By Abby Sorkin ‘20
Sept. 26, Vol. XXIX, Issue 1
When people think about reality TV dating shows, the image that dominates is of beautiful men and women running around an absolutely gorgeous place, making out with each other. It’s one of the few places left on television that is reserved exclusively for heterosexual individuals.
Until this summer.
The recently concluded seasons of ABC’s Bachelor in Paradise and MTV’s Are You The One? signify a possible turning point in the reality TV dating competitions and LGBT+ representation
MTV’s Are You The One? is a dating competition in which 16 contestants are given a “perfect match” by love experts and sent to live in a house in Hawaii together. The only problem: they have no idea who their perfect match is. The show centers around the contestants’ pursuit of their perfect matches and of the 1 million dollar cash prize they receive if everyone finds their match. For the show’s past eight seasons, its matches had been heterosexual. However, this season every single contestant was sexually fluid, meaning any person in the house could be their match.
At the same time as this show started airing, Bachelor in Paradise introduced a potential game changer of its own. Previews for the upcoming season established that Demi Burnett, a nearly universally beloved member of the Bachelor franchise, was queer and had been dating a woman before leaving for Paradise. The franchise is not known for its representation — its very premise, women and men competing for the affections of a member of the opposite sex for drama and TV ratings is, heterosexual. Additionally, it was only in 2017 that the first black Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsey was cast. There have been no Bachelors or Bachelorettes of color in the seasons since.
The goal of both of these shows is to encourage people to find a happy ending, something rare in this chaotic world of ours, either by finding a perfect match or getting engaged. This idea is even rarer in queer representations, across all forms of media.
This summer, each of these shows demonstrated how easy it is to treat the ups and down of queer relationships in the same way one would treat a heterosexual relationship.
Season Eight of Are You the One? explores the complications of sexual fluidity, documenting the contestants’ experiences as they pursue their first relationships with members of the same sex. The show also captures the simultaneous anxiety and possibility that come from knowing that anyone in the house could be right for anyone. And to win the one million, all relationships had to be explored. Refreshingly, all of the relationships, breakups, and hookups were treated exactly the same, irrespective of the involved contestants’ gender.
Ultimately, it was the concept of the show that was new, not necessarily the content. Having sexually fluid contestants meant the typical tropes that define reality TV were challenged.
The house’s resident playboy, a lothario stereotype typical of most dating shows, is a transmasculine nonbinary person who gets so overwhelmed by people being attracted to him post-transition that he keeps forgetting to consider their actual feelings when floating from one to the next. Conversations about love are common on these types of TV shows but the queer cast of Are You The One? grants these conversations a new dimension.
One shy man talks about hesitating all his life to embrace his queerness for fear of getting hurt; a woman reveals that she’s wary of dating men again thanks to previous traumatic experiences; another admits she’s tried to date more men to please her conservative family before plunging into a tumultuous romance with the woman she had her eye on from the beginning.
Demi’s story in Bachelor in Paradise does not seemingly differ from previous love stories within the Bachelor world: she finds love and fights for it, including the mandatory tears that occur along the way. However, this love story does differ in content. When Demi enters Paradise she finds a connection with a fellow contestant but realizes that she can’t shake her feelings for the woman she left behind in Los Angeles. In nearly any other scenario, the audience would expect that Demi would be leaving the beach. However, the producers grant us the incredible experience of watching a love story between two women on the primetime reality television when they instead bring Kristian Haggerty, the mysterious woman, to the beach.
The moment Demi sees Kristian, Demi knows that she is the one for her. Their reunion feels almost fictional in its honesty and sincerity. I forget while watching that it was reality TV program, so used to only seeing that type of emotional affection between queer relationships on drama or comedic shows. All this does is underscore how rare unadulterated LGBTQ+ representation is. It almost makes something that is real feel fictional.
These two women are treated exactly the same as any other couple, their story blending in with the others, and during the rose ceremonies, normally gendered with male contestants and female contestants switching off who does the rose giving each week, Demi and Kristen simply alternate giving their respective roses to one another.
The audience views the content of the show being altered by its contestant’s queerness. While most contestants on the show cry over rejection, Demi cries for different reasons: she feels uncomfortable walking down the street and being subject to stares for holding a woman’s hand and about not being able to give Kristen, her now fiancee, the type of PDA she desires.
While most women are proposed to on the show, Demi herself drops to one knee and pulls out a ring.
As a bisexual woman, seeing myself in these television shows represents the beginning of a new era of LGBTQ+ representation, in which it does not merely exist on television, but is granted substance, subtleties and major roles. For the first time, I didn’t have to box myself in in order to see myself in a sweeping, albeit manufactured, romance. For the first time, I was able to relate to the experiences discussed by the contestants: their fears and their hopes.
I only hope it lasts beyond the summer.
Image Credit: Them