Left to right: Leni on "Dating in the Dark," Luke and Sandy on "More to Love," Trice on "Dance Your Ass Off."

Embrace the reality TV underdogs!

TV experiments with the unbearable importance of looks, from "More To Love" to "Dating in the Dark"


Heather Havrilesky
July 26, 2009 2:25PM (UTC)

Sometimes when the underdog rises triumphantly to take a big bite out of the Snausage of life, people stand up and applaud. Other times, people gather in small groups, tittering mercilessly at the underdog's slobbery lips and scrappy, misshapen tail.

We're living in the age of the former outcast, in which the big-boned gal, the nerd or the misfit finds redemption in one narrative after another. But a victory for the victimized is still just a funny story to natural-born winners who've never tasted the agony of defeat (which tastes like blood and wet gravel, in case you're wondering).

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Most of us, whether we're dorks or hipsters or lumpy parents or slick professionals or something in between, are only equipped with so much "You go, girl!" supportiveness for the downtrodden. We're all about cheering on the marginalized cat ladies and former chubby kids, the Susan Boyles and Adam Lamberts of the world, but we still want them to clean up nice and feed us pithy sound bites in their "Today" show interviews. We embrace them in theory, but in practice, their jittery eyes and sweaty palms and insecure asides test our patience. "Kiss the golden ring and move the fuck on already," we snap, selfishly nostalgic for a world dominated by the charismatic, the smoothly self-assured, the wittily concise.

Big love

This summer, network executives reveal a secret fascination with the mistreated, pretending to embrace and support them, then snickering behind their hands as the cameras roll. No show demonstrates this phenomenon more unnervingly than Fox's "More to Love" (premieres 9 p.m. Monday, July 27), a dating competition in which a flock of big-boned gals compete to win the heart of one big-boned guy. Luke, a 26-year-old real estate developer from Santa Maria, Calif., confesses that he loves food and knows what it feels like to be treated badly because of his weight.

Not a bad start, until the show's editors get their sticky fingers into this pie, and then all we get is one clip after another of a big-boned lady weeping over her inability to find love, thanks to her size:

"Sometimes it seems like the guys are all talking to my friends that are smaller than me, that they're not really acknowledging me."

"I've actually never had a boyfriend. I didn't have a date to the prom. Of course all the skinny girls have dates and they have boyfriends and they got to go with their Prince Charmings."

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"I think that I would be wonderful for a guy." (Wiping back tears) "And I haven't found one who thinks that yet."

"Nobody really looks at who you are on the inside."

"I've never had a second date."

Obviously size is a central issue in these women's lives. But if you took a group of medium-size single women in their 20s and asked them the same questions about how successful they've been at finding love, you'd hear variations on the same theme. Average-looking women would claim that their cute friends get all the guys. Women with incredible figures would worry that men only like them for their big racks. Women with advanced degrees would say that men reject them because they're smart and successful. Assertive women would claim that men don't like assertiveness while timid women would say that they're too shy to charm good men.

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The real problem is that most men in their 20s aren't all that serious about finding love, period. They would not like it in a boat, they would not, could not, with a goat. Sadly, though, instead of identifying the real cause -- flinchy, commitment-phobic young men -- most women assume that there's some fatal flaw that prevents them from finding true love.

"More to Love" aims to open our eyes to a glorious alternate reality where everyone focuses on "what's on the inside," but instead of actually learning what these women are like on the inside, all we hear about is their outsides -- how they feel about their weight, how many disappointments can be linked to their weight, how they're wearing Spanx right now. It's like airing a show about addiction and recovery that features a room full of addicts rhapsodizing over the crazy stuff they did when they were high.

What's worse, Luke is greeted as a hero for daring to date women who, on average, weight about 100 pounds less than he does. The second that Luke pledges that he wants to focus on the women's personalities and asks them all to do the same for him, the room is filled with swooning, cooing ladies. "Luke is an amazing man for stepping up and saying I like big women!" gushes one contestant (who later gets sent packing). Luke may be a rare creature -- we all know big men who refuse to date big women and average-looking men who expect to land total babes. But congratulating Luke for being halfway reasonable and rewarding him with a roomful of fawning women, most of whom will be sent home in tears, isn't exactly progress.

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Taking reality shows seriously isn't progress either, but this is the mood you land in after watching big ladies weep about the impossibility of finding true love for a solid hour. If the tone of the show is supposed to be empowering, someone probably should've sent a memo to the editing room. From the opening cocktail party to the final elimination, we keep cutting away to women telling the camera how lonely they've been thanks to their weight, and how hopeful they are that Luke is the one, since no one else will ever love them.

Obviously if you want to do a dating competition with big women the right way, you have to treat the women like (gasp) regular human beings. Many of them seem more interesting and confident than their skinny "Bachelor" counterparts, so why do we have to talk about nothing but weight?

