Come One, Come All. It's sixteen hot single queers in a mansion with unlimited alcohol and the possibility of winning a million dollars. It's trans folks, femmes, butches and bi babes breaking up, making up, getting drunk and having emotional hot tub D&Ms. Uh, can I sign up for the next season, please?
The first time I saw a bisexual woman on television, it was Tila Tequila. Her infamous reality dating show – A Double Shot at Love with Tila Tequila – was one of the earliest reality dating shows featuring a queer 'bachelor' at its centre. The show saw 16 lesbians and 16 straight men in a mansion sparring for Tila's love. Both groups aren't initially aware of one another, until Tila brings them together to explosively reveal her bisexuality; declaring the show a battle of the sexes.
Despite featuring a bi main character, the show came at a time of questionable queer representation in reality dating shows. Lifetime's Gay, Straight or Taken?, Bravo's Boy Meets Boy and Fox's Playing It Straight all featured queer characters, but they all had the similarity of a twist involving heteros pretending to be homos or visa versa, for the chance at winning money. These shows painted queerness as a 'bit'; a juicy secret, and they did little to legitimise that queer relationships deserve just as much respect as straight ones.
Watching this as a young femme confused about my sexuality, I was taught to see queerness bisexuality as unsustainable; a joke; something that's simply performative.
The reality dating genre is a monolith. A gigantic cultural phenomenon and an extremely profitable industry, it covers countless TV titles across the globe. It's an overwhelmingly heterosexual genre, specifically relying on palatable 'boy-meets-girl' Cinderella stories that reflect and promote heteronormative ideologies.
It's no secret that reality TV shows aren't always entirely 'real', but they do often reflect society's values and norms, or attempt to create new discourse. So when Are You The One announced its 'Come One, Come All' season, featuring all 'sexually fluid' contestants, it showed that the relationships of bi+ folks are also 'real' enough to be shown on TV. It honestly changed the game.
Prior to this, the few examples of LGBTIQA+ representation in this genre have been largely dismal, and at times, straight-up offensive. Many centred around trickery or deceit, using the queer contestants' gender or sexuality as a saucy plot device. Some offered people huge sums of prize money if they successfully pretended to be gay or pretended to be straight.
In contrast, Are You The One comes along with a genuinely queer cast; showcasing a plethora of gender identities and expressions. There are transfemme and transmasc folks, high femme queers and even cis bisexual 'bros'; all of whom we very rarely get to see on screen.
The excellence of Are You The One goes beyond just showcasing folks attracted to more than one gender. The show explores, in a tender way, the complex intersections of gender identity, sexuality, monogamy, jealousy, internalised homophobia, and the very idea of community itself. Many of the conversations that happen between contestants mirror those I have around the dinner table with my pals three glasses of wine in: coming out stories, navigating jealousy, how shame impacts our lives and how we can navigate tricky queer relationships with ourselves and others. (Plus, at least three quarters of the cast remind me of someone I've slept with.)
The show includes trans and non-binary folks, which is still a huge deal in any genre, let alone reality TV. Early in the season, we see Kai – a trans masc non-binary contestent – inject themselves with testosterone while explaining the process to their new love interest, Jenna. Watching this hit me straight in the trans feels; I'd never seen a person using T on television, let alone a reality show. They walk around topless and I realise I've also never seen top surgery scars on TV. I felt like melting into a puddle of pure queer emotion, seeing someone who looks so much like the folks in my community.
Kai's story arc is turbulent, eventually leading to a house intervention about his manipulative behaviour. But instead of turning him into the house nemesis, the group comes together and has an assertive but empathetic chat to him about his behaviour. This process is pretty different to what reality dating shows usually do with 'problematic' cast members; instead focusing on understanding that we all have baggage and can cause harm, but ultimately deserve to be given the chance to change.
The relationships on the show aren't always smooth sailing; to be honest they're fucking chaotic and at times even toxic. Communication, consent and boundaries are discussed at length, and some of the narratives are hard to watch. And so they should be. To try and portray queer relationships in the polished and dazzling hetero way that The Bachelor portrays romance would be unreasonable and dishonest; glossing over the fact that queer people are three-dimensional and can have complex identities and complex relationships. Good representation doesn't mean portraying perfect queer love stories. It means showing them realistically.
The show is far from perfect, but is a huge step in the right direction of showcasing the complex and incredible relationship structures possible within the queer community. It doesn't spend a whole episode saying "yes, bisexuality is real" it goes straight to showing hot queers grinding on each other, fighting for a million dollars and living their extremely sexy lives.
It's an iconic representation of my chaotic community, with the perfect side helping of drama. And a bit more drama to boot.
Catch every episode of Are You The One? Come One Come All right here.
Written by Dani Leever, a writer and homosexual pop culture enthusiast. Find their words at @danileever or catch their gay DJ drag adventures at @djgaydad.
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