In this edition of The Confessional, Rebecca Siegel considers how the groundbreaking new season of MTV’s Are You The One?‘s was initially advertised: by focusing on sex, not identity.
When I first saw MTV’s Are You the One? I truly couldn’t believe my eyes. How did I not know this show was on? How had two full seasons of this masterpiece been broadcasted without my knowing?
I have seen a lot of reality tv. I mean, a lot of reality TV. I discovered The Bachelor in its second season, and for years watched with dedication while baking homemade cookies each week. I recently determined I’ve watched 38 seasons of the franchise. I’d like to think I have a diverse taste in reality TV, but my favorite will always be those focused on dating and romance.
Upon my discovery, I immediately binge watched every AYTO season I could find and caught myself up to the majesty that is this MTV series.
The shows brings all of the fun of a classic reality dating show to a strategy based game. It combines the relationship drama of The Bachelor with the raucous environment of The Real World and the complicated game play of Big Brother.
An even number of guys and girls are sent to live in a house in a tropical destination. They’ve got the typical pool, open floor plan, and hot tub. One house had a small basketball court where cast members would flirt and show off their athleticism by holding a ball while shirtless.
Prior to the show, contestants are evaluated by “professional matchmakers.” I put this in quotes because a) what even is a professional matchmaker and b) let’s be real, this was likely just done by producers.
The singles are released into the house with a simple mission: find your perfect match, the person you are most compatible with, according to those matchmakers and/or producers.
Each week contestants compete in challenges and winners go out on dates. The dates are one of my favorite parts of the show. They’re by far the lowest budget of all reality TV dates; I’ve seen them drink what looks like Gatorade out of plastic wine glasses.
The goal is for everyone to find their match by the end. If this happens, they are awarded up to $1 million, which they split as a team. I was scrolling on Instagram one fine morning when I saw the announcement for the new season. The show was back with an all sexually fluid cast!
I was immediately thrilled, thinking of the incredible twist to the game it would provide. Without knowing the sex of your “perfect match,” the game will be much harder.
I couldn’t wait to see more of it. But then I did.
MTV cast gender fluid people on Are You The One?
When I first saw the announcement, I allowed myself to be excited by the idea of representation for sexually fluid individuals.
I was hopeful that this would provide visibility to a group not often featured in shows like this, let alone on MTV, one of the biggest players in the reality TV game. Personally, I am tired of seeing dating shows only portraying heteronormative relationships. It only represents part of the story of what it means to be looking for love in 2019.
I also know how important it is to represent all different kinds of people in the media. As a young girl with dreams of being a comedian, I cherished each strong funny female I saw. The more successful female comedians there were, the more I thought I could do it too. If sexually fluid individuals watching Are You The One see people like themselves living boldly and proudly, it could inspire them to do the same.
When I saw the trailer, my hopes faded fast.
MTV first released a 20-second and a 45-second commercial. I saw the longer one first, and was immediately taken aback by the overt hypersexualization of bisexuality that was presented on the screen.
To stay consistent with the terminology used in these initial trailers, I will be using the term “bisexual.” Promotion for the show has also included the use of the term “sexually fluid,” but I will be focusing on the effects of the two main trailers and the way they frame this season through the lens of bisexuality.
In this short teaser, writing flashes across the screen: “Are you into threesomes? How about fivesomes? Do you want to explore?”
These statements immediately show the goal of this season as not being about any monogamous, emotionally-developed relationships, but only sexual exploration. It negates bisexuality as an identity and implies that it is a phase or point of transition.
These title shots are intercut with sexual imagery—someone biting their lip, nails on a back, an ice cube on skin—maintaining the sexualization.
The longer trailer begins with a cast member, Nour.
The first images of are her kissing and holding hands with a guy. The portrayal is sweet and normative. The trailer then does its own version of a record scratch, to show a shot of her also kissing a girl. GASP! The music changes, and the feel of the commercial changes, never returning to the romantic feel of the opening. Instead the trailer continues with overt sexual imagery and debauchery.
Now, it is MTV, so some sexuality is to be expected.
I went back and watched the trailers for the previous seasons, hoping that this was par for the course. They were completely different.
The previous seasons’ trailers focused on developing relationships, love triangles, arguments, and people catching feelings. They made it clear that the goal of the show was to find love, not to “explore.”
Instead of shots of contestants looking lovingly at each other or on fun adventure dates, the season 8 trailer focuses on the wow factor of bisexuality and defines it in sexual terms.
One contestant says “I would identify as bisexual” as we see a split screen of him making out with a girl and a guy. This is the most iconic image of this problem. We are being told that bisexuality is being sexual with two different sexes, not what bisexuality actually is, a sexual identity composed of so much more.
Why individuals who identify as bisexual are at a higher risk of sexual assault
While watching, I was immediately reminded of a conversation I had with a close friend years ago. I referred to her as bisexual, and she quickly told me to call her “queer,” not “bisexual,” as there was a danger in using this identifier. She explained that there is a higher rate of sexual assault for people who identify as bisexual than for those who identified as straight or gay.
Looking at this trailer, I see a hyper-sexualization of bisexuality that could be dangerous.
According to the 2010 “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey” conducted by the Center for Disease Control:
The lifetime prevalence of rape by any perpetrator was:
– Lesbian – 13.1%
– Bisexual – 46.1%
– Heterosexual – 17.4%
– Gay – numbers too small to estimate
– Bisexual – numbers too small to estimate
– Heterosexual – 0.7%
The lifetime prevalence of sexual violence other than rape (including being made to penetrate, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and non-contact unwanted sexual experiences) by any perpetrator was:
– Lesbian – 46.4%
– Bisexual – 74.9%
– Heterosexual – 43.3%
– For men:
– Gay – 40.2%
– Bisexual – 47.4%
– Heterosexual – 20.8%
Sexual assault clearly affects all people, but the rates are alarmingly higher for those who identify as bisexual, especially for bisexual women.
Why? Dr. Nichole Johnson of the Department of Education and Human Services at Lehigh University argued in an article in the Journal of Bisexuality that this high rate is caused by a a few factors, including hyper-sexualization of bisexuality and biphobic harassment.
Bi.org, a project of the American Institute of Bisexuality, summarized Dr. Johnsons findings and said that “[m]en have been trained to believe that bi women are for their viewing pleasure” which “objectifies and dehumanizes bi women.”
Plus, bi.org notes, the “negative stereotypes bi women face—they’re greedy, promiscuous, incapable of monogamous commitment, unwilling to choose a side, going through a phase, etc.—may engender hostility toward, and dehumanization of, bi women.”
I don’t know how the show will be. I don’t know how it will all turn out. But I do know that playing trailers all across the U.S. that encourage the hyper-sexualization of people who identify as bisexual could be dangerous.
Since these teasers were released, MTV has dropped additional videos on Instagram. One of these videos is devoted to cast members talking about the importance of representation and visibility for the LGBT+ community:
Other videos feature cast members opening up about their individual experiences and one even includes a cast member coming out for the first time publicly. There are references to a number of different sexual and gender identities, as well as a trailer focusing on what love means to the contestants.
These were missing from the initial trailers, and I am relieved to see them presented on Instagram. They certainly make me optimistic, but I am still concerned about the effects of the initial trailers.
I truly hope that this season will be what I know it can be: a platform for visibility and a chance for MTV to continue to support the telling of untold stories.
But most importantly, I hope it portrays its cast members in the positive and multifaceted way that they deserve.
Correction, June 27, 2019: This story was updated to reflect the number of contestants this season.