On Pair-Bonding

Romance reality shows taught me beyond all doubt that pity is an emotion entirely distinct from sympathy or empathy, or feeling embarrassed for someone. It’s a peculiar yet very specific sensation that overcomes you when you see the kind of gorgeous woman that is only supposed to exist on television, the kind that you’re raised to fear, fingering the running mascara from her eyes in the back of a limousine.

She is actually crying in a way you somehow just know isn’t acting, mostly because you haven’t received the impression that she’s smart enough to be so plausible an actress. You notice a certain stricken look that is deeply private, you are hearing all the thin breaks in her voice, the spit-thick catches in her throat the way that only those who know her and love her ought. You can even see that she is struggling to reconcile with the knowledge that her display of extreme distress is being broadcast nationally.

You can’t really feel sorry for her, though. You have your answer to the question of “why would anyone who is so perfectly gorgeous and so poised with such a great smile need to go on a reality television program to find love.” The answer is that this is a person who is crying intensely because she has been rejected by a man she has met on only a few occasions while under the eye of a television camera, a man who is okay with asking her to participate in “challenges” and make herself subject to “elimination” in order to be considered for his attention, a circumstance in which you might need to be insane to an unlovable extent to invest emotionally to any meaningful degree.

While looking at her you learn what is pity. You have watched enough reality dating shows that the delighted voyeurism, the willful manufacture of these romantic “contestants” into cardboard figurines, turns over like the engine of a car, probably around the point at which you realize they’re human beings, and then you’re just like, oh, and then you feel pity and you kind of hate yourself for watching.

The sense of pity for others can be transmuted into disgust with yourself, too, as time progresses, as you compulsively subject yourself to numerous iterations on this television show formula. Like a virulent organism, “romance” reality shows grow through subtle mutations, as each production house adds some kind of new “twist”, an ongoing compelling-repellant meta-experiment that eventually you learn to predict and to map like a language, or like a life-form if you’re in viral studies or pity studies. After a while you don’t stop knowing how horrible it is but you also find yourself tending to watch the fucking things anyway, and so you experience a little bit of that disgust with yourself.

On this new show Love in the Wild males and females are paired via some kind of inscrutable process and made to go on ‘adventures’ together, sort of like if Amazing Race were restricted to an island region in the Survivor vein and then depended primarily on who wanted to have sex with whom and not who finished whatever leg of some challenge or another first. The show plays halfheartedly at trying to join others in lifelong relationships but mostly it’s immediately unclear what any of the couples have in common or what their ultimate goals are or why you are watching, really.

You experience a brief fugue: Picture one of the “eliminated” contestants returning home to their job as [something], meeting friends somewhere for a meal or coffee/tea beverage, picture them far away from a world that manicured them and plucked their brows, picture them exactly like you again, like… having had to go from being a Person on TV to being exactly like you except maybe a little more gorgeous, and that they have all these friends who were not chosen to go on TV. But now the friends have to hear about this girl or dude speaking in a hyper-articulated fashion, over-emoting, exaggerated gestures as if now that they have been in front of the camera once, they’ve become some camera-ready monster.

Picture that conversation, your friend returned home from “the island” and unable to speak to you about much else besides who on “the island” was “such a bitch” and everything that went on during “the puzzle block challenge” or how they felt during “the necklace ceremony” or like the sequence of events that led to your friend feeling unsure about her “alliance.” This will happen. The friends will not know how to feel when everyone gets together to watch the finale air. You feel pity; you pity the friends.

Anyway, Love in the Wild was on television, and it seems that people get eliminated if they are not chosen by anyone, like, one male and one female get eliminated. In this particular situation this male and female had been paired up, and no longer wanted to be in a pair, and hoped different people would choose them to be in a different pair, but nobody did, so they were left standing to an area by themselves.

The man was a fit and bright-eyed individual whose primary fault, according to the way the show had pastiched a narrative, was that he was too eager toward his partner, who had said something to the effect of “you have to give me something to be curious about or I’m going to lose interest”. Essentially this man had failed the social protocol, and now nobody wanted to “go on an adventure” with him.

“You could stay with [whoever] or you can go on an adventure with Jason,” the TV host told some girl. “Would you like to go on an adventure with Jason?”

The camera was on Jason who had failed the social protocol as he looked anxiously hopeful that someone would want to go on an adventure with him. No one did. He went home.

