“Do you like vaginas?”
The host of Naked Attraction—a new British reality series on Max (formerly HBO Max)—puts the question earnestly to a male contestant as the camera pans past six anonymous sets of labia in extreme close-up.
With scripted television still on pause in the wake of the Hollywood writers strike, this is what we’re left with. Reality dating shows. And they’re surprisingly fascinating.
In Naked Attraction, all participants are scrutinized in a state of full frontal nudity before they even learn each other’s names. And on ABC’s The Golden Bachelor, which premiered last week, a house full of female senior citizens compete for the heart of a 71-year-old man named Gerry, a handsome widower who still gets choked up when he talks about the wife he loved and lost.
These shows run the emotional gamut, from heartwarming to hilarious to downright horrifying. Despite being nominally billed as entertainment, their greatest draw is that they’re often agonizing to watch. (I nearly blacked out when the bachelor in the aforementioned scene used the word cheeseburger to describe his preferred vaginal aesthetic.)
Yet somehow, it’s not the show with the naked genitals that ends up making for the most cringeworthy entertainment. It’s the one with the naked desperation.
“I cannot go home tonight,” says Kathy, a Golden Bachelor contestant with piercing hazel eyes and an extremely intense vibe. "When I look into his eyes. . . his smile, it radiates. And I felt a connection, for sure.” She glares at the camera, jaw set, eyes unblinking.
“I want a rose,” she growls.
God, it’s so uncomfortable. And awkward. And embarrassing.
In other words, it’s everything that falling in love is supposed to be.
Bless Kathy and her cohorts for reminding us of this. Because at some point within the past decade or so—roughly in tandem with the emergence of online dating as the preferred, if not only, acceptable way to seek romantic partners—this hat-in-hand earnestness, this open desire for connection, became coded as “cringe.”
Maybe it’s the nature of app-based dating, that your presence on Tinder or Hinge or whatever is in itself an embarrassing cri de coeur, an admission that you want to be wanted. Or maybe it’s that we place such a premium on emotional safety that intimacy has come to be seen as a dangerous gateway to trauma.
In the online dating world, finding love is often framed as a hunt for the red flags that will reveal the other party to be a cad or a gold digger if not a serial killer, and where women unironically lament that not even the most robust consent culture can prevent a love affair from going cold.
Seen through this digital paradigm, it doesn’t seem fair that a man can hurt your feelings and just get away with it.
Preoccupied as we are with avoiding emotional harm, perhaps it’s no surprise that modern dating often plays out like a competition to see who can care the least, with everyone’s heart wrapped in so many protective layers of irony that there’s no chance of anyone touching it, let alone breaking it.
The draw of these dating shows, with all their naked emotion and naked bodies, is that they force their participants to do the most extreme and terrifying thing: to be vulnerable in search of love, stripped of pretense and performance (and, sometimes, underwear).
This is what Naked Attraction and The Golden Bachelor have in common; this is why we can’t stop watching. Even the show where the aspiring daters are literally nude isn’t ultimately about revealing people’s bodies so much as their humanity, as evidenced by how often the person doing the choosing ends up looking past whatever body part they’re meant to be judging, and instead taking notice of things like posture, tattoos, body language. The yearning for connection is palpable: all that exposed skin, and still, all we really want to know is who someone is underneath.
Maybe that’s cringe, but isn’t it also freeing? Whether you’re nude on Naked Attraction or courting The Golden Bachelor, you cannot afford to be coy. The woman who wants a rose doesn’t care if she looks desperate or foolish. For the chance at making that connection, it’s a price she’s willing to pay.
“A lot of us were really kind of giving up on love,” says contestant Jeanie, after being eliminated on Episode 2 this week. “And with Gerry—there’s nice guys out there, and there’s hope, and that’s all we could ever ask for.”
When you take away the cameras, the confessionals, the contrivances of television, what remains is a universal truth: that the pursuit of romance is indivisible from vulnerability and pain—if not the immediate sting of rejection, then the anguish of loving and losing. Stripping down for Max is the least of it.
The titular bachelor is a living, breathing reminder that even in the best-case scenario, there’s no such thing as forever. If you don’t end your relationship by choice, the reaper’s scythe will eventually do it for you.
Will ironic detachment save you from that grief? Maybe, but consider what you’re missing: if you’re lucky enough to meet the right person, and brave enough to look like a fool, you can be totally cringe together for the rest of your lives.
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