“A spectre of feminism is invoked so that it might be undone.”
—Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism
Last month, the sixth series of Take Me Out drew to a close. Although this series was ultimately as unremarkable as the previous five, there is clearly a great deal about this particular TV programme that is worth remarking upon, not least because it was screened into approximately three and a half million homes in the UK in January and February of this year alone.
For readers not resident in one of those homes, or otherwise unfamiliar with the hyped-up, sexed-up, twenty-first century version of Cilla Black’s Blind Date, Take Me Out is a reality TV dating show in which thirty single women stand behind thirty white lights in the hope of securing a date with a single man. During the course of each episode, four men descend from the ‘Love Lift’– a lift positioned in the middle of a long line of women garbed in supposed ‘Saturday night’ attire, for which the criteria seems to be threefold (short, tight, and bright) – to a song of their choice. To my knowledge, nobody chose to enter to Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, though there are clear parallels between the ideas which underpinned that song – and its video – and the show here described.
The men have three chances to ensure that the white lights behind which the women are standing remain white. The first chance is face-value, the second involves a pre-recorded video from the man and/or his friends and family, describing him in more detail, and the third is often based upon a demonstration of talent (the man’s sporting prowess, musical ability, and so on). If, as presenter Paddy McGuiness so often reminds, the women are “turned off, [they should] turn off”, or, in other words, turn their lights from white to red, to signal they are no longer interested in the prospect of a date with this particular man. Should all – or at least, more than two – of the lights remain white, the man must then set about turning them red himself. After “whittling it down to two girls”, he has the opportunity to ask the final two women one question, the answers to which will help him to “turn one girl off, and take one girl out”.
In spite of claims that the Saturday night show is ‘just a bit of fun’, ‘a laugh’, and ‘not to be taken too seriously’, my experience of watching the programme has been nothing short of deeply unenjoyable. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that my viewing of Take Me Out has been harmful, both to the women on the show, and to women in general. For far from being an example of female empowerment, Take Me Out is symptomatic of a postfeminist mentality which is both insidious and odious in nature. Building upon Susan Faludi’s backlash thesis of the 1990s, feminist scholars such as Angela McRobbie have forcefully argued that the postfeminist era (that is, late C20th to the present) is characterised by a ‘double entanglement’, by which feminism is deemed to have been ‘taken into account’ at the same time as it is wholeheartedly demonised. In the postfeminist context, feminism is simultaneously portrayed as though it is dead and as though its revival is unnecessary – inappropriate, even.
As McRobbie explains, here “tropes of freedom and choice are inextricably connected with the category of young women”, who apparently do have it all after all: the economic and sexual freedom so hard-fought for by the second wave that makes the entire movement irrelevant (and even insulting) to women today. It is within this postfeminist (anti-feminist) context that women make a series of (constrained) choices, and it is precisely thinking of this nature that enables women who feature on programmes such as Take Me Out to be presented in sexual, unintellectual terms. How? Because women are here ‘choosing’ to be presented (read: objectified) in this way. Because sexism is clearly subverted on a dating show that empowers women to ‘choose’ to turn their lights off should they not want to date the man out of the lift. Feminism – in all its banality – is no longer relevant, and anybody who says that these women are exploited when they describe future sexual exploits to a man on national TV in a bid to ultimately be chosen by him is taking life too seriously. We know about equality and we subscribe to it: if anything, the men are objectified, too! Right?
Wrong. So long as the playing field remains uneven, the ‘hyper-culture of commercial sexuality’, to use McRobbie’s terms, is far more damaging to women than it is men. More than this, it is particularly damaging to women who do not fit the mould of sexuality prescribed by the show. Take Me Out, to my knowledge, has never included in its line-up a woman who is larger than a size 16 (and these women are the exception), or a woman who has a visible disability, or a woman who is over the age of 50 (except for that one time where they had a ‘special’ show for the over-50s, which says it all, really). The show is for people seeking to date members of the opposite sex only. It is exclusive to people who self-identify as female or male, and it is also only for people who are single and “looking for love”.
While none of this is surprising, given that, as Rosalind Gill has argued, the postfeminist sensibility is one “in which notions of autonomy, choice and self-improvement sit side-by-side with surveillance, discipline and the vilification of those who make the ‘wrong choices’ (e.g. become too fat, too thin, or have the audacity or bad judgement to grow older)”, in essence, this dating game is underpinned by a very specific heteronarrative which prohibits most physical bodies from play. This being the case, then, we might wonder why the show remains so popular amongst the British public.
