This July, I went to a two-week writing retreat and asked Gabby to change all my passwords on social media. I was nervous about reentering my normal life, let alone the Internet, but decided it would be best to just dive back in. So, as soon as I got home, I headed to the queer nude beach to meet up with my usual clique of lesbians and enbies, including my younger sibling, Ezra. I logged back into everything as their conversation rolled over me; all anyone could talk about, on Twitter and in person, was a reality dating show called Are You The One? “I’ve seen every season,” Ezra said, talking quickly. “But this one is different. It’s GAY.”
Gabby admitted that while I’d been away, our group of friends had formed a routine of coming together on Ezra and Alexis’s square red couch and watching the latest episode. They were about four episodes in, so I’d need to catch up. In the privacy of our bedroom, we watched the premiere. Sixteen glossy twenty-somethings grinded and twirled to pop music spliced with talking heads that vaguely reference their affinity for being “different” or “honest.” Then, the twist: Kari, a cis woman who could easily pass for a Lady Gaga impersonator, tells the camera, “I’m bisexual, and I fucking love it.”
Here’s how the show works: sixteen “sexually fluid singles” live together in a house in Hawaii, fucking and fighting their way to figure out who in the house is their “perfect match,” a predetermined partner who is selected based on personality tests and interviews with various loved ones. There are challenges and ceremonies to track the group’s progress, but the point is to get everyone with their perfect match by the end of the show and win the one million dollar prize. Some contestants don’t care about the money as much as “connecting,” and will go out of their way to pursue people who are probably or certainly not their perfect match because they’ve fallen in lust/love. When this happens, a majority of the group will turn on the outliers, because they’re preventing them from winning the million. Ezra calls these contestants “money-firsts.”
In general, reality TV works on me; I track Vanderpump Rules’s Stassi Schroeder and her many grievances like they were sports statistics. It’s pure pleasure to watch and judge heterosexuality play out in increasingly toxic forms— women sleep with their best friend’s boyfriends and there’s a near constant panic that one or more of the men impregnated someone in Vegas— but Vanderpump Rules never claims to mean something. It’s a collection of the scariest mactors on Earth orbiting an upscale L.A. restaurant. We are not asked to learn or reflect, just laugh.
But any given news story on Are You the One?’s eighth season argues that, in this rare and exciting case, that reality TV has a hand in the #resistance. Slate called the new season “revolutionary” in a feature that goes on to say, “If viewers can watch bi people struggling with their worst impulses and judge them the same way they’d judge straight reality stars, maybe that’s progress after all.” Flare said, “Even if people are tuning in for the voyeurism and to watch people make out... at least they’re expanding their minds while doing so.” Then the Daily Beast: “It is a sexually fluid dating series that is as sad and trashy as the one straight ones get. That, folks, is what you call progress.”
All of these pieces acknowledge that Are You The One? is not a “responsible” representation of the LGBTQ community, yet they insist on assessing the political merit of the show. I don’t know about other queers, but my friends and I are not watching Are You The One? to feel seen. The premise is inherently heteronormative: contestants can only have one perfect match, and psychologists decide for you who your perfect match is. If anything, the process echoes conversion therapy more than authentic queer dating. Anyone trying to spin Are You The One? as progressive, including the show’s producers, caters to the assimilationist impulse. I repeat: Are You The One? is not “necessary.”
However, even if it won’t liberate us, this season is undeniably a gift to its hundreds of thousands of queer viewers. Why? Because it’s fun. A queer reality dating show is a microcosm within a microcosm. The entire show functions as an inside joke, a parody of very real dynamics in our community that are at best absurd and at worst oppressive, but it is also a parody of queer assimilation. Within the first five minutes of the show, we meet Kai, a non-binary transmasc and the only medically transitioned contestant, with his shirt unbuttoned to properly display his top surgery scars. The screen flashes a picture of Kai pre-transition as he identifies himself as “biologically female.” Later, he asks his cis femme then-girlfriend, Jenna, to help him with his testosterone shot. Unsurprisingly, Kai quickly proves to be the most chaotic, attention-hungry member of the house. Whenever Kai comes onscreen, I shout over him so I don’t have to hear him speak, but I’m always eager for Kai to get back on camera, to insert himself further into the house’s drama. Kai is what cis people think trans men are; he is my greatest fear for myself, and I cannot look away.
Are You The One? is at its best in its first episodes, when the contestants are less pressured to conform to the rules of the game. For instance, when the group is tasked with popping as many balloons as they can in five minutes for one of the show’s “challenges,” Max and Justin, two large cardboard cutouts in matching tank tops and puka shell necklaces, hug the balloons between each of their chests, bragging that they just used the parts of their bodies with the most “surface area” (Justin and Max lost the challenge). Kai, citing his newfound horniness and the well-documented broadening of sexuality that can happen at the start of hormone therapy, sleeps with Jenna (cis-femme then-girlfriend, brooding/jealous) and Remy (charming Internet slut) within an hour of each other, and then, a week or so later, participates in a fivesome. Amber (cute cheater-phobic normie) gestures at real feeling when she refrains from kissing Paige (androgynous baby gay) out of loyalty to her new Uhaulationship with Nour (wide-awake nightmare), only to learn Nour was, at that very moment, hooking up with Kylie (genuinely likable, true neutral).
With just two episodes left and only one perfect match in the honeymoon suite, fans are speculating that this may be the first season in Are You The One? history that won’t end in victory. It is true that, since every contestant is a potential match for each other, this year’s game is exponentially harder than the previous, exclusively heterosexual ones. But there’s something fitting about this particular group’s inability to properly adhere to the rules of the contest. Nothing on this show is progressive, but I’d still enjoy a stronger gesture towards it— an image of the contestants standing at the final matching ceremony, paired with the people they’ve been told for months are wrong for them, forming triads, declaring themselves solo poly, then proudly refusing the prize money. But MTV’s not ready to parody real queer relationship structures, so we’ll all just have to keep enduring the forced union of Basit (enby who has gone to therapy and deserves better) and Jonathan (whitedread-adjacent bottom who’s a banker, I guess??) until the bitter end.