the only chance for happiness in this disastrous world … –Mary Wollstonecraft
There’s a moment in Mary Wollstonecraft’s final, unfinished novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1798) that I think about a lot. It’s the scene where Henry Darnford, having just finished perusing the eponymous heroine’s autobiographical manuscript, proves himself to be the best of all possible readers. Darnford “adverted to her narrative,” and, though by this point deeply in love with her, restrained himself and “kissed her hand, as if it had been the hand of a saint.” It’s the culmination of what’s been essentially a textual affair, a romance of shared sentiments and the revelation of what appears to be nothing less than complete mental and emotional compatibility. It’s a fairy tale for the thinking woman who, like Maria, seeks not just love but the right kind: “affection such as she wished to inspire.” It’s enough to make you forget for a second that the exchange is nested in a novel that is basically a catalogue of horrors facing married (white, middle-class, British) women in the late eighteenth century—and that the document Darnford has just finished reading is itself a first-person account of Maria’s marriage to the alcoholic fuckboi (and marital rapist) George Venables, the very person who has had her kidnapped and confined to a madhouse in the first place.
I found myself reflecting on Wollstonecraft’s madhouse—and the very specific appeal of the love story that unfolds within it—while I binge-watched the first two seasons of the zeitgeisty Netflix dating show, Love Is Blind. The titular blindness, a term with very obvious ableist connotations, is cultivated in the “pods:” small, private (except for the cameras) rooms that enable conversation while making it impossible for the two parties to see each other. It’s basically the millennial-aesthetic update of Maria’s gothic madhouse, complete with soundproofing to prevent interference from other pod-dates, panes of frosted glass to prevent the contestants from seeing each other, and windows on the ceiling so that the dates can be filmed from above.
Working from the premise that “everyone wants to be loved for who they are, not for their looks, their race, their background, or their income”—a sentiment received by the contestants as an absolute truth bomb—the contestants on Love Is Blind aim to form “genuine emotional attachments” in the pods and become engaged without ever seeing each other. If love is truly “blind,” co-hosts Vanessa and Nick Lachey claim, what happens in the pods will sustain them through an in-person meeting, three weeks of living with each other, and, if all goes well, a lifetime of marriage. The endgame for the show is a wedding. Will they say “I do” to the object of their blind love, or, as Vanessa frames it, “will physical realities, in the real world, sabotage you, and will you walk away from them forever?”
While undeniably more cheerful than Maria’s “mansion of despair,” the pods and the surrounding structures seem calculated to produce a similarly disorienting alternation between frenzied activity and enforced idleness. The contestants are in the enviable and also horrifying position of “spend[ing] every second of every minute searching for your soulmate,” as one participant put it. It’s the kind of situation that makes getting engaged to a person you’ve never seen before seem like a reasonable and even enlightened idea. In fact, a lawsuit filed by a Season 2 contestant alleges that the producers “cut off their access to personal contacts and most of the outside world. This made cast members hungry for social connections and altered their emotions and decision-making.” That doesn’t seem too far off from the perils of Maria’s situation: “How difficult it was for women to avoid growing romantic, who have no active duties or pursuits.”
The fantasy that you can find the “right” person–once all the distractions are removed for long enough so that you can discover who they really are–is the promise of sight at the core of Love Is Blind.
As with Maria’s search for the “affection such as she wished to inspire,” the Love Is Blind cast members don’t just want to be loved, they want to be loved in the right way and for the right reasons. Early in Season 1, Lauren speaks for virtually everyone when she says she wants “a man who’s going to love me for me, not for what I look like, but for who I am on the inside.” In-pod attempts to suss out a potential partner’s appearance tend to policed by the contestants themselves. “That doesn’t sound shallow at all,” Lillie Mae replies, when a potential suitor describes his ideal mate as “in shape and beautiful.” “You’re missing the point!” says Lauren, after Jon speculates about her race. And perhaps no contestant has come in for as much mockery and vilification as Abhishek—a.k.a. “Shake”—the consensus villain of Season 2, who quickly becomes known for asking women their dress size and whether he could put them on his shoulders at a music festival. While it was his treatment of fan-favorite Deepti that came in for the most criticism, his real crime was failing to adhere to generic conventions; as Vanessa Lachey put it in the Season 2 reunion, he was “on the wrong show.”
The framing of Love Is Blind is utterly simplistic, and the editing heavy-handed. For all its talk about getting beyond a potential partner’s physical appearance, the engaged couples all fall within the bounds of conventional-enough beauty standards; what body diversity there is exists in the background. But despite all this, there’s a recognizably Wollstonecraftian desire at work here. The “blindness” of the show, understood broadly, isn’t so much about not knowing as it is about knowing the right things. The compulsive repetition of terms like “emotional connection” and “who I really am on the inside” mobilizes a Wollstonecraftian fantasy of informed attachment—of love grounded in the knowledge of who someone else really is. In Maria, that knowledge is pointedly missing from the heroine’s first marriage. Although her courtship was largely unexceptionable by the standards of the time, and despite the fact that she did avail herself of limited opportunities to suss out his character, Venables effortlessly outwits both Maria and her family. Maria’s own imagination works against her as well. With only limited interactions, her imagination makes him a far better person than he is: “In short, I fancied myself in love—in love with the disinterestedness, fortitude, generosity, dignity, and humanity, with which I had invested the hero I dubbed.” By the time she realizes that Venables is a human dumpster fire, even by bad-husbands-of-gothic-fiction standards, it’s too late.
