically but also for this kind of dating show in general. The fan reactions and group texts woven in between episodes in this book were so enjoyable, and it was easy to see how being a part of something like this might be more appealing even than the show itself. And really, bringing people together and letting them believe in fairytale love seems like a pretty good aim, dubious ethics aside!

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      1. I think they really capitalize on that and also on a continuing story arc by using the same people from one season to the next. And it can be hard not to fall at least a little bit for the romantic storyline, even though I knew it was false and I’d be shouting warnings at any friend who got engaged after only a handful of dates with another person!

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      2. Yes, the spinoffs and returning cast members definitely help keep the audience invested, I think! This book ended with an announcement from the producer characters that one of the bachelors who made it farthest would be starring in the next season, and I cold absolutely see how easy it would be to make a whole related series and keep readers coming back to find out what happens next for their favorite players- I’m sure the show works the same! And I definitely think that to some extent the viewer is happy to pretend right along with the stars- even if we know better irl I think there are those of us who WANT to believe in the magic of it badly enough to overlook how questionable it is when the screen is removed from the equation!

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      3. It definitely creates an attachment to the storylines. Though it works the opposite way too, I think. Even if I wanted to start watching the Bachelor again, I feel completely lost when it comes to figuring out all these new players.

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      4. Oh, that’s a good point! And now that I think about it, all of the people I know who watch The Bachelor have been fans for YEARS, I suppose it can be hard for new watchers to become invested when the producers seem to prioritize the fanbase that already exists.

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      5. I bet a new viewer could catch up pretty quick but they do seem to be leaning into their current fanbase. And it seems to be working for them since they’ve been on the air for about twenty years now!

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  3. Ah I am so intrigued by everyone loving this book (and you ended up giving it 4 stars despite some of its flaws, so it sounds even more promising) but I detest the premise so much.

    and sidenote: can’t believe you don’t like fake dating, I very rarely see people disliking that trope 😁 (i like it, not my favorite, but still enjoyable)

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    1. I think if you dislike the premise straight off (I did too) it won’t ever be a perfect read for you, but it reads like a competitive game complete with all the fans rooting for their “teams,” so it can still be a lot of fun to engage with if that’s your thing at all. (And the themes are great!) It does pretty much exactly what it says on the cover so at least we know what we’re getting into- it was mostly worth taking the chance for me, and I hope if you’re interested enough to pick up the book that you’ll end up feeling the same!

      SO MANY people love the fake dating trope and I just… run the other way, haha. I don’t even know why, it just doesn’t work for me! I’ll take uncomfortable honesty over fake relationships any day of the week, lol.

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  4. I’ve seen snippets of the Bachelor and the Bachelorette, and it always looks so glamorous in an overly-polished, so-perfect-you-get-Frankenstein sort of way. When I was in grad school and teaching my own classes, I would watch Rock of Love, which is essentially the same thing, but with Bret Michaels from Poison weeding out/partying with/making out with women young enough to be his daughters. I think, for me, it was something that came on at the same time, so I had to stop all the frantic work I was doing and invest myself in some other kind of feelings. The show was awful, let’s be clear. One show had a contest in which the participants had to put the lyrics to “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” — arguably the most famous Poison song — in order, and they could not. They weren’t even alive when that song came out. And the show went on for three seasons, transitioned in to Rock of Love Bus (oh, boy) and had a couple of spin-off shows: Rock of Love Charm School (in which Sharon Osbourne schooled these trashy contestants on manners) and Bret Michaels Life as I Know (in which he goes home to his children and their mother, whom he’s BEEN ENGAGED TO for fifteen years (!!!) and you get to see his day-to-day life).

    Okay, but back to your post. No, I don’t find the dating show romantic at all. I didn’t find any of Bea dates (either the person or the events) romantic because every second you’re wondering what’s scripted and what’s feelings. And on the very first episode everyone has to pretend they’re already in love when they see the main person. What the hell are they in love with?? I don’t think you’re alone in your feelings; I just think reality shows in which people get kicked off are like rooting for a sports team for people who don’t watch sports.

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    1. I’ve heard of Rock of Love but never watched it, and am glad now- it sounds atrocious! And omg, a FIFTEEN YEAR engagement? That… seems like a red flag. But I do understand watching reality TV or anything trashy/guilty-pleasure-ish as a way to unwind and mentally check out- I do think that’s a necessary part of life. We need both the highbrow and the lowbrow.

      The Bachelor/Bachelorette I have seen a few episodes of throughout the years and I agree that the glamour maybe looks nice on camera sometimes but is just too big and too staged to be taken seriously. I’m glad it’s not only me who’s viewing these shows more as a game or competition (sports was a great analogy!) rather than a love story. Having to constantly wonder what’s real or not is exactly what kills any potential romance vibe for me, and leaves me wondering why we call The Bachelor or One to Watch romance at all. Maybe we SHOULD just shelve it as ‘sports’, lol. But there are some viewers who really seem into the romance aspect of it all, even if they have to squint to find it. The cousin I sent my copy of this book to actually seems like one of those!

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      1. I think we talked about how there was ONE couple from a reality show that actually stayed married, and now they have kids and stuff, and that whole situation probably gave/gives viewers hope for future daters. We should definitely categorize reality dating as sports! Ha!

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      2. Yes, having that one very positive outcome probably serves as a beacon of hope for some, although I wonder what folks would think if they looked at a full range of statistics for how long the relationships last rather than singling out the one they’re happy about. I am glad that someone walked away happy though!

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  5. Great review, Emily!!! Adding this to my radar immediately. I had heard a bit about this book before, but I think you’re the first person I see review it – and it sounds like a very fun concept, so I might actually pick this up at some point.

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