It’s a Match!
On the science of desire in Netflix’s The One and Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again
In Netflix’s new TV series The One, everyone has a “match”. Send a DNA sample off in a little box and the app will connect you with your biologically perfect romantic partner. It doesn’t matter if they’re married, they live in Spain, or are in a refugee camp in Somalia, the series tells us, your scientifically guaranteed love for them will prevail. Or will it? “Love doesn’t recognise borders,” says fictional MatchDNA founder Rebecca, which is tricky, because passport control presumably still does.
If you’re hoping for a Black Mirror-style excavation of the human psyche and how it would respond to such technology, I will warn you: The One falls short. Despite the huge societal implications of an app like MatchDNA, The One largely abandons this fertile ground and sends us off instead on a run-of-the-mill murder mystery (the mystery of which is blown by about episode 3). It’s filled with bad dialogue, wooden acting and a typically Netflix binge-watching formula. Despite all this, it raises some pertinent questions on the relationship between technology, desire and self-knowledge, all things I’ve been thinking about after reading Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. And so I have happily pissed away 350 minutes of my life to bring you an unasked-for discussion of the series’ themes and flaws. You’re welcome.
The One’s sole compelling plotline (the only one that shows a shred of humanity) zones in on cute married couple Hannah and Mark (above), who have a v nice apartment in the Barbican. Anxious that she and Mark might not be genetic “matches”, Hannah submits a sample to MatchDNA – not of her own hair, but her husband’s. To her dismay, he’s matched with a beautiful, charming woman called Megan, an Australian expat who takes a yoga class nearby. Hannah, of course, signs up to the yoga class, befriends Megan and then steals a sports bra from her apartment (totally rational response). This pheromone-hunting goes unsurprisingly tits-up when Mark unwittingly invites Megan to Hannah’s surprise birthday party and the “matched” pair become immediately captivated by one another. “They were never supposed to meet,” Hannah laments. Babooshka, babooshka, babooshka, ya-ya!!
In The One’s universe, there can be only ONE genetic match (or incidentally, TWO if your match shares a lot of DNA with her hot brother, as bisexual cop Kate learns in another subplot). Any couple that gets “matched” feels that tell-tale click as soon as they lock eyes. If you just meet someone with the right DNA sequence, we’re told, intimacy is intense and immediate, akin to taking large quantities of MDMA. The one-match rule means we are freed from the tyranny of choice, the endless swiping left or right. In this sense, it offers the opposite of most contemporary dating apps, which might not seem like an entirely bad thing. But by taking away choices, we are also alienated from our ability to exercise judgement. What if your DNA match turns out to be an arsehole? A Tory? Abusive? A Man Utd fan? The person our pheromones spark with is not necessarily the same person who’ll make a great life partner. Does being “matched” miraculously dissolve the day-to-day struggles of maintaining a relationship? Relationships are deeply social, cultural things. Could biological compatibility really bridge gaps of religion, class, education, culture or worldview?
In Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel argues that attempts to measure desire through biology and science alone are flawed. Rebuffing the age-old myth that “bodies don’t lie”, Angel shows how scientific studies have consistently failed to illuminate the murky truths about desire, especially female desire. She cites an infamous study in which women were found to get physiologically aroused when watching all kinds of pornography, even when they said they didn’t enjoy it, and even when the porn featured bonobos instead of humans. Over-zealous sexologists were quick to assume that this discrepancy – between self-reported non-arousal and aroused bodily response – meant the women were in denial. They were freaks and they didn’t know it!! (Or at least they didn’t want to admit it.) But as Angel points out, physiological arousal is only a response, not necessarily an indication of pleasure or desire. When you take such findings out of the laboratory, they tend not to hold up. “Bodies and physiological processes unfold in a ceaselessly cultural context,” she explains. “Sex is one of the hardest of all human phenomena to study because sex is something that happens between people in context and in conditions that are not replicable. Sexuality folds an endless amount of extraneous material into itself. It is imaginative, fantastical, conceptual and rife with culture.”
