Why the contestants on ‘Dating Naked’ are (kind of) just like us

By Chloe Angyal
August 5, 2014

NAKED AND AFRAID 1B

If naked horseback riding strikes you as a bad idea, then Dating Naked is not the reality show for you.

The show, which debuted last month, is filmed on a Caribbean island, and it’s much like any other reality dating show, except that contestants show up for their dates — which involve island-y activities like spearfishing, zip lining, paddle boarding, and yes, horseback riding — totally naked, and stay that way for the duration of the date. Suffice it to say, the folks responsible for pixelating the footage for this show have their hands full.

Dating Naked is one of several reality shows in which nudity is part of the central premise. Recently, we’ve also seen the debut of Buying Naked (TLC), about a real estate agent who caters to a nudist clientele; Naked and Afraid (Discovery Channel), in which strangers are left naked in a deserted location and must fend for themselves in the wilderness, is currently in its third season. If you hold to the journalism adage that three makes a trend, then naked reality shows are officially a hot new trend (or, in the case of the Naked and Afraid contestants who spent three weeks in the Yungas cloud forest of Argentina, a cold one).

What is striking about these shows, however, is how quickly nudity becomes the least remarkable element. In Naked and Afraid, building a shelter and obtaining food quickly become top priorities for many contestants, and being naked while doing so is an uncomfortable inconvenience, but not a central concern. Similarly, the contestants in Dating Naked say that by the time they’re stripping down for their third naked date, they’re getting comfortable with the idea of meeting a purported complete stranger in the buff. Since the discomfort, awkwardness, and innuendo that, uh, arise, from the nudity are central to the appeal of the show, their dissipation reveals Dating Naked for what it is: Yet another formulaic reality dating show, just as heavily edited and booze-soaked as any other member of the genre. Once the contestants get comfortable, the show loses much of its appeal.

And for all the hype about Dating Naked being a totally new, or at least daringly original, kind of dating show, it has another very important thing in common with almost every other show in the genre: Its primary appeal for the viewer is the pleasure of looking down on the contestants. That’s certainly the central appeal of the most odious recent addition to the dating show landscape, I Wanna Marry “Harry,” in which a house full of attractive young American women compete for the affection of a man who vaguely resembles, and is pretending to be, the Prince of Wales. The show resembles Joe Millionaire and other programs in which women are told that the man they’re trying to win over is something he’s not — in this case, they’re told that Matthew Hicks, a grocery store employee who struggles to master minor details about the man he is impersonating, is fourth in line for the British crown.

But the main point of the show seems to be to make the case that American women are credulous, ill-informed, and swayed by money and status. An accurate subtitle for I Wanna Marry “Harry” would be: “Can you believe all these dumb, gold-digging Yanks?” As viewers, we’re supposed to disdain these women, who are fooled even by Hicks’s floundering attempts to pull one over on them.

Similarly, much of the appeal in Dating Naked comes from the shock that any person would sign up to go on a series of televised naked dates, and the perverse pleasure of feeling superior to those who have. Layered over that is the schadenfreude-fueled hope that contestants will be uncomfortable being naked or being in the presence of a naked member of the other sex, or that they will become visibly aroused, or that naked horseback riding will go horribly wrong. Dating Naked combines the formula of a dating show with the tabloid-esque pleasure of critiquing and admiring the un-airbrushed bodies of strangers, and the Funniest Home Videos-style hope that someone will get hit in the crotch.

I Wanna Marry “Harry” was pulled from television after just a few episodes, though the whole season is available online. But Dating Naked is going strong, as is Naked and Afraid. If you were in the business of making reality television, you’d be soliciting pitches for yet more nudity-themed programming.

But nudity isn’t really the point in these shows so much as it is a visual representation of what makes reality dating shows appealing to us: Other people’s vulnerability. How far will they go? How much will they expose? From the safety of our couches, we watch as other people reveal all but a few blurry pixelated bits of themselves, and feel safer and more secure as we do. Just as on every reality dating show, the goal is to provide the viewer with heavily produced moments of unguarded vulnerability, or to fabricate those moments when they don’t naturally occur. And viewers tune in and eat it up, knowing we should know better, fully aware that this kind of programming represents the worst that popular culture has to offer.

We take pleasure in the sight of strangers trying to climb on to a paddleboard without revealing their genitals to the stranger they’re on a date with, and roll our eyes at the easily duped twenty-something women who think they’re in the running to marry Prince Harry. It’s the same impulse that drives the rubbernecking of a pop culture phenomenon like the recently released Sharknado 2, with its deliberately absurd premise and long parade of cameos from washed-up actors. We tell ourselves we are “hate-watching” or “enjoying it ironically,” when in fact we are simply guaranteeing the proliferation of popular culture that, at this point, has scraped clean through the bottom of the barrel.

It’s easy to sit on the couch, roll our eyes and feel superior to people who think that naked horseback riding is a good idea. But then again, we’re the ones watching them do it.

 

PHOTO: Carrie and Tom drinking water from bamboo in an image from the Discovery Channel TV show “Naked and Afraid.” REUTERS/Handout via Discovery Channel

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