Lip service isn’t enough: How reality dating shows do (or should) represent LGBTQ+ relationships

Illustration of couples from the Bachelorette and Are You the One
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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This summer, a large portion of reality TV fandom was captivated by one couple: Demi Burnett and Kristian Haggerty. The former is a fan favorite “The Bachelor” contestant, an obvious pick for the sixth season of spin-off series “Bachelor in Paradise.” The latter is a woman Demi had been seeing before “Bachelor in Paradise,” who was brought into the show after Demi told other castmates that she was bisexual and still had feelings for Kristian. Despite the format’s heteronormative structure, Demi and Kristian continued to date on the show and ultimately got engaged on national television.

So, one small step for a queer couple, one giant leap for the queer community, right? I’m not convinced. Reality TV is such an influential part of today’s media landscape. It isn’t enough to simply pay lip service to LGBTQ+ issues anymore, which it appears “Bachelor in Paradise” has done with Demi and Kristian. The show also has a history of playing on tired queer stereotypes, specifically in its third season with sexually fluid contestant Jaimi King.

So what can reality shows do to better represent the queer community?

Reality TV is such an influential part of today’s media landscape. It isn’t enough to simply pay lip service to LGBTQ+ issues anymore.

Enter into the ring season eight of “Are You the One?” Like “The Bachelor” franchise, this MTV show started out as a space for heterosexual relationships. Ten men and 10 women live in a house together for 10 weeks, dating around and trying to find their “perfect match,” which has been decided before the show’s start by relationship experts. If the contestants can figure out all 10 perfect matches, they leave with a cash prize of up to a million dollars.

This summer, though, “Are You the One?” flipped its script. Subtitled “Come One, Come All,” season eight replaced the normal 20 heterosexual, cisgender contestants with 16 sexually fluid cast members.

By creating an all queer cast, “Are You the One?” made season eight more challenging yet more socially significant. With 15 potential matches instead of 10, there is a higher chance of losing the game, as well as more people to get to know. In this mass exploration of personalities, the bread and butter of reality TV dating emerges frequently: jealousy over a late-night hookup, drama over a housemate’s body count and tension between fighting one second and making out the next. 

By creating an all queer cast, “Are You the One?” made season eight more challenging yet more socially significant.

But other conversations dug deeper than most of what I’ve seen on any reality TV show: Kai Wes asks potential match Jenna Brown for support as he administers his testosterone shot; Basit Shittu bonds with Jonathan Monroe over acceptance in the queer community as they prepare for a “queer prom” with makeup, costumes and lots of glitter; Max Gentile opens up to love interest Justin Palm about exploring a same-sex relationship for the first time, while Justin opens up to Max about abandonment issues from his past.

Are there important conversations about sexuality that came from Demi and Kristian’s appearance on “Bachelor in Paradise?” Absolutely. Do these moments compare to the representation “Are You the One?” provides for members of the LGBTQ+ community who are pansexual, genderfluid, transgender and the like? Absolutely not.

Granted, the fact that queer representation is increasing on any platform is not completely disassociated from marketing and economics. Executive producer Sitarah Pendelton acknowledges that “Are You the One?” wanted season eight to better reflect how younger generations experience dating and to create a more inclusive content that would encourage their viewership. I personally don’t believe that this amounts to using LGBTQ+ issues as simply a way to increase profits, as there would be many more remnants of previous seasons’ heteronormative structure if it were. 

“Bachelor in Paradise” may be a different story. While this is my own personal speculation, it is possible that the franchise is trying to maintain the loyalty of viewers who don’t fully understand the dynamics of LGBTQ+ representation and the viewers calling for more inclusion. This tightrope may be hard to walk for such a large and established platform, but honestly, there shouldn’t be this kind of tightrope at all.

Neither of these shows are a perfect model for how to approach LGBTQ+ representation in popular media. But I applaud the way in which “Are You the One?” broke barriers this summer. A sexually fluid cast with diverse ethnic backgrounds, differing beliefs on monogamy versus polyamory and various life experiences as part of the queer community pave a better path for addressing LGBTQ+ issues than “The Bachelor” franchises recent approach. “Bachelor in Paradise” is the American dream’s version of romance and self-discovery, sprinkling in LGBTQ+ narratives through contestants like Demi and Kristian when convenient. “Are You the One?” stands for more than that. It stands for struggle, self-acceptance, sexual exploration, and most importantly, as Jenna Brown whispered during the final episode of “Are You the One?” season eight, “For the queers.” 

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Contact Erin Haar at [email protected].