MTV’s Queer Season of “Are You the One” Confirmed my Newfound Addiction to Reality Dating Shows
My first time watching The Bachelorette two summers ago is not a fond memory. I was working in New York, and the three strangers I was living with, who were also all extremely straight and often said homophobic microaggressions, invited me to watch the premiere of season 13 with them. Apart from their heteronormative (and often toxic) tendencies, they were obsessed with The Bachelor franchise. This occassion was my first time ever attempting to watch a reality dating show, as my anti-reality show preferences and distaste towards the solely heterosexual nature of dating ones made me avoid the genre for most of my life.
And to be honest, I wasn’t impressed. I was entirely bored with every man on the competition, and I remember only having a thing for the actual bachelorette, Rachel, and her adorable gap teeth. Whenever a male contestant would enter the screen for the first time, my roommates would gush over how attractive they were, sometimes asking me who my favorite was. Terrified, and not “officially” out to them due to their uncomfortable remarks, I could only think to say Peter. He had the best personality, gap teeth just like Rachel, and was objectively the most good-looking. All I really wanted to say was that none of them were cute because I’m gay but I didn’t want to break the extremely enforced heteronormative sphere that was built by the act of these three women watching The Bachelorette solely for the purpose of lusting over men for two hours.
After this initial exposure, my views towards dating shows were just confirmed even more—why would I spend two hours of my week watching heterosexual romance when I already see that in most television, and moreso, in real life?
Yet, earlier this year, I decided to give the show another try. This time, it was the most recent season of The Bachelor, and strangely, after one episode, I was hooked. Throughout watching the season, I never viewed the show as quality television; rather, I admired the lack of men and the obvious abundance of women—watching the show for the women and against the one man was my peak of entertainment for the week. I had a thing for contestants like Cassie, felt a peculiarly strong connection to Caelynn, and theorized that Heather was probably a lesbian after she decided to leave the show only an episode after sharing her first kiss ever with Colton. What sparked my sudden interest wasn’t just falling in love with every woman who entered the show; instead, it was watching it with other queer womxn who had no interest in Colton and rather watched for the contestants’ gradual realization that their potential husband was an actual piece of trash. So, I kept up with the rest of the season, was predictably disappointed with the end results (Cassie deserves so much better!), and told myself that maybe, just maybe, I was slowly becoming a reality dating T.V. fan, despite its inability to extend outside of heterosexuality.
I attempted to watch this current season of The Bachelorette, but was still turned off by the amount of men and my disinterest in the bachelorette herself (who said, verbatum, that “sex is made for a man and a woman in marriage”). The show is already heteronormative in itself, but Hannah’s obsession with maintaining her traditional, Southern charm added an extra layer I could care less about. Was my weird obsession with a single season of The Bachelor just a one-time thing?
I realized it wasn’t when I, just one month ago, started the current season of Love Island and became dangerously obsessed. While heterosexuality was still the priority, it was so much better than the limiting nature of The Bachelor franchise. Any man could be with any woman, recoupling could happen at any given moment, and new contestants could enter at any time—all with a UK twist filled with delightful slang, accents, and ridiculous narration. I immediately understood the show to be objectively trashy, but at least I was entertained beyond belief whenever watching.
I immediately forgot about my own, at times worrisome life; instead, I was sucked into the villa of Love Island where contestants would produce drama over seemingly miniscule details, like Tommy falling for Maura while he’s coupled up with Molly Mae or Amy getting upset with Lucie because she chooses to hang with the guys more than the girls. Even typing out the plot of this show makes me feel like I’m losing all my brain cells, but I simply cannot deny my addiction! Every Saturday, when Hulu releases five episodes at a time, I get to dive into the reality that the show produces for five hours, watching men get overly stressed about two women having their eyes on them at the same time. At least that wasn’t something I worried about and wasted my energy on.
Now, after binging the series every weekend, I long for this same, trashy drama, but with queer people and couples. Why couldn’t Maura flirt with Amber instead of Tommy? Was Anton really only into women?
Calling myself a reality dating T.V. fan became official when that same week I discovered yet another dating show I had to try. It combined my guilty pleasure of being obsessed with the romantic lives of real people with my own queerness. Just as I was getting extremely invested in the concept of dating shows, but longing for my own identity to be represented, Are You the One, the popular dating show that has only had hetero matches for the past seven seasons, decided to premiere their eighth season with all bisexual, sexually fluid, and queer contestants. Essentially, every contestant is sexually and romantically attracted to all genders, meaning there were absolutely no limits to what could happen on the show. Are You the One, unlike most dating shows, is not a competition between contestants; rather, the 16 contestants have to find their predetermined “perfect match” (as formulated by relationship experts) by the end of the ten weeks they spend living together. If they all are able to be coupled up correctly, they get $1,000,000 divided between everyone; if not, they all leave empty-handed.
