As Sexy Beasts releases on Netflix, looking at 'personality over appearances' motif in recent reality dating shows

As Sexy Beasts releases on Netflix, looking at 'personality over appearances' motif in recent reality dating shows

As Sexy Beasts releases on Netflix, looking at 'personality over appearances' motif in recent reality dating shows

Falling in love with a partner whose appearance is deceiving is a tale as old as time. In folklore, it’s a motif that crosses hemispheres, exemplified in Beauty and the Beast-type tales, in which a woman obliged to live with a beast falls in love with the animal, and later receives the happy surprise that the creature was a handsome prince all along. (The Aarne-Thompson index, which folklorists use to categorize story types, classifies this popular plot as No. 425C.)

In Sexy Beasts, a dating series that premieres on Netflix on 21 July, that conceit is interpreted literally and applied to all parties: Participants go on heterosexual dates wearing a mammoth quantity of special effects makeup. They attempt to establish a romantic connection without knowledge of any of their dating partners’ craniofacial features, apart from eye colour and, in some cases, general interior mouth appearance. They must wear beastly skulls at said dates until their true countenance is unmasked — either because the participant has been eliminated from the dating contest, or has won or chosen their winner.

For no particular reason, the show’s primary setting is Knebworth House, the grand Hertfordshire estate that stood in for Wayne Manor in the 1989 film version of Batman.

The prosthetics are a marvel, the topography of the faces they obscure is impossible to predict. Because each facepiece could only be used once, and because the company providing the prosthetics did not know which contestants would be dumped after the first date, sculptors had to create three shooting days’ worth of prosthetics for each character — 148 individual pieces.

“The sheer amount of prosthetics that weren’t used on that show — that were fully made — was heartbreaking,” said Kristyan Mallett, the prosthetic makeup designer whose company, KM Effects, transformed contestants into creatures of field and stream and hell.

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The Cult of Personality

The hypothesis underlying many television dating shows has not changed since the dawn of the form: Personality is a better predictor of relationship compatibility than a mutual admiration of physical attributes.

Television audiences’ obsession with this type of “blind” dating stretches back to 1965, when a screen was erected between aspiring daters and available dates on The Dating Game. Simon Welton, creator and showrunner of Sexy Beasts, is a student of this school.

“This’ll sound dreadful, but I do actually believe it is the personality that counts,” Welton said. “When you start getting old and rubbish, and degrade, like I am — all I’ve got left is personality.”

In the decades since The Dating Game debuted, dating show contestants have become increasingly fanatical subscribers to such logic. Daters on Sexy Beasts appear to regard visual input as at best a red herring, at worst an impediment to finding true love. In introductory interviews, they express guilt that their attraction to other people can be influenced in any way by physical appearance.

“I would hope I could fall for someone without knowing what they look like, but honestly, just knowing me, I don’t know if I can,” laments one Sexy Beasts participant on the show.

The nobility of this aspiration is unchallenged. Sacrificing knowledge of a partner’s appearance, the reasoning goes, is an act indicative of an openhearted and honourable spirit.

Host Jim Lange with contestants on an episode of The Dating Game, circa 1970| ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

But is love blind, as heavily suggested by the title of Netflix’s 2020 dating show juggernaut Love Is Blind, in which 30 men and women spent 10 days conversing in various combinations while individually sequestered in adjoining womb-like pods that allowed them to hear but not see their interlocutors? (Couples were not permitted to see one another until a proposal of marriage had been offered and accepted, after which the engaged pairs were whisked off on a group vacation to Mexico, then forced to live for a month in the same Atlanta apartment complex as their fellow contestants — who were also their former potential romantic partners, or former competition for romantic partners — and then made to plan their weddings and decide on camera whether to enter a legal union with the person to whom they had become engaged weeks earlier. One contestant gave her dog wine.)

Or, if love is not blind, is blind love, at least, truly more noble?

Fern Lulham, a radio broadcaster whose TEDx talk recounts her experience online dating as a blind woman, finds the idea nonsensical.

“It sort of assumes that you would be so bowled over by the way somebody looked that nothing else would matter,” said Lulham. “This idea that you’re going to see someone who’s drop-dead gorgeous, who completely blindsides you, and you don’t care about anything else.”

Lulham’s inability to see does not increase her ability to assess someone’s character or potential compatibility, she said — nor does it decrease her curiosity about their appearance.

“People always say, ‘It must be so great because you’re not superficial.’ It’s like, no, I’m still superficial. I hate to break it to you,” said Lulham. Blindness, she said, is “not like a magic pill that makes you not care” about the way your date looks.

Lulham uses techniques other than sight to assess physical characteristics. In taking someone’s arm for guidance, she said, “You can very quickly tell if they have a nice muscly, bicep-y arm, or not so much. Straight away, you know their physicality, you know their body type.” Sometimes, she said, she forms impressions of people based on their conversation but: “As soon as I give them a hug or something like that, which — you engineer these situations; when you’re blind, you find ways around it, let’s just say that — And then you go, ‘Oh, you don’t look anything like I thought!’

Assuming that physical attraction is irrelevant for those who cannot see “does a disservice to blind people,” Lulham said. “If anything, it makes us more alien to everyone else.”

A still from Love Is Blind | Netflix

Raze the Stakes

The implied risk of any show that deprives contestants of the sight of their potential love matches is a disappointment when appearances are revealed. In short: Someone might be ugly.

This unspoken threat, combined with the high stakes of legal marriage, is what made Netflix’s Love Is Blind perhaps the most addictively compelling version of the blind-date format.

While the pairings on that show may have appeared to viewers to be the result of a phenomenon not unlike Stockholm syndrome, they exuded a whiff of believability. By the time they met on-screen, contestants had spent several days doing nothing but convincing themselves and one another of the validity of their connections. To walk back their decision immediately would not only require them to admit that they had deeply, earnestly misunderstood themselves, and to forsake an all-expenses-paid vacation to Mexico — it would also reveal them as guilty of the sin of using appearance to evaluate a potential partner.

At least one participant on Sexy Beasts, a comely American who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid leaking her identity before her episode aired, braced herself for what she assumed was the producers’ goal: to prove that unattractive people can have winning personalities. She figured, she said in an interview, that the contestants would consist of a mix of “models” and “people who aren’t so model-like” — a delicate euphemism for the unattractive. This was her second appearance on a dating show.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to pick somebody, and he’s going to be hideous, and that’s going to be the whole point,’” said the contestant. “People who I normally wouldn’t go for, you know?”

But the reality of Sexy Beasts is laid bare in its name. The show is not called “Possibly Sexy Beasts” or “Sexy and the Beasts” or “A Mixed Bag of Beasts, Including Some Sexy.” To say it more specifically: Many of the contestants in the first six episodes are models — actor/models, aspiring models, a “model and former scientist,” but models nonetheless.

The most inexplicable aspect of the show is the intended pretense of why the people involved are competing for a date at all. It is not because the potential paramour with whom they have been presented is necessarily a desirable partner, or an unusually good match, or all that stands between them and a trip to Playa del Carmen. They seem to be taking part in an outlandish concealed identity television dating scenario as a form of penance. (In practical terms — deftly swept aside because they do not make for good TV — modelling ambitions may also have been a factor.)

The most authentic expression of human drive in Sexy Beasts is neither the contestants’ longing for love nor even their apparent convictions that they must go to such preposterous lengths to locate and deserve it.

It is the man who, his face fully obscured by a fur-covered foam latex beaver head, calmly explains to the camera that he evaluates dating partners based on the quality of their buttocks first, “personality second.”

Caity Weaver c.2021 The New York Times Company