HOmophobes have been struggling lately, with Lil Nas X Montero’s queer anthem being at No.1 for four weeks despite a backlash from Tory critics, and Love Island producers have said they are actively encouraging LGBTQ + singletons to apply via Tinder.
This step would not provide the show with its first gay matings – bisexual women have already teamed up in the UK and Australian editions – but it would be the first time the show has intentionally included LGBTQ + people. It’s hard to say if this is another cynical twist in the widespread practice of queerbaiting (a marketing technique in which the creators allude, but don’t actually portray, romance or queer representation). Either way, it’s a sharp turnaround from the 2017 comments from ITV TV director Kevin Lygo. At the Edinburgh TV Festival, when talks turned to proactively including LGBT + contestants on dating shows, Lygo dismissed the suggestion, saying the format did not allow it. He added that “there are enough homosexuals on television”. In fact, according to Glaad in the United States, LGBTQ + representation on television fell for the first time. It is missing from TV in general, and reality TV and reality TV dating shows in particular.
The reality TV boom of the early 2000s prioritized insolence, which worryingly meant that TV shows were more than happy to feature queer contestants, but only to use their identity as a punchline. In Boy Meets Boy in 2003, a gay leader had to choose a partner from among 15 potential male suitors, the “turning point” being that gay and straight men were in the queue. A year later, There’s Something About Miriam tasked the men with winning Miriam Rivera’s heart and a cash prize, with the series built around the revelation that she was transgender. That same year, Playing It Straight asked its lead actress to guess which of its suitors on a Nevada ranch were gay in order to win a cash prize. A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila didn’t feature such blatantly problematic plot points, but nonetheless presented bisexuality as being both confusion and greed.
Progress has undoubtedly been made since then. We see heartwarming dates between same-sex couples on shows like Dating Around, First Dates, The Cabins, and Dinner Date. But those one-off episodes don’t compare to the season-long coverage and visibility of a show like Love Island. ITV recently reiterated that the lack of gay candidates to date was a “logistical” issue. Former contestant Megan Barton Hanson, who is bisexual, also wondered how this would work in practice. “I don’t know how it would work if they just threw in a few token homosexuals,” she told a recent lecture at the Cambridge Union Debating Society. “I feel like we need a whole gay series. If you’re going to do it, do it right. I mean, I would definitely go back if there was a gay season.
While I would generally fear that a standalone series could lead to “the other,” a gay series might be a brilliant option, if the eighth season of MTV’s hit dating series Are You The One? is something to go through. As a connoisseur of the genre, I will say that this was unequivocally one of the greatest dating series ever produced. Ordinarily, the franchise sees 10 women and 10 men who “suck relationships” (their words, every season) tasked with finding their perfect match in the house, chosen by a team of experts. Each week they have the chance to get the right combination of couples and a $ 1 million cash prize. In 2019, however, the cast consisted of 16 sexually fluid contestants whose perfect match could be anyone. The result was total carnage. There was a first series at five, and it later turned out that half of the dates didn’t air due to time constraints.
For once, pansexuality and bisexuality weren’t portrayed as purely libidinous identities. However, the visibility of their romantic relationships seemed important, far from the sterilized, sanitized and desexualized representations often seen elsewhere. Catch a show like Towie; for a long time, characters like Bobby Norris, Harry Derbidge and Vas Morgan were actual iterations of Sex and the City’s Stanford, gay best friend characters, whose contribution was limited to simple lines and fashion advice, and who spent most of their time discussing the relationships of others and not their own. That has since changed, with Harry and Bobby’s relationship in 2013 remaining a central plot to this day and the connection (and now the split) of Demi Sims and Francesca Farago being at the center.
ITV could learn a lot from MTV, who presented Are You the One? without apologies or explanation, plunging viewers into the depths of a world rarely represented. We’ve seen Basit, a non-binary drag performer, be continually snubbed by their “perfect match” Jonathan because of their gender presentation; we have seen Max struggle with internalized homophobia. “It’s not PeeWee’s Playhouse, it’s not PBS,” MTV senior vice president of programming Sitarah Pendelton told TheWrap. “We weren’t trying to have an educational show.” Really, it was accidentally illuminating, like the best reality show, getting surprisingly deep for a show with the tagline, “Come one, come all.”
While it might have been the best, it’s not the only one. In 2018, The Bi Life of E! was hosted by Drag Race and Celebrity Big Brother alum Shane Jenek AKA Courtney Act, and was well received. Two years earlier, it was Finding Prince Charming, a celibate-style show where suitors vied for the heart of a homosexual; and in 2019, almost 18 years after its inception, The Bachelor franchise had its first homosexual romance, between Demi Burnett and Kristian Haggerty, on Bachelor in Paradise. Love Island can choose to lead the way on UK TV or hop on board later when everyone gets the hang of it. Anyway, to borrow a slogan: the future of reality TV is bright, the future of reality TV is in the colors of the rainbow.