Stay tuned for the barbecue episode (and I guarantee there'll be one) where everyone talks about how much they love to eat, and how tormented they are by it. But we all love to eat, and we've all been lonely before, so leave the big girls alone already.

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 Dancin' machine

In contrast to "More to Love," "Dance Your Ass Off" (9 p.m. Mondays on Oxygen) at least aims to be a feisty festival of empowerment for big men and women, but it often ends up making a spectacle of its stars along the way. You deserve to strut your stuff! They tell their contestants. Now put on this enormous sequined frock and get out there on the dance floor and make America laugh its mean-spirited ass off.

Thus do Mara and Miles and Pinky, extra large ladies and gentlemen in extra large tuxes and showgirl-style costumes, head to the studio to learn to shake and shimmy with their partners, saying that they believe in themselves deep inside on the one hand, but they want to lose some weight on the other hand. A cross between "The Biggest Loser" and "Dancing With the Stars," the show awards extra points for how much weight the contestants lose along the way.

The emphasis here obviously isn't on celebrating these people as they are now, exactly, but on encouraging them to shrink before our eyes. Sometimes that goal feels inspiring, other times it feels queasily off-kilter, like buying your friend a stiff drink on the way to his AA meeting.

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And even though seeing the competitors making smoothies and eating spinach and working out constantly and then dancing with serious flair made me want to give them a high five, and then go out for a much needed run, on Monday night viewers nationwide were sniping on Twitter about how "gross" and "wrong" and "hysterical" the show was. That's to be expected, of course. But what happens to the chubby girl who was just inspired by the big woman dancing on TV, only to find half of the population falling over themselves to gawk and guffaw loudly?

TV shows don't have to be fair or ethically unimpeachable. They can just be sloppy and full of contradictions and ridiculous. The contestants on "Dance Your Ass Off" seem to be having a great time, and maybe mean comments bother bystanders more than they'd ever bother the contestants themselves, who've already endured prejudices for years.

But are they being tricked into humiliating themselves? Can any of us exist in a vacuum, and define ourselves how we choose, willfully ignoring those who don't get it? Maybe. But unless you've been surgically reconstructed to look like Lisa Rinna (who's actually a Bionicle), it's tough to keep your pride intact when you're wearing fishnets and a shiny pink cutout satin showgirl dress.

Dating in the Dark

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The most perverse -- and not coincidentally, the most fun -- of the new "appearances aren't everything" reality shows is  "Dating in the Dark" (10 p.m. Mondays on ABC), in which groups of singles get to know each other in total darkness, go on a few "dates" in the dark, and then decide whom they like the best without ever seeing them. Intriguing and inspired, indeed -- at least until the singles start loudly hoping that they've picked a hottie.

Hilariously, once certain couples start to form, each person is asked to describe what they think the person looks like to a sketch artist. Most of the sketches are reasonably accurate, except for one of them. Leni, a very attractive redhead, thinks that her reasonably attractive but not traditionally dashing love interest Stephen looks like a Ken doll. "I look like Dolph Lundgren," Stephen jokes when he sees his sketch, but then he worries about how Leni will feel when she sees his actual, far less chiseled face.

Is she disappointed when the lights come up on her new invisible boyfriend? Yes, and you can see it in her expression. "He's not at all what I imagined him to look like," she laments afterward. "He looks like the kind of guy your mother would say, 'What a lovely boy, Leni, he's a lovely boy!'" Even so, she agrees to meet Stephen at the end of the show and they seem to hit it off just fine when they can actually talk to each other.

Allister, a very handsome DJ whose mother left him and his brother when they were little, agrees to meet his nurturing, smart, but somewhat mousy choice, Melanie. Melanie laughs when she sees Allister, later saying that she's never dated a really hot guy before, but she doesn't seem to take the whole experiment all that seriously, thank God. As the two of them ride off together, they seem to have at least some small chance of working as a couple. (Unfortunately, we're not told whether or not any of the couples end up dating.)

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Finally, we have Christina and Seth, two people who seem well-matched looks-wise: Pretty faces on Pokey Little Puppy bodies. Seth is thrilled when he sees Christina, proclaiming her "cute" immediately. But when the lights come up on Seth, he looks a little awkward and worried that he's not hot enough. This makes him look less attractive, of course, and disastrously enough, Christina isn't even willing to meet with him and see if the guy she kissed and fell for in the dark is still attractive to her in person.

See how it goes? You can only force people to look at "what's inside" for so long before they go back to their old, shallow ways. But let's face it, as long as TV executives and producers are in charge of our enlightenment, we're pretty much screwed. You can teach an underdog new tricks, but he'll still shed all over the couch and throw up on the rug. When he looks at us through rheumy eyes, he makes us feel like charitable souls. But is it worth it?


Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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