Bisexual, trans, non-binary people have been part of reality television show casts before this summer, and been represented well on shows from Queer Eye to Dating Around to RuPaul’s Drag Race.
But they have never been centered as much as on Are You The One: Come One, Come All, which cast a house full of sexually fluid people and became the most queer season reality TV has ever seen.
Are You The One has been cast so well that it’s not just a celebration of difference, but a much better reflection of the complexities of human beings, which exists even within specific groups.
While early marketing was concerning, the show thankfully went another direction, with a cast that has been a joy to watch and root for. Their straight predecessors on Are You The One may have been bad at relationships, but they were not also having to simultaneously figure out relationships as many (though not all) of these cast members are.
That adds a lot of complexity to typical MTV reality show energy. This group is trying to find a match in a house with 15 options while also working through acceptance of themselves—and, oh yeah, just having a great time, because they’re on an MTV show that supplies alcohol and has designated a room for having sex.
We’ve watched Kai, who introduced himself by saying “I am a queer, trans-masculine, non-binary human who has chosen to medically transition,” as he’s had ball trying to figure things out. “I’m at a house full of people where I’m like, here’s all the opportunity that I pretend I don’t want in the real world,” Kai told Remy.
Meanwhile, there’s Max, who’s 25 and last week went through his first same-sex break-up, after learning that he and Justin weren’t a match, and learning that Justin took that as permission to bail on Max so he could play the field again.
For queer people who didn’t date when they were teenagers, going through that kind of breakup and heartache as an adult is likely familiar, and it’s remarkable to see on MTV, where it may be new or even baffling to MTV’s audience.
Max and Justin were the couple this season, and the heartbreaking end of their relationship raises the fascinating question about AYTO: Is finding a “perfect match” the most important thing? Of course it is for the purposes of winning the cash prize, but do these cast members really trust MTV’s opaque matchmaking process, one that has failed season after season?
For a show about relationships to claim that there is a “perfect match” undermines the reality of relationships: it’s not about stars aligning, it’s about connection and a lot of work. But this is MTV; their concerns are elsewhere.
Are You The One? has previously functioned as a feeder show for The Challenge, an opportunity for people to prove themselves hot, drunk, and/or violent enough to continue with an MTV career.
Casting season eight with people whose attraction doesn’t check tiny boxes has delivered the kinds of scenarios that reality TV producers dreams about, and I don’t just refer to more sex than the editors could include, nor the permutations of the math that make finding matches more difficult. (I loved the turn the show took when Kari insisted on focusing on strategy.)
Earlier in the season, Danny said, “I feel like this house is turning into just this big, crazy cat and dog chase, where everyone is chasing someone who’s chasing someone else, and I know that I can’t force someone to turn around and chase me, but it still grinds me down sometimes.”
It’s that chase—and that defeat, and the heartbreak—that’s powered AYTO and made it different than the seven preceding seasons of straight men and women dealing with the “perfect match” conceit, which has provided mostly drama, not lasting connection.
Are You The One season eight’s cast has also excelled at identifying what’s happening with each other, like when the group confronted Kai about running away from his problems, and his need for attention.
There may not be long-term relationships and marriages to come out of season eight, but by casting a reality show where “everybody here is real fucking hot, and real queer, and real fluid,” as Kai said on the first episode, it’s been a smashing success. In the ratings, though? Not so much.
Meanwhile, on Bachelor in Paradise: bisexuality
Are You The One’s drama has unfolded at the same time Bachelor in Paradise dipped Chris Harrison’s little toe into bisexual waters, and then congratulated itself for swimming all the oceans of the world.
Demi Burnett’s coming out to her castmates was handled well, as she talked about her identity and how her feelings for a woman she’d been dating was affecting her relationship with Derek.
When Chris Harrison imported her girlfriend Kristian Haggerty (who happens to be roommates with someone from Bachelor Nation, Catherine Agro), however, it revealed itself to be just another one of The Bachelor franchise’s choreographed stories.
The only thing more frustrating than the clumsy way producers craft storylines is the how many of its viewers think it’s genuine, especially when people show up unannounced to interrupt the proceedings.
At least this time, the show admitted what it was doing: another baby step forward! “All I care about is what’s best for you, and what’s best for everybody here,” Chris Harrison told Demi (I did not believe him). “How can I help you find love? And we’ve come to a decision that I think is going to put you in the best position. So, why don’t you head upstairs.”
A lot has been made of how Bachelor in Paradise had to break its nonexistent rules to allow a non-franchise cast member to join in the fun. But that really just illustrates how stifling the casting has been, returning to the same wells over and over again.
Casting a bisexual woman, Demi, is a step forward, but those stairs lead to the same place they always have if her dating options are only straight men. She’s also in the place that so many queer people—and people of color—have been in reality shows before: alone in having to represent an entire group of people.
As frustrating as ABC’s conservatism is, it also makes sense. MTV has nothing to lose, so desperate are they for anyone to watch anything on their cable network, while ABC has one of television’s top-rated franchises to protect, holding on to as many viewers as possible as ratings atrophy across all of television.
Host Chris Harrison even admitted to this, in a surprisingly candid and honest yet still nauseating answer to a question from THR:
“We work extremely hard behind the scenes to create diversity and see more people represented on our show. It’s incumbent on us to do that, but it’s also really incumbent on us and everybody who runs this show to keep the show alive and keep it a viable option for ABC to renew. What’s the purpose of making a big social stand if you’re off the air in December? Every writer or person who is clamoring for something, whatever their social issue is, they’re going to move on and go yell at somebody else. You have to listen, but you have to do so and be prudent about it as well. We can’t just make decisions because we want to make everybody happy by making a social statement.”
I wish Are You The One provided evidence that would give ABC more courage in an industry drunk on fear.
Creatively, it should have: AYTO season 8’s cast has given a previously one-note show layers that would make Mary Berry swoon. But its ratings, oof: they’ve been dreadful.
Despite its reveal of the big cliffhanger about Max and Justin’s relationship, last week’s AYTO had just 238,000 viewers, less than half of its episode-five peak of 510,000 viewers. It had a 0.12 in the 18-49 demo, ranking 98th of all cable shows on Monday.
Ratings fell sharply when MTV moved the show to Mondays at 11 from Wednesdays at 9. (Obviously, not all of MTV’s audience watches the same day on an actual television, so there is a likely a larger audience than these numbers indicate.)
Let’s hope this isn’t blamed on its queer cast, who have delivered everything MTV could possibly want from a reality show.
It’s worth noting that The Bachelorette’s ratings also fell when the show did something new by casting a black woman, Rachel Lindsay, as its lead. Even franchise creator Mike Fleiss admitted that was because of racist fans.
That’s the danger when there’s just one, whether it’s one person, or one season, that has to represent an entire group. The Bachelor franchise responded by retreating.
Are You The One shouldn’t do the same—but it also shouldn’t have to be alone in representing queerness on reality TV.
For more on what Are You the One has accomplished this season, I highly recommend these two pieces:
- Jenna Wortham’s essay about How Queer People Brought Some Actual Reality to Dating-Reality TV, which explores the way “they are all used to performing, whether or not they’re being televised.”
- Caroline Framke on how the show “Is an Unexpected Step Forward for Queer Representation on TV” because “no single person had to represent an entire queer identity like Demi does on ‘Bachelor in Paradise.'”