Netflix's Too Hot To Handle Sends A Toxic Message About Intimacy

By removing the experience of physical intimacy, the show falsely equates abstinence for love, says writer Diyora Shadijanova.
Shows like Too Hot To Handle send a toxic message about intimacy
Shows like Too Hot To Handle send a toxic message about intimacy

Most of us can recall a time we really fancied someone until we kissed them. It can be a real vibe-killer to find out your crush snogs like a washing machine stuck on the highest speed setting, or worse, covers you with dry kisses like a fish gasping for water. Testing a physical connection is all part of the process when looking for a potential romantic interest. Sure, it’s not the only thing that should exist in a healthy relationship, but it’s a damn-good indicator whether things will work on “that” level. So why has physical intimacy been shunned in Netflix’s new show Too Hot To Handle and what kind of message does that send to viewers about forming healthy relationships?

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If you haven’t seen Netflix’s answer to Love Island yet, let me catch you up. The eight-part series follows ten hot singletons from the US, UK and Australia who have travelled to a tropical paradise in hope of winning the grand prize of $100,000. Once on the island however, the contestants are told that in order to win, they have to keep their hands to themselves. The rules are - no kissing, no “heavy petting” of any kind and certainly no sex for an entire month. Every rule broken results in money being taken away from the communal prize - kisses cost the group £3,000, while sex is priced at £20,000. As some get it on, others are left frustrated, with one guy hilariously counting the deducted cash in “lost trips to Dubai.” Adding even more tension to the already chaotic reality TV show, a cone-shaped robot named Lana monitors every move to ensure there’s no cheating. However cheating is the only thing contestants can think about when there’s nothing else for them to do.

“Netflix had a real opportunity to make a show that’s both entertaining and wholesome, but sadly it pivoted to slut-shaming instead.”

A chest tattoo spelling out 6.9.69 in roman numerals perfectly encapsulates the mood of the show. Too Hot To Handle is enjoyable and in equal parts binge-able, especially for an audience currently living through a pandemic. Seeing as the lockdown has killed off the dating scene and left us desperate for human connection, the show is a comforting and relatable watch for those cursing the restrictive rules of social distancing. At the very least, it has stopped me unsubtly hitting up past flames.

Yet, an uncomfortable undercurrent permeates the Netflix Original. By removing the experience of physical intimacy, the show falsely equates abstinence for love, making a toxic statement about dating. Too Hot To Handle is not the first to introduce “restrictive dating” to our televisions, Love Is Blind, Married at First Sight and The Circle are popular predecessors. These shows try to convince viewers that removing a physical aspect of a relationship will allow contestants to deepen their emotional experiences, but it has nothing to do with moral lessons and everything to do with producing entertaining TV. To pretend that holding off a physical relationship will ensure a great relationship later down the line is a straight up lie. Why are we so stuck on the idea that you can’t do both at the same time? To me it feels backwards, dishonest and frankly, you’d expect these kinds of views to belong in an outdated 19th century text, not a Netflix show airing in 2020.

From the get-go, the contestants are judged by the number of people they’ve slept with and their lack of long-term relationships. They’re painted as loud, dumb and unserious. Contestant Chloe racks up a small bill by kissing some of the boys on the show, but these kisses are important, making her realise there’s no real chemistry there. It seems strange to punish her for it when she gently lets the guys know she’s not interested afterwards – a mature and healthy way of handling that kind of situation. Even more baffling is the rewards system set up to give contestants the “green light” when they’ve been vulnerable with one another. During these moments, Lana the AI allows the couples to kiss because they’ve “earned it”, but this type of restriction attaches so much shame to physical aspects of a relationship. It’s one thing to work on scars of previous romantic experiences, usually left in the form of trust and intimacy issues, but it’s another thing entirely to shame people for wanting to have a smooch.

It’s easy to forget that the contestants didn’t ask for this. If they wanted to work on deepening their emotional connections, they might have saved the hassle and gone to a therapist. Too Hot To Handle teaches them nothing and pretending it does is disingenuous. The contestants are there for money and fame, while Netflix is there to make consumable content. If the producers were so invested in real connections, they wouldn’t have picked an international cast that would struggle to make relationships work on the outside.

It’s undeniable that a fear of intimacy exists in the dating scene, but working through the problems is the answer, not enforcing sex bans for our amusement. Netflix had a real opportunity to make a show that’s both entertaining and wholesome, but sadly it pivoted to slut-shaming instead.

Diyora Shadijanova is a freelance multimedia journalist, writing features on culture and digital culture.


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