This show was probably more stupid than any number of other clear-skinned larvae or bent vestigial forms that had preceded it, and yet there was something about watching Jason being rejected from adventures that was simply sad, not pitiful, just sad. There’s this innocence in the word “adventure,” maybe. The TV show was not a real adventure, so Jason was rejected and tricked, or more like some kind of natural human tendency in him had been exploited for entertainment. Everyone wants someone to go on adventures with. It seems particularly sad to see Jason punished for ostensibly wanting it too much.

I remember the “Pastoral” part of Disney’s Fantasia from when I was little.  After the part with the graceful winged horses and the colored baby horses comes the part where the beautiful lady-centaurs are getting ready to meet the gentlemen-centaurs. They are pastel-toned, with graceful whippet-waists slung from delicate horse-bodies, trailing flower-tangled tails and wearing doves as hair ornaments. The image is more aspirational beauty than any doll you can buy in a store, than anything you could ever hope to grow up into.

Baby cupids govern the proceedings, introducing the lady centaurs to the barrel-chested, jovial male centaurs who have arrived to meet them. In the animation everyone looks nervous, but soon everyone picks someone who seems to pick them right back, and then everyone shyly pairs off.

The cupids notice a man has been left by himself, sighing. He is like Jason who no one wanted to go on an adventure with. Initially they are sad for him, concerned, but fortunately they soon find that there is a lady centaur who has also been left by herself, and the cupids unite the two. You the viewer are the happiest for this pair, because even when you were a child you could understand what they felt like: the sentiment of resignation, when there is nothing left to do but process the fact that you have not been chosen, when you must accept that it feels like everyone has been chosen for something except for you.

A lot of times you’ll maybe think about how if you sigh loud enough, fat-bottomed little cupids will find you in an arbor.

There are sad horse creatures sighing in bowers; there is Jason walking away from the television show set with his most casual walk, a camera’s eye gazing staunchly between his adventuresome shoulderblades.

The girl in the back of the television show limousine wipes her tears incredibly delicately so that her eye makeup stays in place, because she is in front of a camera. She says something to the effect of, “I know there’s someone out there for me.”

You think about OK Cupid. You wonder if you will be picked to be someone’s partner someday soon. You feel sad for the TV people, too. TC mark

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  • http://lifediving.wordpress.com/ lifediving

    UM, major cliffhanger alert. Did Jason’s partner have to go home, too? Did she? Huh? Huh? Huh? Why are you doing this? Why? Why? Why?

    In all seriousness, though, did she?

    • http://www.facebook.com/wingedthing Leigh Alexander

      ya she did, she attempted to get chosen by someone named ‘steele’ but steele ultimately wanted to stay with the partner he already had 

  • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

    OH MY GOD. This was an emotional rollercoaster, christ.

    It’s inherent that one should feel bad when watching these shows (at least, it feels inherent to me) but this essay kind of paints what exactly is horrifying/depressing about these shows.

    The Fantasia tie-in was perfect.

    Sigh… adventures. Fucking adventures. So much to think about now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    Hedonists them cherubs are

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    Hedonists them cherubs are

  • Anonymous

    No one likes to feel eliminated and so there’s a built-in range of sympathy/empathy/pity as a key part of the structure of these shows. Our personal disgust seems to stem from the fact that in order to see who “wins” we must accept the necessary eliminations. At the same time we have hope that the “winner” will find the “right” person because we’ve invested our emotions with the lead character. “Don’t pick X” or “Why are you giving a rose to Y?” Crazy personal thoughts that make no sense because in “reality” we don’t know any of these “characters” and of course we only get to see what the editors want us to see.

    Think of all we go through just to be entertained…

    Great article!

  • Amy Everard

    Leigh! I love this!

    • http://www.facebook.com/wingedthing Leigh Alexander

      THANK YOU! i love you! 

  • LAURA SMITH

    Absolutely flawless article.

  • Eric Leslie

    Beautiful, Leigh. The adventure thing resonates with damn near every one of us (us your readers), I expect.

  • http://www.erraticgamer.com Eric Leslie

    Beautiful, Leigh. The adventure thing resonates with damn near every one of us (us your readers), I expect.

  • Angela

    For the record Jason was a complete idiot who could not pick up social clues.  He had fallen for the 3 other girls he had been paired up with in a matter of hours.  He obviously went on the show to find love because he was completely worthless at adventures.  He was painful to watch.  He was scared of ants.  Please tell me why you would go on an “adventure” show called “In the Wild” if you were terrified of everything found in nature??  

    • Angela

      And for the record I am embarrassed I watch this show.

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