BY Rosanna McLaughlin in Opinion | 22 MAY 20

Meet Lana, Too Hot to Handle’s Dominatrix Governess

The AI host of Netflix’s latest reality dating show is the love child of Big Tech and Saint Augustine

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BY Rosanna McLaughlin in Opinion | 22 MAY 20

Meet Lana, hostess of Netflix’s reality dating show Too Hot to Handle (2020). Lana is a surveillance AI housed inside various plastic cones strategically placed around the set – a beach resort in Mexico. She is on a mission. Her aim is to convert unsuspecting contestants into the kind of commitment-oriented heterosexuals that would be the toast of evangelical summer camps. When a group of 20-somethings arrive at the resort, expecting a month of sex and sun on camera, she wakes from her digital slumber. Like the UK voice option for Amazon’s Alexa, upon whom she is based, Lana has been programmed to speak with a Mary Poppins English accent. The aim of this game, she politely instructs the contestants, is to remain as chaste as possible. It is an agenda she enforces by tracking contestants’ every move, sending them off to gendered wellness workshops – women are taught to respect their ‘yonis’, men fool around with mud and spears – and implementing a scheme of fiscal punishments and incentives. The group is given a shared pot of US$100,000; sexual interactions incur a fine and will be publicly announced. Kissing sets the collective wallet back US$3,000, oral sex, US$6,000, and penetrative sex, US$20,000. Individuals soon learn that their desires are everybody’s business.

Too Hot to Handle, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix

Reality dating shows operate as a kind of fetish. They indulge pre-existing power relations, aspirations and anxieties by transforming them into dramatic scenarios and returning them to the public as entertainment. Because of this they double-up as weathervanes for the preoccupations of the day. Too Hot to Handle may be crass, but it is an apt manifestation of the fears and excitements of a world governed by technology and with increasingly zealous streaks of religious nationalism. An AI with deeply regressive attitudes to sex and zero regard for privacy, Lana is the nightmare love child of Big Tech and Saint Augustine. During the Middle Ages, Augustine’s teachings popularized the concept of original sin, recovered the story of Adam and Eve from relative obscurity and ushered in an era of ‘desire-policing’. Religious laws were put in place in an attempt to control how, when and why people were physically intimate. Today, behavioural intervention is possible on a scale Augustine’s disciples could not have dreamed of. As Naomi Klein recently argued in the Guardian, we are moving towards a time in which ‘our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable and data-mineable by unprecedented collaborations between government and tech giants’. Too Hot to Handle gives the desire-police a contemporary reboot. In 2020, the Garden of Eden is a collection of Instagrammable cabanas with mandalas painted on the walls, and the all-seeing eye has been replaced by an authoritarian AI masquerading as a supernatural nanny.

Too Hot to Handle, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix

Too Hot to Handle is not the only Netflix show that reveals a growing fixation with orthodox attitudes to sexuality. The ratings hit Love Is Blind (2020) is premised upon the production of hastily assembled arranged heterosexual marriages. Participants must try to find a fiancé by interviewing strangers while sat alone in rooms referred to as ‘the pods’, separated by an opaque glass wall. Shot from above, the pods are revealed to be a network of dark, octagonal cells: part soulless hotel, part lonely bedroom, part padded tomb. The show’s air of morbidity extends from the chambers to the treatment of marriage, which is dangled before participants like the keys to the pearly gates. As contestants propose to one another in the solitude of the pods, temporarily ensorcelled by chimeras of happiness and acceptance, what many of them appear to want is an escape from the confusion and loneliness of contemporary life. By the end of the show, the majority of the relationships break down. Outside of the pods, having desperately tried to maintain the illusion that they are in love, so too do a number of the contestants.

Too Hot to Handle and Love Is Blind are both packaged as social experiments in contemporary morality. Can the young learn to keep their legs closed? Is it possible, in our image-obsessed age, to find true love without capitulating to lust? The underlying messages are worthy of Gilead, the repressive theocracy in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The outcomes of these ‘experiments’ on the individuals upon whom they are conducted are largely predictable. Place people alone in rooms under the premise of finding someone to marry and it’s only a matter of time before inadvisable promises of forever are made; offered direct financial incentives, people will attempt to repress almost anything. More revealing are the structures of the shows themselves: microcosms of totalitarian societies that oppose personal and sexual freedoms.  

Love Is Blind, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix

Lana, of course, is not really an AI but a theatrical prop. Just as the illusion of a frictionless, digital world is sustained by a hidden human workforce, Lana’s dialogue is presumably scripted by producers, based on footage from cameras installed around the set. Her characterization also reveals a prevalent kink. The role play of the dominatrix governess and her wayward human wards channels the thrill derived from submitting to the will of technology. Fail to comply and you will be punished.

Too Hot to Handle does away with the public vote: it is down to Lana to decide who stays and who goes. Rather than selecting winners, she shapes her society by banishing those who fall foul of her agenda. After Florida sorority girl Hayley Cureton kisses a female contestant and openly criticizes the show’s format, the group is asked to assemble. ‘Haley. I have been evaluating your performance so far,’ Lana says. ‘Having a positive impact on the group as a whole: fail. Showing signs of personal growth: fail. Obeying the rules: fail. Insufficient progress has been made. Haley, your time in the retreat is over.’ All hail Lana, patron saint of the techno-orthodoxy.

Main image: Too Hot to Handle, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix

Rosanna McLaughlin is a writer based in London, UK. She is an editor at The White Review. Her book Double-Tracking was published by Carcanet Press in October 2019.

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