The One’s exploration of DNA matching also makes the mistake of assuming that lifelong heteronormative monogamy is de facto what everyone wants. Aside from a tokenistic nod to bisexuality, the series doesn’t delve much into alternative sexual models. Corporate shark and MatchDNA CEO Rebecca predicts that her app will make sex workers redundant – everyone will be so in love there’ll be no need for them. This is a glaring oversight given that one of her colleagues, who presumably has access to MatchDNA’s technology, chooses to have an ongoing relationship with an escort, an arrangement he’s opted for by choice. Exploring this subplot and its implications further would have made the series 1000x better. Could anyone really believe that genetic matching would put an end to non-monogamy, sex work, affairs? It seems to me this is a very basic (not to mention conservative) understanding of how desire works. If The One tried to delve into these grey areas of desire, the kind that don’t have certain or straightforward outcomes, or have lifelong monogamy as their endgame, then it would have made for far richer viewing.
Katherine Angel argues that it is precisely the unknowability of desire that makes it so exciting. While acknowledging the importance of consent in protecting women from sexual assault, Angel critiques consent culture as it depends on the assumption that women always know what they want. A product of ‘confidence feminism’, consent-based models of sexuality demand self-knowledge and assertiveness from women: we’re meant to be kick-ass chicks who know good sex and aren’t afraid to ask. In reality, though, desire is unpredictable, unmeasurable, discoverable only through experience. “There is a first time for everything sexually and it is necessarily unknown and full of uncertainty,” she argues. “Every sexual encounter is unique and has a powerful indeterminacy to it. We never know what is going to happen in any given sexual experience or how we will feel about it, regardless of what we have done and liked before. And this is the power of the erotic.”
It is also the problem at the heart of MatchDNA’s logic, which assumes that desire is not fluid but fixed, that we’ll all waiting to be told what we want, who we love, without having to negotiate these things for ourselves. Genetic matching would cut through the inherent unknowability of desire, removing doubt. But what is lost? The immediate intimacy experienced by the characters of The One would mean no suspense, no sense of wonder, no negotiation process, no experimentation. I’m sure some people would choose to forgo all this if only to avoid the trials and tribulations of dating. But even if lifelong monogamous love is what we’re looking for, surely monogamy’s fragility and uncertainty – the fact that it requires sacrifice – is part of its very appeal? Given the fallibility of human nature, committing to monogamy is an act of bravery, a huge leap of faith. You’d half to be half-mad or a total fool to try it, and yet the majority of us still do, because taking a leap of faith is intoxicating and exciting. Perhaps this is why The One makes for such tedious viewing: in a world where desire is rational and can be distilled down to a strip of DNA, everything would be incredibly banal.
~ Rosa xo
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TIME FOR AN AMARO?
Starting this week, a series of quick-fire recommendations to help you digest
🎶 – I am convinced that Sofia Kourtesis’s EP Fresia Magdalena is the sound of the post-lockdown summer we are all craving. Am also listening to the lush and ethereal Menneskekollektivet by Lost Girls and Promises, a collab between Floating Points, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and The London Symphony Orchestra
📺 – I’m three episodes into Spanish-language Netflix thriller Sky Rojo, about three sex workers on the run from their murderous pimp in Tenerife. From the makers of Money Heist, it’s trashy-fabulous and I’m gripped
🎞 – So-so about I Care a Lot, a black comedy starring Rosamund Pike as an evil power lesbian who swindles the vulnerable and elderly out of their life savings. Great premise, flailing execution (I think it’s not sure how seriously it wants to be taken?) but definitely worth wiling an evening away to as we wait for everything to reopen
📚 – I just got my copy of Civilisation Issue 5 in the post. A forerunner of the downtown New York “Quaranzine” boom, it’s printed on huge newspaper-style pages and densely filled with huge quantities of text (no images!). WORDS ARE BACK, baby. Or so I hope
Leave your own culture recs in the comments if you’re bored. Until next week!! xo