June 23, 2020   4 mins

When I finally jumped aboard the reality dating show vessel, it was in British waters. Here the swell is composed of the likes of Love Island, which sets barely-literate gym-mad 20-something singles loose in a sun-drenched villa; First Dates, a forensic view of unglamorous blind daters having a meal; and Naked Attraction, where singles judge the compatibility of potential mates by looking at their genitals, displayed for all to see in Perspex cases.

Just as with the British dating scene itself, our reality shows struggle to take the search for love particularly seriously. We prefer to titter and infer than earnestly and explicitly push it all to its limits. On Love Island, it is enough to consecrate your affinity by becoming girlfriend and boyfriend. Not so in America. In the land that invented modern dating and most of the romantic trappings that surround it, the quest for love is still a serious and rather formal business.

On TV, it also tends to be a pretty conservative business, where traditional ideas of marriage and family — and the gender roles to go with them — hold firm. Nearly 20 years after the original US marriage show The Bachelor first aired, American ingenuity unleashed to the world Netflix’s Love Is Blind, which saw pairs blind date their way to marriage proposals, talking through walls from respective isolation booths about their yearning for commitment and love and family. A number of them stressed their Christianity.

But as they continue to capitalise on the enduring hankering to say ‘I do’, American dating shows seem to also be cottoning onto, and even taking seriously, a reality that has long been lurking below the gloss of sugar-coated, youth-drenched romance: a steadily rising number of women pushing 40 are single, look fantastic, and want to start a family, with a man as a desired but optional partner in the enterprise. Love is Blind rejected the idea that — pace The Bachelor, The Bachelorette and Love Island — only women in their 20s are worth offering up for love on TV by giving us the spectacle of Jessica, 34, wrestling with whether to tie the knot with a man 10 years her junior and infinitely less successful than her.

But now there’s Fox’s Labor of Love (a UK airdate is expected soon) which is both deeply conservative at its core and — amazingly — properly radical in its practice. Indeed, in refuting the mouldy but persistent cultural idea that women over 40 are dried-up goods romantically and reproductively, I’d call it something of a feminist masterpiece.

The premise is that 15 men in their 30s and early 40s compete to be chosen as sperm donor, co-parent and — if all goes well — husband by the programmes’s star, one 41-year-old Kristy Katzmann. Through a variety of ‘drills’, which include responding to a grizzly bear at a campfire and hosting a kids’ party, the men demonstrate their instincts as potential fathers and partners.

There’s nothing flashily politically radical about this show: it progresses with staid civility, plenty of scented candles and glasses of red wine, with traditional values firmly in place. And yet in taking a single woman over 40 seriously as a potential mother and attractive wife, it is revolutionary.

For despite the advance of feminism since the 1970s, ideas about women, age, fertility and sexual appeal have remained strangely rigid. At nearly 38, I cannot count the number of times well-meaning people from all walks of life have told me about the many cliff-edges my fertility faces — at 30, at 35, at 37 and of course at 40. Fertility certainly declines in the course of our 30s, but not in the simplistic cliff-edges and sudden perilous wastages women are warned of; indeed much of the science of cliff-edges has been based on outdated studies (including a French study from the18th century). Few advance the flipside to older motherhood: true readiness, more self-knowledge, more money and know-how, better skills for coping with challenges.

Which is why it was so refreshing and soothing to watch Kristy in action: measured, polite, kindly, and serene with the authority of an older woman’s self-knowledge. It is a pleasure to watch her and presenter Kristin Davis, 55 (Charlotte on Sex and the City), an unmarried adoptive mother of two, calmly navigate Kristy’s options. Kristy is uninterested in garish shows of masculine bravado, or temper, or selfishness; she naturally and genuinely prioritises feelings of friendship over lust. The scene in which she dismisses the hunkiest suitor Alan, a writer from South Africa, for his subtle but significant tendency to put the other men before her, was impressive. As she noted: “20-year old Kristy would be chasing Alan,” but 41-year old Kristy wants something else.

For once, the idea of male fertility decline over age is taken seriously too. The programme is amazingly progressive (and accurate) in focusing on the fitness of sperm rather than of eggs. As soon as the suitors walk in they are asked to produce sperm samples to be counted and ranked. Kristy, after all, has gone to some trouble to preserve her own fertility, and will want to make sure any prospective father has the goods to follow through too, particularly in an age of declining sperm viability. Throughout the programme, too, there is rightful reference to the men’s ‘biological man clock’.

Perhaps what I liked most was that Labor of Love does not ask us to laugh at Kristy’s pickiness. On the contrary it is presented not as a prompt to think ‘no wonder she’s single and childless at 41’ but as commendable and wise realism. For as one gets older, the task of finding someone to partner with is more and more complex. It is particularly complex for women, who are better educated on average than men, and, particularly if they have not taken time out for childrearing, may be more successful too.

It is by now well documented that it is hard for women to find single men in their own age bracket who are both equally successful and supportive of her career. The pool shrinks further for women in their late 30s and early 40s since their male peers are more likely to pursue younger women — Kristy-aged women are seen as either too old to have babies or desperate for them. It is a tricky bottleneck. As Kristy says to Kristin over one elimination session: “suddenly I was in my late 30s [after a divorce] and it felt dark”. She sheds some tears as she makes this admission: I felt a surge of sympathy.

And there’s more radical realism from Labor of Love: having frozen her eggs, if none of the men end up suiting Kristy, she will go it alone. A husband would be nice, but as Kristy and an increasing number of single women know, he is not an essential part of the dream. The US fertility industry will be worth $15.4bn by 2023, up from $7bn in 2017. Pitted against each other, the competing ideologies of romance and motherhood tussle hard, with motherhood increasingly winning out, and so looking like empowerment with it.

Zoe Strimpel is a historian of gender and intimacy in modern Britain and a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Her latest book is Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single’ (Bloomsbury)