Queer Reality Fulfilled: How an MTV Dating Show Transformed Reality TV
In 2016, four high-profile, well-loved female queer TV characters were killed off in a period of only 30 days. Lexa from The 100 died taking a bullet for her lover in a scene that too-closely mirrored the death of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Tara, another iconic queer character from 14 years earlier. Other queer stories were left brutally unfinished, which was the case with Sense8’s cancellation (until it was briefly resurrected for a finale episode after persistent begging from fans). To see a widely loved, trans-led, highly diverse, and genuinely high-quality show cancelled without reason was heartbreaking, leaving queer fans like me without the satisfying endings that we deserved; we were left only with uncertainty and rejection.
The outpouring of discontent from fans after these deaths and other disappointments is culturally signifcant beyond the shows themselves: fans pointed toward the literary trope “bury your gays,” referring to the fact that queer characters are rarer on television than straight characters and then are killed (often visibly and brutally) at higher rates. In light of the 146 queer deaths on TV in 2016, the anger that persisted among fans online was justified. For teens who grow up yearning for queer representation and almost never see it fully realized, trying to find footing within your own queer identity is difficult.
It is for these reasons that MTV’s eighth season of Are You The One?, a show that celebrates queer love and actively roots for it to succeed, already feels groundbreaking. Every season, AYTO places 16 individuals, typically all straight men and women, in a house to live together, participate in challenges, and work together to find the eight “perfect matches” among them. These matches are predetermined by relationship experts, and kept secret from the contestants and audience. If everyone in the house correctly identifies their predetermined perfect match by the end of the season, then the entire house splits a million-dollar cash prize.
Amidst popular, aggressively heterosexual shows like The Bachelor and Love Island, the daring twist of this season of AYTO was a cast entirely on the bisexual-pansexual spectrum. This way, “anyone could end up with anyone,” as the show’s host kept repeating, and the odds of successfully finding a perfect match were even lower than before.
This advertising was questionable at best. The show’s tagline reads “come one, come all,” and the cast members and audience members alike worried that the show would uphold harmful stereotypes about bi and pan people—that we are slutty and greedy, sexualized and villainized at the same time. “It isn’t common to see bi/pan people navigating their sexuality on screen,” said senior Danny Fier. “Sexually fluid characters are pretty much coded as ‘basically gay’ or ‘basically straight’ without truly ever exploring the nuance of their sexuality.” Despite the risk of perpetuating stereotypes about queer people, the show also broke down these assumptions by giving an all-queer cast the space to explore their individual identities.
This record-breaking cast allowed the show to explore nuances and complications of queer identity that are typically invisible to outside audiences. “In the first couple of episodes,” cast member Kai said to Rolling Stone, “you’re talking about transgender identity, nonbinary identity, homophobia, past abusive relationships, and it’s treated in a poignant way, so that no one person is a one-off anomaly.” Cast members tackled intense, layered problems concerning their identities and outward relationships, and this theme of growth continued throughout the entire show.
Fans watched Basit, a Black and gender-fluid contestant, combat the ignorance of fellow cast member and love interest Jonathan, who maintained the traditions of femmephobia and body-shaming in cis gay male spaces. Basit patiently and kindly coached Jonathan to unlearn his internalized homophobia, making visible some of the struggles that exist uniquely within queer communities.
Other characters faced challenges exclusive to the bisexual experience. For example, contestant Nour chose Justin over Amber in the first episode because Justin’s cis masculinity felt safe and familiar, exemplifying the heteronormative pressure bisexual people face to pick a side. The show also displayed the potential for love and happiness when these barriers are overcome, like Max and Justin’s romance that could only exist after Max painfully unraveled his hesitancy about embracing his attraction to men.
Kai, bleach-blonde, trans-masculine, and nonbinary, instantly inhabited the “fuckboy” role: everyone had a crush on him, and at first he wove through relationships with flirtatious ease. But even when he broke down in tears later in the show, the sight of this playboy stereotype inhabited by this vulnerable, honest individual who proudly displayed his top surgery scars and spoke about his ongoing transition was incredibly powerful.
But the truth is that Kai’s desirability shouldn’t be unusual: Kai is hot, and so is his first love interest, Jenna, with tattoos and an eyebrow piercing. Their intense romance, played out with MTV’s logo in the corner, became part of the “guilty pleasure TV” canon. Reality TV reflects dramatized versions of relationships commonplace in our society. So the visibility of stories such as Kai’s and his fuckboy legacy signifies the growing normalcy of gender-noncomforming relationships. “As frivolous as this show is,” remarks Film and Media Studies professor Natalie Minik, “there’s a liberation in that tone that is really exciting and wonderful to see.”
Due to the nature of MTV reality TV, these dramas are largely concocted by the producers to create an entertaining show. At the same time, this kind of reality-trash TV worldbuilding borrows from documentary filmmaking, and might actually be the perfect medium for these multidimensional queer stories.
“If you never get to see a queer prom or like a glittering fantasy and then you finally get to it feels amazing,” says Minik. “It’s a way of creating space within media to see something that maybe people deeply need to see.” TV and media works off of people’s desires, leading some to critique AYTO for exploiting queer culture for capitalist gain. But “there is some freedom and liberty in not being excluded from that economy,” says Minik.
Beyond its ability to tackle uniquely queer hardships implicated with other layered, structural forms of prejudice onscreen, this element of frivolous, glittery messiness is also what makes the show special. After watching one queer character per show carry the awkward and impossible burden of representing an entire identity, it is more than refreshing to see a show immediately put its gay characters (all of them) at ease with each other, never having to justify their behavior, censor themselves, or hide any aspect of their identities.
These people have real flaws; their personalities are never flattened by a veneer of family-friendliness or killed by TV executives. They get to be romantic and mean, sneaky and honest, heartbroken and triumphant, stupid and also brilliant, in a space usually reserved entirely for straight people.
AYTO gave us LGBT representation, and then gave its queer characters the space to grow, learn, be messy, and be real. Queer joy became something tangible, visible, and even celebrated on AYTO—not just imagined through gifs and fanfiction on Tumblr to make up for unfinished stories. This wonderfully unashamed melodrama, presented in the form of MTV trash, delivered a powerful message despite and because of its inherent playfulness.