Seventeen years after launching an aggressive charm offensive to convince the American public that romance can be won and lost, “The Bachelor” franchise has finally been forced to acknowledge that love isn’t always as simple as “boy meets girl” or “Cinderella story meets opportunistic producer.” Instead, this season of “Bachelor in Paradise” has made history with Demi, a contestant who found herself torn between the man she was falling for on the show and the woman she had been dating at home. It’s notable and wonderful that “Bachelor in Paradise” didn’t sensationalize Demi’s sexuality (and that it affords her more time and consideration than it did bisexual+ contestant Jaimi King in 2017), but her dilemma’s also an unavoidable aberration from the show’s usual formula. Like it or not, she’s been tasked with the unenviable job of educating the heterosexual masses about what it means to be attracted to more than one gender, of pushing a staid series into acknowledging her and people like her as they are.
Demi’s experience is an undeniably huge moment in the world of network dating shows, which have largely waded in the shallow end of exploring human sexuality. But over on cable, another reality dating show dove right into the deep end by casting not just one queer contestant, but all queer contestants — and the result is a fascinating, messy, and boundary-pushing exploration of the true LGBTQ experience.
For seven seasons, MTV’s “Are You The One?” threw an equal number of heterosexual men and women into a house, tasked them with identifying their “perfect match,” and delighted in the subsequent chaos. But for the eighth season — which premiered in June and wraps up September 9 — the producers decided to veer in a different direction by enlisting 16 contestants who all fall somewhere on the pansexual spectrum, meaning that any of them could be anyone else’s perfect match. It’s a concept as risky as it is intriguing. But with a tag line like “Come One, Come All!” (seriously), it was hard to know before the premiere whether or not MTV was about to treat pansexuality like the slutty joke TV has so often made it out to be. (One that, not for nothing, MTV itself once indulged with the 2007 bisexual dating show “A Shot At Love with Tila Tequila.”)
At first it was clear that some of the Season 8 “Are You the One?” contestants had similar concerns. Then, as they realized that they were surrounded by other people with experiences relevant to their own, their wariness relaxed into palpable relief. In throwing together a group of people who all fall somewhere on the pansexual spectrum, this season ensured that no single person had to represent an entire queer identity like Demi does on “Bachelor in Paradise.” The “Are You the One?” contestants just don’t have to censor or explain their sexuality in the way that queer people often do when in mixed company, and so they quickly open up to each other about the paths they took to get there. They detail the biphobia they experienced from both the world at large and from themselves at their most closeted. They talk about trying to convince themselves that exploring half of their sexualities could be enough, and the transformative power of finally accepting that it isn’t. They flirt, fight, sneak off to “the Boom Boom Room” (yes), and learn more about what they want in the way that every heretofore heterosexual cast has been allowed to do without having to stop every few minutes to justify themselves. For a show belonging squarely to a genre I usually (lovingly) refer to as “mindless trash,” “Are You The One?” has found a way to portray queer experiences for viewers in a way that actually feels authentic.
For all of TV’s progress with LGBTQ representation, the burden of representation for LGBTQ people on television remains tricky to navigate. Most shows featuring LGBTQ characters still err towards having one or two who have to do all the work of educating straight characters. Even shows from queer creators and featuring multiple queer protagonists — like like FX’s landmark drama “Pose” and Netflix’s “Tales of the City” revival — tend to be made with a default straight audience in mind. And thanks to decades of pernicious stereotypes and unceremonious deaths, many are understandably careful to create LGBTQ characters who won’t fall into either category, which sometimes just has the effect of robbing them of any compelling flaws whatsoever.
As a reality show without a script and an all-queer cast who innately understand each other’s experiences, this all-pansexual season of “Are You The One?” has shaken up reality TV’s typical storylines in welcome new ways. The house’s resident playboy, a lothario stereotype typical of most dating show, is a transmasculine nonbinary person who gets so overwhelmed by people being attracted to him post-transition that he keeps forgetting to consider their actual feelings when floating from one to the next. And while conversations about opening oneself up to love are commonplace on “The Bachelor”, they get fascinating new dimensions on “Are You The One?” One shy man talks about hesitating all his life to embrace his queer side for fear of getting hurt; a woman reveals that she’s wary of dating men again thanks to previous traumatic experiences; another admits she’s tried to date more men to please her conservative family before plunging into a tumultuous romance with the woman she had her eye on from the beginning. Not only are these all new experiences for reality TV to explore in general, but they’re also experiences to which queer viewers who have never gotten to see TV reflect their own dating lives can relate.
An entirely queer cast also means that “Are You The One?” gets to dig into the very real and specific prejudices that exist between LGBTQ people, like casual femmephobia and the oblivious cruelty of hyper-masculinity, in a way that very few shows (scripted or otherwise) ever could. It highlights queer people being romantic and frustrated, triumphant and tricky, earnest and heartbroken. They don’t have to worry about making space for confused straight people, and so neither they nor the show itself bother to at all — which feels downright revolutionary in and of itself. For queer people who have had to watch TV fumble LGBTQ representation for so long, watching a show blast past the basics into advanced melodrama territory comes as a surprisingly powerful relief. That it came in the form of a chaotic MTV dating show featuring something as ridiculous(ly entertaining) as “the Boom Boom Room” is just a bonus.