Like the Love Is Blind contestants, Maria forms what she believes to be a true image of Darnford’s identity long before she lays eyes on him, and even, for that matter, before she knows his name. But unlike the foolish “blindness” that attracted her to Venables, her lack of knowledge of Darnford’s appearance or identity makes it easier for her to focus on what really matters: his mind, as revealed in the marginal notes on the books she has borrowed from him. And this is some sexy, sexy marginalia: “remarks … written with a degree of generous warmth … perfectly in unison with Maria’s mode of thinking.” Reading and rereading his comments—much more carefully than the texts being commented upon—Maria concludes that Darnford cannot possibly be mad, despite the fact that they are both in a madhouse. She concludes firmly that his notes “seemed the production of an animated, but not disturbed imagination.” And anyone capable of describing Rousseau as “the true Prometheus of sentiment” must be The One. While they do manage to meet face to face, the relationship develops largely as one of textual intercourse, through letters, literary sentiment, and the sharing of Maria’s autobiography (which she had written for her allegedly dead daughter). Though he isn’t technically the addressee of that story, Darnford responds in all the right ways and proves himself to be the reader (soulmate, best friend, potential second husband) Maria didn’t even know she was looking for. It’s the kind of thing that can make getting stuck in the madhouse seem worth it.
Falling in love with the author is a compelling fantasy. William Godwin, in his Memoirs of Wollstonecraft, admitted that he didn’t click with her the first time they met in person, but then fell hard for her after reading her Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. But Wollstonecraft herself seems somewhat more suspicious of the whole thing: Maria’s unfinished madhouse fairy tale contains the threads of its own unraveling. Wollstonecraft died before she could finish Maria, and much of the novel after Maria’s autobiography is increasingly sketchy. The one thing that seems clear, though, is that the fantasy doesn’t last. Instead, we get hints of letters and pregnancies that “miscarry,” “love to excess,” “divorced by [Venables],” “hell of disappointment.” But even if the love that climaxes when Darnford appropriately responds to Maria’s manuscript was as great as it first appeared, why does it only seem possible in a madhouse, cut off from the so-called “real world”? It’s hard for the thinking woman to fall in love.
Still, it’s incredibly appealing on so many levels to think that there’s a “right” way to do relationships that just remains to be discovered. I’m far from believing that heterosexual marriage is the key to all or even most human happiness, and it’s not something I’ve ever aspired to for myself. But I am someone who’s generally found it hard to move from intellectual compatibility to long-term commitment—a Wollstonecraftian to the depths of my very soul. As such, I’m able to see something compelling about the way Love is Blind encourages its participants to make the decision to get engaged early on and not simply walk away at the first sign of discomfort. From the initial pool of around 30 contestants, each season has resulted in two marriages. The Season 1 partnerships—Amber and Barnett, Lauren and Cameron—appear to be more or less intact. Season 2’s marriages have not fared so well. I wonder, though I can obviously only speculate, whether the generalized weirdness of the early pandemic months ended up providing just enough of a delay for the first set of couples entering the “real world.” Regardless, it’s hard not to sense that the show is entering a period of diminishing returns, no matter how many times Vanessa Lachey (herself an incredibly famous second wife) repeats platitudes about emotional commitment and forever marriages. I was significantly less excited about the October 19 premiere of Love Is Blind Season 3 than I was about the return of “The Great British Baking Show” in September.
That said, I still don’t think that the pods are the worst idea in the world. By the standards of so much reality TV, there’s a kind of earnestness in play. Ultimately, though, they can’t provide that radical break with “modern dating” and that superior epistemological grounding that they claim. Even the handful of engagements that end in marriage are plagued by uncertainty throughout the show, up to the very moment of saying “I do.” The delayed in-person meetings in Love Is Blind position physical attraction as the afterthought of emotional bonding and commitment. (The contestants, remember, get engaged while still in the pods.) Sure, it’s important, but if you’ve done things right—if, that is, you’ve really fallen in love with who the person is, if you’ve really been honest about your feelings—everything else should fall into place. If it doesn’t, the problem is you.
Here’s the thing, though. The pods can interrupt information about someone else’s appearance and help a person concentrate on a partner’s words. But they also, and this is one of the main reasons why so much of it is so cringe to watch, seem to breed all kinds of self-delusion. If you eliminate enough information on the assumption that it’s really a “distraction,” eventually you’re falling in love with a blank wall on which you’ve projected your own desires about who the other person is—and what kind of person you think you are.
Anne C. McCarthy is a writer, researcher, and professional fact-checker based in St. Louis, Missouri. In a previous life, she was the author of Awful Parenthesis: Suspension and the Sublime in Romantic and Victorian Poetry (U of Toronto Press) and the PMLA essay “Reading the Red Bull Sublime.” She holds a PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center.