In an article for The Guardian last year, fellow Cambridge scholar Priyamvada Gopal, inspired by the work of Adrienne Rich, coined the term ‘compulsory coupledom’. The concept was used by Gopal to describe the conditions under which the apparently ubiquitous desire to have a romantic relationship remains unquestioned in the minds (and hearts) of most people. In my view, this concept clearly helps to explain the appeal of contemporary popular culture’s obsession with a very specific formula, in which the heterosexual partnership equals happiness. In fact, authors have highlighted how this obsession permeates programmes which ostensibly offer a more realistic view of women than the femininity presented on Take Me Out (see Graves & Kwan’s work on US-based reality TV show ‘More to Love’, about ‘fat’ women seeking love, and Maher’s research on Hollywood’s ‘The Switch’ and ‘The Back-Up Plan’, about single women on the journey to solo parenthood). In these offerings, as in Take Me Out, heterosexual partnership is heralded as the ultimate goal, achieved by women who are ultimately disempowered. This is of course problematic. It encourages a damaging definition of bodies in relation to sexual encounters with other bodies, and serves to stigmatise singlehood as sad, second-rate spinsterdom.
My experience of watching Take Me Out has felt like watching TV with somebody else’s eyes. As a viewer, I have engaged in what Stuart Heritage recently described as the “beautiful, instant, consequence-free judgement of strangers”, although it is difficult to see how any of these adjectives correspond to my post-viewing malaise. In fact, I would argue that Take Me Out is an example of TV’s use of the ‘male gaze’ in the extreme. A concept originally used by Laura Mulvey in relation to cinema, the ‘male gaze’ harnesses the scopophilic instinct (the pleasure felt in looking at another person as an erotic object) and ego libido (the process of identifying with another) in its construction of a representation of women as passive, as object, and ‘looked upon’.
In the case of Take Me Out, though, perhaps the ‘male gaze’ doesn’t quite cut it. Watching the show makes me uncomfortable not just because I have objectified its female contestants (she has great X), and identified with the men (he should choose her because Y), but because I too identify with the women (she wants to be seen as having X, Y, Z). And this is the crux: behind the façade of cheeky camaraderie, something much more damaging happens in the process of viewing. The ‘male gaze’ is not only encouraged but is enlisted by the women in seeing themselves, and it makes me feel exactly as is intended by popular culture in the postfeminist era: as both judge of and witness to a display of hyper-sexualised heteronormativity that is apparently acceptable to all, despite the fact that in my everyday life, I would view this as utterly abhorrent.
Needless to say, I will not be watching Series 7. It’s not because I’m “turned off” that I’ll “turn off”, but because Take Me Out is in no way accounted-for feminist irony: it is misogyny.
Gill, R. (2003) From sexual objectification to sexual subjectification: The resexualisation of women’s bodies in the media. Feminist Media Studies, 3(1), 100-105.
Gopal, P. (2013) Is compulsory coupledom really the best way to live? http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/feb/13/compulsory-coupledom-best-way-to-live
Graves, J.L. & Kwan, S. (2012) Is there really “More to Love”? Gender, body and relationship scripts in romance-based reality television. Fat Studies, 1, 47-60.
Heritage, S. (2014) Take Me Out is still Saturday night TV at its best. http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2014/jan/06/take-me-out-saturday-night-tv-best
Maher, J. (2013) Something else besides a father: Reproductive technology in recent Hollywood film. Feminist Media Studies, 1-15.
McRobbie, A. (2009) The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, culture and social change. London: SAGE.
Mulvey, L. (1975) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, 16.3, 6-18.
An example from the final show of series 6.
[This happens in the space of 7 minutes.]
Woman 1 has kept light on for man who descends from the Love Lift to Tom Jones’ ‘Delilah’. He is from Carmarthen in Wales.
Presenter: Your light’s still on…
Woman 1: Well, I’ve never heard of commando before but
[Laughter from all]
Presenter: Carmarthen. He doesn’t live in ‘Commando’ where they all just walk round with no underwear on!
Woman 1: Well I love a bit of Tom Jones and you’re very, very good looking.
Man: Well you’re a bit of a sex bomb yourself so why don’t you come and give me a little kiss?
Presenter: He wants a little kiss!
[Woman 1, wearing unusually long dress, runs towards man and kisses him on the cheek]
Presenter: The good thing is she’s already dressed for the wedding!
Woman 2 has turned her light off after Round 2.
Presenter: [Woman’s name] why did you turn off?
Woman: Ah, do you know what, I love the fact that you’ve got hair, cos every man you’ve – the one’s you’ve been bringing down have just got bald on the top of their head and their brains are popping out!
Presenter: I think if there’s any brains popping out round here, it’s not the lads’…
[Laughter from all, presenter swiftly moves on before Woman 2 can reply]
Man picks Woman 3.
Presenter: Why did you pick Woman 3 in the end?
Man: It was just that booty shake that she had!
Woman 3: I would have never thought you’d pick me.
Presenter: Ah, you’re a top girl you are, you’re going to have a great time. You’re off to a location that’s more fun than sitting on a photocopier. Oh – two A4’s, madam? It’s the Isle of Fernandos!