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Too Hot To Handle: sexual frustration in paradise or moral lesson for our times? | Television & radio


When I first saw the trailer for Netflix’s newest reality show, Too Hot To Handle, I yelped with delight. A dating show packed full of young, beautiful people? Tick. Set on a tropical beach resort? Tick. The minimum level of diversity required to satisfy critics without actually saying anything interesting about society? Tick, tick, tick.

Then came the twist: the scantily clad and liquored-up contestants could flirt as much as they liked but kissing, fondling and sex were off-limits for the entirety of their 30-day retreat.

Now this is the kind of train-wreck television we deserve in these troubling times.

On the surface, Too Hot To Handle is perfect viewing for the socially isolated. Contestants are prohibited from physical contact with their crushes and forced to deepen the “emotional bonds” instead.

Stripped from the context of the current global pandemic, it’s actually a weirdly puritanical conceit for a reality dating show. But with hundreds of millions of people around the world currently experiencing the same lack of physical connection, it has inadvertently become one of the most relatable shows around.

But the more I watched, the more I realised Too Hot To Handle has something much more important to say about our current state of affairs than simply “people really want to have sex but can’t”.

It actually – stay with me here – provides a compelling analogy for the kind of collective action and solidarity we need to demonstrate to get through this global catastrophe.





Too Hot To Handle - Season 1 - Netflix - press image - TOO HOT TO HANDLE



‘One of the few things we’re told about Haley, a sorority girl from Florida, is that she doesn’t know where Australia actually is.’ Photograph: Netflix

Too Handle To Handle starts like any other “dating in paradise” reality show. Think Love Island or Bachelor in Paradise. The contestants all fit the mould for late 2010s attractiveness: there are muscles, curves, and a lot of what Jia Tolentino dubs “Instagram face”.

There’s Sharron, the gender studies graduate who is eager to let us know that studying the degree helped him get the “blueprint” for picking up women.

Then there’s Harry, the affable Australian whose version of dirty talk seems to be limited to using the names of bland Indian curries as diminutives.

One of the few things we’re told about Haley, a sorority girl from Florida, is that she doesn’t know where Australia actually is.

Men with terrible sexual politics and women edited by producers to look ditzy? So far, so predictable.

But 12 hours in, just enough time for the contestants to get a bit loose and flirty, they’re told kissing, self-pleasure and sex of any kind is completely off-limits.

Here’s how the rules are enforced: at the end of the 30 days each contestant is eligible for a share in a $100,000 prize pool. The catch? Every time a couple is caught kissing, $3,000 is deducted. Oral sex leads to a $6,000 penalty and intercourse costs even more. It doesn’t matter who breaks the rules, the whole group is punished.





Too Hot To Handle still



‘Men with terrible sexual politics and women edited by producers to look ditzy? So far, so predictable.’ Photograph: Netflix

This extra dimension quickly morphs the show from another Love Island into something closer to Survivor. Alliances form, pacts are made, and when the rules are broken, finger-pointing and lies rip the group apart.

Outwardly all the contestants express their desire to follow the rules and walk away with their share of the $100,000. Privately though, it’s a different matter. Sneaky make-out sessions fray tempers, as it becomes clear some couples are copping a pash, taking advantage of the fact that most members of the group are remaining chaste.

This kind of situation, where a group’s shared interests are undermined by individuals who think the rules don’t apply to them, isn’t unique to Too Hot To Handle. In philosophy it’s known as a collective action problem.

While watching Too Hot To Handle, I couldn’t shake the analogy to our current situation. We’re all being asked to stay indoors and limit our interactions with friends and family. But the effects of that aren’t equal. Those living alone, without housemates or long-term partners, are feeling the brunt of isolation.

As time goes on, the temptation to break the rules and venture out for some kind of interaction, whether it’s a weekend lunch at a friend’s place or cheeky hook-up, increase. If everyone else is staying at home, what’s the risk?

The same logic plays out on Too Hot To Handle. “Well, if everyone else is keeping it in their pants, there’s nothing wrong with me having a snog right? We’ll still have $97,000 to share around.”





Too Hot to Handle: in the pool



‘The contestants can only prevail through solidarity and a collective commitment to remaining sexually unsatisfied.’ Photograph: Aline Arruda/Netflix

Comparing the ethics of a show as silly as Too Hot To Handle to the ethics of a pandemic might sound absurd (probably because it is). But I asked Dr Matt Beard from the Ethics Centre about this, and it turns out I’m not crazy. He recommended an answer from the work of Immanuel Kant, “who most people know thanks to Chidi from The Good Place”.

“Kant had this view of ethics that, ultimately, one way of testing whether an action was ethical or not was to ask: if everyone behaved in this way, could an individual reasonably pursue that course of behaviour?”

In the case of Too Hot To Handle, if everyone starts kissing and having sex, the prize pool runs out very quickly. When it comes to lockdown, if everyone decides that visiting their friend, family or lover is OK, then our collective action to stop the spread of the virus evaporates.

What both situations reveal is the fantasy of individualism. Covid-19 is not a problem that can be resolved on an individual level. It requires all of us to act in concert.

And while you might think a dating show where people compete purely for money is as individualistic as it gets, Too Hot To Handle proves that wrong. The contestants can only prevail through solidarity and a collective commitment to remaining sexually unsatisfied.

But the problem in Too Hot To Handle, just like in the real world, is that human beings don’t behave in a purely rational way.

You can explain Kantian ethics all you like, but if someone’s desperate for a shag, whether they’re on a reality show or in lockdown, they probably won’t act rationally.

“The way to actually convince people is based on collective identity, solidarity and collective shame,” Dr Beard says.

Unfortunately, the attempts to build a sense of unity and purpose in Too Hot To Handle don’t really work out. Let’s hope that the same kinds of individualism and selfishness don’t undermine our collective efforts in the real world, where the stakes are so much higher.

Too Hot to Handle is streaming now on Netflix

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