Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
Fox’s latest reality TV dating show offers an insightful, nuanced look at rural life and romance… Ok, maybe not. But I would have been both dumbfounded and a bit disappointed if it had.
I say this as someone with a deep appreciation of reality TV and its specific niche in our media environment. In college, I wrote my senior history capstone about a genre of reality television in which everyday people were “sent back in time” to live on sets that recreated (sort of) the conditions of a specific era in time (my favorite example is “Victorian Slum House” — it was a real thing and I can’t even begin to explain it here).
Reality TV is fun because it is a reflection of society. Reality TV with a theme is even more fun, because it is a reflection of what the producers believe society thinks about a given topic. While “Farmer Wants a Wife” is indisputably shot on working farms with real farmers, its structure and aesthetics are just as staged as that of any other reality dating series. In that sense, the show is just as committed to defining a farming lifestyle as it is to helping its contestants find love.
The producers invoke the country theme immediately, and never look back. In the first episode, each of the four farmers is asked to speed date eight women before choosing five to bring back to the farm — this all-important selection process takes place in a barn. Naturally, the speed dates are set up outside: on hay bales, rocking chairs, and even the back of what looks like a John Deere Gator utility vehicle. One-on-one and group dates that follow include a rodeo, country dancing, and a demolition derby.
The farmers are festooned with cowboy hats and prominent belt buckles, while the women face the unenviable task of trying to look their best on reality TV while also doing farm labor. And of course, the whole show takes place to a soundtrack of country love songs.
Jumping on the Haywagon
The premise of “Farmer Wants a Wife” is not a new one — a show with the same title and concept first debuted in the UK in 2001, with a Swedish predecessor as early as the 1980s. Since then, 35 countries have aired their own versions of the show, including Serbia, Australia, Croatia, Canada, France, Slovenia, and South Africa. Altogether, the franchise has led to 180 marriages and 410 children globally, according to the show’s trailer.
In fact, the most recent series from Fox isn’t even the U.S.’s first attempt at getting in on the agricultural dating action. In 2008, the CW premiered a series of the same name, focusing on one farmer and ten contestants who had to compete in challenges to prove they belonged on the farm (America’s obsession with turning everything into a game show could be its own thesis topic). Shockingly (or not), the show earned a rating of 2.2 out of 10 stars on IMDb and was not renewed for another season. But if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!
And try again they did. The new show, hosted by Grammy-winning country music star Jennifer Nettles, has surpassed its American predecessor with a rating of 5.1 stars on IMDb! The format is different — four men, 20 women, and no game show-style eliminations. But the central tension remains the same. Can these city women adapt to “the simple life?” And will the four lonely farmers find love at last?
Back to Tradition
Let’s get serious for a moment, going back to the origins of this newsletter. To be sure, I did not start watching this show thinking it was going to be a masterclass in rural diversity and feminist representation. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still bring forth some complaints and critiques!
“Farmer Wants a Wife” did something impressive by raising my hackles with its name alone. Though the name was inherited from a long line of similar programs discussed above, the show immediately sorts its participants into two groups: farmer (man) and wife (woman).
Regular readers of the Yonder won’t be shocked to learn that women can also be farmers (around 30% of farmers are women), though they still face many barriers. The idea that a (male) farmer might also be looking for a male spouse, meanwhile, does not even enter the producers’ consciousness.
The show does include one African American farmer, Ryan Black, among the four contestants. His presence represents a rich history of Black farmers in America, though the number of Black farm owners has decreased drastically over the past century from 14% to just 1.4% according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is due to a number of factors, from mass migration and urbanization fueled by violence and racial terror, to structural racism’s effect on unequal ownership and lending policies.
But as is the case in most reality dating shows, any discussions of race, gender, sexuality, and class are off the table. After all, who could imagine conversations about those sorts of things coming up as part of our most meaningful, life-long relationships?
Digging into how this all unfolds, the four farmers can be loosely sorted into two categories — southern chatterboxes and strong and silent types. Farmer Landon and Farmer Hunter make up the former category, laying on the charm with folksy idioms and country manners (Incidentally, I found it nearly impossible to tell these two men apart for the first few episodes).
Meanwhile, Farmers Allen and Ryan are the pictures of stoic manhood. In dating, vulnerability is the name of the game, and these two men struggle with it tremendously, albeit in different ways. Allen assiduously avoids eye contact with his dates by hiding behind his cowboy hat, while Ryan distracts anyone hoping to have a deep conversation by kissing them instead. You can’t blame them — dating anyone, never mind multiple people, on national television no less, has got to be a truly excruciating experience.
But in many ways, their journeys are the most interesting part of the show. The women tell Allen and Ryan repeatedly that they need to be more vulnerable, and they do make some progress. When Ryan sends home a contestant because he feels that she is too emotional, the other women are furious, and one even leaves the show. Ryan eventually realizes he has made a mistake and that unlocking his own emotions might have something to do with a successful relationship. Allen grows increasingly comfortable with the women on his farm, and though no deep conversations are ever shown, it is strongly implied that they might have happened!
Though both farmers remain single (Ryan ended the show without a partner, and Allen and his selected contestant broke up shortly after the show ended) it seems possible that the shock therapy of five women, 10 producers, and an estimated 2.2 million viewers all demanding more emotional vulnerability from these stoic, manly farmers may have had a lasting effect. Or it might have traumatized them even more. Time will tell.
But the show’s greatest conflict is also its most nuanced. The series isn’t just about finding romance for the farmers — it is specifically about farmers finding romance with women from the city, who are ready to upend their entire lives for love on someone else’s terms. It turns out, that’s not an easy sell. And when faced with abandoning their lives and careers to pursue a relationship with a farmer they’ve been on a single one-on-one date with, many chose not to.
While there are plenty of city women who choose a farming life (check out singer Eliza Blue’s “Accidental Rancher” column in the Yonder), it’s not for everyone. But where the producers hope to play up the city versus country drama, the women subtly defy that script. Several of the most successful contestants have a rural background, but also have city careers. Others have never stepped foot on a farm, but nearly all of them prove to be eager and capable of doing the work (a few incidents with cow poop aside), at least for the six weeks they are there. And when a number of women choose to walk away from the farmers, it is less about the culture shock of life on a farm, and more about their individual needs, interests, and career goals.
Unfortunately for the producers, this nuance has a tendency to muddy the waters and deprive them of the dramatics they so crave. And on a personal note, I probably wouldn’t have finished this show if it weren’t a work assignment to do so. But at a minimum, “Farmer Wants a Wife” is a fun vehicle for country kitsch, and it offers a relatively dignified rural addition to the reality TV dating canon.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.