I have something to confess: I love reality television.
This might not be a huge surprise—reality television is a big market in the United States, often filed under guilty pleasures and the “treat yourself” mentalities we cling to in times of chaos. It gives us comfort and lets us take a break from our brains in a way that no other type of media can.
And sure, there’s something respectable about the craftsmanship in Project Runway or the calming nature of The Great British Bake Off, but what really hooks me are the most vile shows the genre has to offer—reality dating shows.
As a queer media writer, my infatuation with these shows has always struck me as odd. While there have been dozens of iterations of the same formula, they rarely take any risks. Shows like The Bachelor churn out the same cisgender, straight, and often white couples season after season, and people like me still come back for more.
Our fascination with these shows can be understood in part through the audience’s perception of genre. Genre is a formula, and it’s dependent on recognizable tropes and themes that are repeated throughout various media texts. Someone can tell a movie is horror because of its looming score, its shallow lighting, and its use of violence—because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to believe horror is.
This sets up a relationship of expectation between audiences and the media they consume. We love when things are predictable because it satisfies our understanding of a genre. We know generally what a romantic comedy is going to provide for us—a will they, won’t they moment, kissing in the rain, a fake relationship that turns into something real by the end. When these tropes play out on screen, audiences’ expectations have been met and they feel satisfied. If they don’t, audiences can feel betrayed by their own expectations.
Stretching the Formula
When it comes to reality television, the genre in question reflects—at least in some sense—reality. So, in order to meet audience expectations, the formula must reinstate social norms and the status quo. This leaves us with a standard of reality television that works, even if it’s limited in scope, which results in an endless series of copies that stick to that standard.
But sometimes, media can be more interesting when genre is taken as a suggestion rather than a blueprint—subtly subverting audience expectations without alienating them entirely
This fall, RuPaul’s Drag Race and Celebrity Big Brother alum Courtney Act will be hosting The Bi Life on E!. This will be the United Kingdom’s first bisexual dating show and the first bisexual-focused reality dating show in over a decade since A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila premiered in 2007.
Following the show’s announcement, Act said “In 2018 we know that sexuality is fluid, and sharing the stories and experiences, the laughter and the lovemaking of young bi people is so important. So get ready to see the true stories of bisexual singles, who are the largest part of the LGBTQ+ community but the least known.”
According to GLAAD, over 9 million people in the United States identified as bisexual in 2014, making up 52 percent of the LGBT population. But while bisexual people make up the majority of the queer population, we are often poorly represented or not represented at all in popular media. These numbers are on the rise as survey respondents get younger and younger. According to a survey by Ditch the Label, 57 percent of respondents ages 13-26 do not identify with traditional norms of heterosexuality and 47 percent identify as sexually fluid or choose to not use labels at all.
At some point, the standards of reality television have to adapt to a changing, more modern audience.
Let’s Get Messy
MTV’s Are You the One (AYTO), is my guilty pleasure of choice. It follows 10 men and 10 women who have been secretly paired up into “perfect matches” and have to correctly identify all of the perfect matches in 10 weeks to win love—and $1 million divided amongst them.
They are also the worst people imaginable: a bunch of hot 20-somethings who self-identify as “bad at relationships”, who are given ten people to hook up with whenever they want, and who have access to unlimited amounts of alcohol.
But for some reason, it works. There’s an element of strategy that isn’t present in most contemporary dating shows which provides a fun twist—even if the competitors are mostly incompetent. It’s even more thrilling when these drunk, horny, bumbling fools actually figure it out, which is surprisingly common. In the last few seasons, producers have chosen to up the playing field to 22 total contestants to lessen the odds. And even then, the contestants usually come out on top.
All of these perfect matches, however, are exclusively heterosexual couples. What would make AYTO not only more challenging, but further disruptive of the formula dating shows before it have followed, would be to make it queer. AYTO is the perfect place to introduce queer people and narratives into mainstream dating shows because its structure already works for queer contestants—and having the strategy element blown completely wide open would just make for good television.
This summer AYTO started casting for its eighth season, and they opened the applicants to all genders and sexualities. While having queer people on AYTO isn’t the be all and end all of queer representation in reality TV, it’s indicative of a larger pattern. As times change and conversations around media representation evolve, we go back to this question of genre and formula. These things are important parts of media, but as an audience we have grown overly attached to them.
By opening up their doors to underrepresented identities, shows like AYTO and The Bi Life are challenging the notions of who is considered desirable and worthy of love in mainstream television. They are also, in a sense, challenging the status quo of reality television that prioritizes the voices of straight, cisgender, and white contestants.
And, if nothing else, queer people should get to be messy and horny on screen, too.