Love in the Time of Corona; or A Disability Take on Netflix’s Love is Blind

Because of the social isolation folks are experiencing right now during the ‘Rona, I was a little more inclined to watch Netflix’s Love is Blind. The show puts 30 men and women in a facility in Atlanta, Georgia. They date each other in rooms separated by a thin screen (called pods) without seeing each other, the expectation being that some of them will get engaged and eventually marry.

Feeling like I was in my own little pod, I thought I might be more sympathetic to the show despite the title. Despite the title? Yes. The title itself betrays the ableist impulses of the show. Of course, “love is blind” is a phrase we’re all used to hearing, but have we ever thought about what it assumes? The saying implies that true love does not hinge on physical attraction. In fact, that’s what the show’s hosts — Nick and Vanessa Lachey — cite as their reason for the show’s social experiment. Long term compatibility, that is, requires deeper connections than sex appeal. However, the saying and the show also rely on blindness as a metaphor for all kinds of sight. Blind people can’t see, so they cannot perceive. Or, there is the inverse: that they perceive more. Blindness is either complete ignorance or wise sagacity. All or nothing. But, blind folk know that’s not the truth. And, so should we.

In this case, blindness becomes the way to talk about a desire to not perceive race, class, age, disability (Whoops! There was none of that on the show!), size (Whoops! The thick girl got no air time!), and other differences. I thought we left ideas about color-blindness back in the past. We know it doesn’t make any sense. A person’s experiences, the basis for that deep compatibility, depends on their relationship to the world. In other words, all those aspects that blindness is supposed to render invisible: race, class, age, disability, size… (The gag is none of that is rendered invisible because of our other senses and our sense of the world.)

Perhaps you think this is a moot point. We know the phrase is silly. That’s not the real point of the show. You just want to enjoy your brain candy in peace. I get it. I watched the entire series and got into it. I was alternately worried and happy for Lauren and Cameron (especially as a professor at his alma mater). I rooted for Barnett and Amber. I was confused about Kelly and Kenny. I was deeply annoyed at Jessica. I felt for Mark. I cringed at Gia and Damian’s awkward sex confrontation. I applauded as Gia fell down and got up like Beyoncé. I stared wide-eyed at Diamond and Carlton’s confrontation. Thing is, the success and failures (If you want to call them that.) are about these couples’ navigation of their lives together, perceiving quite a bit.

Let me use a pretty difficult example: Jessica and Mark. I won’t comment on what I thought of Jessica’s behavior. I think she summed it up pretty accurately at the reunion, saying she cringed at her behavior and drinking, crafting a carefully worded (but rather lackluster) apology for chasing Barnett. Instead, I’m interested in her hang-up about age. Based on the footage, we knew and believed Mark when he said he was ready to marry and begin a family. He truly courted her, believed she loved him, trusted their pod-dating. Jessica was concerned about the age difference and what that meant for her. To be fair, age differences and readiness for family life sometimes don’t rear their ugly heads as issues until family life starts. I’m not saying Jessica was right to continue being concerned especially after her friends, his momma, and all the other pod-people said they trusted Mark’s judgment. She was right, however, to ask questions. Here’s the thing: I think she was also concerned about things that weren’t openly discussed on camera like cultural difference or finances. She was also — let’s be honest — conflicted about not being physically attracted to him, but feeling connected to him. Now, do I think it possible to have a marriage between a white Latinx man and a white woman where he makes less money than she does? Yes. Do I think they could have done it? No. Jessica was not ready to navigate those differences. Verdict: love takes more than having deep connections. You have to work to sustain them.

Ah… this brings me to another point. These were all relatively attractive presumed heterosexual able-bodied able-minded people. In other words, the producers had done some of the weeding for them. For the sake of the show, you weren’t going to find any of us so-called undesirables in there. No disabled folks. No one of size got any screen time. All of people’s trauma was in their past: an unloving/abusive ex-boyfriend, an absent father. The dating pool was considerably narrower without some folks in it. To be fair, some of these folks’ dating pools were expanded by some people’s presences on the show. However, the available pool in Atlanta would have included some folks working through trauma, people of size, physically disabled folk, blind folks, Deaf people, et cetera.

Obviously, this isn’t the fault of the bachelors and bachelorettes, but it does say something about the production of the show. Not only are they invested in a narrative that willfully proffers a misunderstanding of sight and perception as well as culture and, possibly, human behavior writ large, but they are also invested in an idea of love for certain bodies and minds. As others on this platform point out, representation is important. The producers casted those they thought of as fit for love (Yep, I mean fit both ways, as in competent and able). That didn’t include a multi-racial, multi-ability, multi-gender, variously sexual cast.

Interestingly enough, this corresponds to love in the age of Corona. Just as the COVID-19 clarifies the dividing line between lives we value and lives we do not, so too does this social experiment/reality TV casting couch. Turns out though, unlike the ‘Rona, this love has discriminating tastes.

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Therí A. Pickens, PhD

Expert in disability, race, and culture. Author of Black Madness :: Mad Blackness and New Body Politics. Twitter: @TAPPhD