While South Africa’s television history may be young and marked by the complexities of our political changes, a stimulating body of scholarly work on South African television has started to grow, especially on reality shows. This work is significant,  because there is now need to do more work on how viewers interact on social media with other followers of South African TV programmes and shows. This will enable us to uncover and analyse perceptions, different ideologies and discourses that are shared amongst South African television audiences.

Date My Family has become a Sunday staple for many Mzansi Magic viewers. The show regularly trends on Twitter between 18:00 and 19:00, and if viewers find themselves unable to watch an episode on television, all they have to do is go online to get a piece of the action. Date My Family is a reality show that helps singletons find love by sending them on dates with three of their potential partner’s families. Each family prepares a meal that they will share with the singleton. While the singleton interacts with the family, the potential date is seated in another room and is watching everything that transpires on the date from a screen. After the singleton has gone on all three dinner dates with the family, they then have to choose a potential partner that they will then get to meet, and sadly decline meeting the other two potentials. This boils down to how well the family has represented the potential partner.

Online interactions about Date My Family

Part of the success of the show can be attributed to it being topical, relevant and relatable. This is evidenced by the online interactions it generates. These interactions are driven by the people who watch the show and react, co-create varying meanings and interpretations of the show on Twitter.

Such interactions can be coined as a sweet-spot where television and Twitter meet. The show however, is also perceived by audiences to portray South Africa as a materialistic country and grossly judgmental.

Nevertheless, these engagements demonstrate that even a seemingly light-hearted show like Date My Family can become an opportunity to critically discuss our social attitudes and possibly change them.

Rey challenging audience of Date My Family

On 11 March 2018 one of the singletons appeared in the show. The 29-year-old bachelorette was introduced as Rey from Johannesburg. She was energetic, quirky, beautiful and intelligent.

She came onto the show not looking for what a potential partner can do for her, but rather engaged viewers with her authenticity and non-materialistic approach. Along the way, Rey also challenged viewers’ perceptions about what beauty is.

Normally, in most episodes of Date My Family, women would ask what men could do for them, and what material wealth do they possess or bringing to the table.  Rey did the contrary.

What made this particular episode interesting was the change of the discourse it produced. At the beginning of the episode, viewers on Twitter and even some of the bachelors and their family members went as far as saying that Rey was not what they expected, especially with regards to her physical appearance.

However, Rey managed to change the discourse and won people’s hearts with her character coupled with an impressive  and critical intellectual capability.

Tweeps response on stereotypes

Initially, they judged her but eventually most tweeps ended up appreciating the episode for being educative on self-love and inner beauty.

The show brought a shift of perspective through exchanges that took place on Twitter and challenged stereotypes especially around fully-figured and curved women, physical appearance and beauty.

Twitter users at the end harshly condemned people who had sent offensive tweets at the beginning of the show, and called this behaviour  “body shaming” and “distasteful”. In some instances the ‘body shamers’ deleted or removed their remarks.

In another episode, 24-year-old Leon was introduced to the show on 25 March 2018. Here too traces of materialism and sentiments of being judgemental emerged.

The singleton came to the show looking for a family-oriented woman who loves children. Leon was asked what car he drives by one of the families.

He mentioned the model of the car, that he drives a Hyundai i10, it was said that the car is a “feminine vehicle”, they wrote. This immediately sparked a conversation and memes and jokes of the i10 went rampant on Twitter.

“What is it that Leon’s potential partner will be bringing to the table?” Asked tweeps. Tweeps concluded that the likelihood for Leon’s partner to bring nothing was greater.

Some viewers tweeted that one could be a really great person, yet if one does not have an expensive car it automatically disqualifies you as a potential partner.

Twitter changing TV experience

Although Date My family is a light-hearted reality show and its main purpose is to entertain the South African audiences, the show has provided an opportunity where television audiences meet online to create a culture of dialogue on important social and cultural issues.

Previously people who had access to share opinions had to be of high calibre or be in the spotlight or influential. Nowadays, Twitter has what we call influencers: ordinary people who are able to influence people’s actions and general perceptions by merely tweeting something or sharing their opinions.

It is through this dialogue that ideologies and attitudes have an opportunity to be transformed and for different perspectives to emerge. Through Date My Family, one can easily glance how TV watching experience has evolved as audience become content creators of their own. They are not passive consumers anymore; instead they engage and share their opinions in real time online.

The level of engagement that social media has facilitated has made television viewing a two-way communication process where many voices can be heard. These conversations provide very rich data for researchers interested in investigating our social and cultural conventions.