While the premise is obviously a pseudo-science (there can’t be such a thing as a perfect match before two people even meet each other), this show is both everything I’ve ever wanted and what I’ve been searching for in a reality show. Season eight of Are You The One has an abundance of queer representation, and not just to include that one token lesbian or trans person; instead, everyone is part of the community. It’s not a show full of 16 white cis bisexual people, it’s instead full of racial and gender diversity where everyone’s identities and experiences vary. Basit is a black, nonbinary person who has never felt truly like themself due to the oppressive gender binary, Kai is a trans-masculine nonbinary person who began transitioning only a few years ago and has never felt sexually desirable until being on the show, and Max is a bisexual man who still at times feels uncomfortable with his queerness due to his conservative hometown. Some have been out since age 14, some have literally used the show to come out, but all share two things in common—they are all LGBTQ+, and they wish to grow from their previous dating anxieties and flaws, which are typically higher in this community, by finding healthy and consensual love through this experience.
Are You The One is so appealing in that it does strive for this inclusivity, yet it’s just as trashy as those other dating shows. My deep dive into this subgenre was mostly due to my guilty pleasure of watching real humans surround themselves with unnecessary romantic drama and ultimately make extremely dumb decisions, two things that were always guaranteed with The Bachelor and Love Island. All that was missing was the potential for queer romance, and this season fulfilled all my desires. Maybe they are attempting to represent an entire community’s dating habits through a season such as this one, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fucking up just as much as their straight counterparts. There’s cheating, there’s jealousy, there’s miscommunication, there’s sudden, inexplicable feelings that usually just add more crisis to previous relationships that, at the end of the day, could be entirely staged. I know all of this, and that’s why I love it even more. If a queer dating show attempted to be its own, separate category where this addictive drama didn’t exist and all the women U-Hauled together after one week, it wouldn’t hold the same quality that makes all reality television so binge-worthy.
At the same time, their queerness is still centered through their fuck-ups (spoilers ahead!). Kai sleeps with two contestants in the same night because he enjoys that sexual attention he’s never received until now due to his complicated journey with his gender; Paige wants to shoot her shot with everyone on the show, even if they’re already coupled off with someone else, because it’s her first chance at finding love as a newly out bisexual woman. So essentially, the show marks off everything that I desire from a dating show: over-the-top, usually unrealistic drama? Check. Fully fleshed-out queer representation? Check. And on top of that, everyone on this show is, of course, hot, so I could lust over the women that are also into women, unlike my weird obsession with some of the straight women on The Bachelor and Love Island. Not only could I root for queer couples on the show just like I root for ones in fictional T.V., I could also obsess over some of the women and weirdly hope that they’d be into me, too (I’m looking at you, Amber and Jenna). Just like I watched last season of The Bachelor with other queer people, I do the same now, where we can bond over our shared gay desire for some of the contestants while simultaneously hoping they end up with whoever we deem to be their perfect match.
It’s addicting, it’s low-quality, it’s most likely a bit scripted. But I love it. It makes me think of why so many of us are obsessed with dating shows in the first place—does it, like I said earlier, make us forget about our own lives, whether that means our bad luck in the dating department, our chronic loneliness, or more broadly, the simple anxieties of life that we can’t seem to escape through our own reality? But why dating shows? Can’t other, trashy reality shows fill this same void?
Yet, the dating component keeps me coming back for more, especially with shows like Are You The One, where I can see my own sexual and romantic preferences being showcased on a show with real people. I can see whose habits and flaws are similar to mine, and maybe even learn from them (even though a trained therapist is always the best option). I see myself in Jenna when she continues to get heartbroken by Kai due to her intense feelings for him, although she knows they’re toxic, and I realize that Paige is most definitely the kind of girl I’d want to date, even though her chill attitude is almost too chill for my anxious self (I can’t help that my Taurus Venus just wants simplicity in relationships!). These connections and realizations would never be made if it were with straight people, because although the show is treated similarly to other reality shows with its exaggerated (and possibly staged) drama, it’s still special in that it’s undeniably queer, something reality television has been lacking for so long.
Yes, I’ll continue to treat my binging of Love Island as an act of self-care, and I am most definitely going to be invested in the upcoming season of The Bachelor. Yet, I’ve realized that every Wednesday at 9pm, I can unashamedly be obsessed with the genre when I dive into the queer drama that is Are You the One, watch 16 bisexual and sexually fluid people be complete idiots about their romantic decisions, and hope that they get one step closer to finding their perfect match.
About the Author
Natalie Geisel is in her third year at The George Washington University studying women’s, gender, and sexuality studies with a minor in communication. Her love of writing sprouted from starting her fashion blog in high school, and her current written work spans from topics such as style, LGBTQ+ content, and music. She is interested in intersecting gender and sexuality into the world of wellness, hoping to add a queer voice to its editorial side. When she’s not writing, she spends her spare time at dance rehearsal, attending local indie shows in the DC area, or finding the best cafes that serve oat milk. She’s passionate about inclusive sex education and sustainable fashion and thinks everyone should be, too.