Are you my perfect match?
Reality TV as a stage for queer identity in MTV’s Are You the One?
By definition, queer can never be mainstream. Queer functions in a distinctly disruptive and oppositional way, disavowing heteronormative binaries of gender and sexuality for more fluid and transgressive understandings of identity. [open endnotes in new window] Queer culture and the reality dating show therefore seem hade to combine in a perfect match. Compromise, lauded when discussing personal relationships, seems impossible to achieve if we are looking for a combination of television, a mainstream medium rooted in capitalist, heteronormative expressions of power, and queerness, which defines itself against these same norms.
Unsurprisingly, reality TV neglects queer identities in its most notable dating programmes. Schedule staples such Love Island (2015-) and The Bachelor (2002-) are built on the strict categorisation of heterosexual men and women as they compete to form a winning couple. With contestants propelled by alluring financial incentives, these dating shows reaffirm normative identity categories in their portrayal of ‘true love’. But beyond a lack of queer representation, reality TV’s normativity is problematically tied to its ‘low brow’ status. Regularly attracting mass audiences, reality programming gets dismissed as commercial, derivative and commonplace, lacking artistic innovation that might challenge social and cultural norms.
We can’t dispute, however, that queer viewers of reality TV have existed and do exist. Narrow-minded assumptions of TV’s absolute, innate heteronormativity risk the erasure of queer viewers. Likewise, definitions of queerness as a quintessentially resistant “token of non-assimilation” erect unworkable conceptual boundaries. Preoccupations with simplistic dichotomies between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘queer’ and the ‘heterosexual’, or the ‘oppositional’ and the ‘mainstream’ are often found in queer theory. But, as Nikki Sullivan maintains, these concepts are also built on strict categorisations that contradict the fluidity and transformability celebrated within lived queer identity.
Other queer scholars have responded by critiquing common notions of television’s inherent normativity, instead repositioning the medium as one available for queer aesthetics and experiences. Nevertheless, their critical interventions do not usually take up reality TV. For example, Michael Lovelock usefully analyses how values of authenticity and celebrity have shaped our understanding of queer people. Nonetheless, he discusses reality TV predominantly as a genre that can express queer identity, rather than seek queerness within reality TV’s mode of representation. My analysis of Are You the One (2014 to present; abbreviated here as AYTO) addresses this lacuna.
I focus on AYTO’s eighth season, which reinvigorates its formula with a cast that is entirely sexually and/or gender fluid. All contestants must find their ‘perfect match’, predetermined by the show’s ‘scientific’ algorithm, to win a share of one million dollars. The first section of my essay assesses the programme’s titular fixation with ‘the one’. I discuss how its reliance on an opaque matching algorithm remains unchanged from the one used for a heteronormative audience and thus contradicts the fluid identities represented.
I then unearth some disruptions at the heart of AYTO’s style of documentary. Just as it prioritises genuine romantic connections formed through its ‘perfect match’, it simultaneously presents these relationships with a heavy reliance on staging, performance and narrativization. The construct of the courtship dating show is to set up contrasts. That is, it has rigid content that is often met with, and challenged by, rampant ambiguities, often leading viewers to question what is ‘authentic’ and what is ‘performed’. I argue such a construct undermines the show’s own normativity and is fundamentally queer. AYTO provides a context to unpick this underlying queerness, since the frictions its queer subjects provoke do not get diminished, but rather mirrored, facilitated and heightened by the show’s performance of reality.
The ‘perfect match’ and queer identity
Set in a specially constructed villa in Hawaii, AYTO presents itself as a haven where, distant from the heteronormative ‘real world’, reality TV’s queer contestants can finally be themselves. To reinforce its compatibility algorithm, the show’s host, Terrance J, assures audiences that each contestant has undergone thorough background and psychological testing, which considers their upbringing, interests, dislikes and emotional sensibilities. This pre-show preparation includes investigative interviews with the contestants’ friends, family members and ex-partners, compiled to create a well-rounded portrait of each individual’s character. In the opening episode, encouraged by Terrance to “be yourself” and “make meaningful connections”, the singletons of AYTO are urged to learn about the intricacies of each other’s, and their own, identities to ensure that all the calculated partners are successfully understood.
Visible tensions between AYTO’s queer contestants and the strict ‘perfect match’ premise they must adhere to emerge in the second episode. Noor and Justin, following a successful date, are early to confess a mutual attraction and, after a vote, are sent to the ‘truth booth’ to confirm their compatibility. Disheartened, both discover they are a ‘no match’. Noor says she has another romantic interest, Amber . Choosing not to say this before, Noor admits to “playing it safe”—craving the familiarity of previous heterosexual relationships. Justin hits back, “If you’re not staying true to who you really are then you’re wasting everybody’s time”.
|A spark ignites between Noor and Justin as they discuss their dating history.||Noor and Amber talk about the truth booth revelation and how that impacts the future of their relationship.|
Regardless of staying ‘true’ oneself or not, it is curious that if Justin and Noor had been revealed to be a perfect match, this confessed attraction would not have mattered. Or, after uncovering her "no match" with Justin, Noor might have realised she must not have lived up to her “authentic self” and looked to Amber as a solution. Most importantly, the show entrenches the authority of it matching algorithm in validating ‘correct’ queer relationships. It does so by drawing on the (seemingly shallow) ingrained belief that uncovering these partners then necessitates their commitment to discovering their most authentic self. In doing so, AYTO naively suggests that its dating algorithm should and will reveal accurately something as subjective and fluid as sexual identity, as well as answer the questions we might ask ourselves about it (such as, ‘Do I prefer women to men and what does that say about me?’).
AYTO prioritises the self-revelation gained from the discovery of one’s fixed match, and the necessity of staying ‘true’ to oneself to find it. The device of the match and how it functions in the show is emblematic of what Michael Lovelock describes as reality TV’s investment in ‘compulsory authenticity’. This notion presumes that each individual has “an innate and essential ‘true’ self”, which it is their duty to “discover, manifest and be faithful to.” Lovelock further argues this central narrative on reality TV has allowed certain representations of queer-identifying people to be relatively normalised. The perception that LGBT+ people are born with their sexuality, or born in the wrong body, for instance, speaks to a ‘core self’ that a queer person must discover by breaking heteronormative convention and then embrace through self-acceptance. And the attention given to ‘coming out’ in popular culture, that is, the moment when queer people profess their non-conforming status to the world, is likewise mimicked by reality television’s obsession with embodying one’s ‘real’ self through acts of confession and disclosure.
However, those who embody queer forms of personhood, challenging popular understandings of sex and gender beyond its fundamental binaries, will inevitably conflict with reality TV’s overriding investment in abiding, essential selves. In this show, these collisions are most striking as an infatuation develops between contestants, Kai and Jenna. Recently transitioned, Kai expresses his newfound self-confidence to explore his sexuality more freely and professes a preference for open relationships. Jenna, on the other hand, strictly states her preference for monogamous relationships. Directly transgressing the show’s instruction, both are declared a ‘no match’ yet continue to pursue their fragmentary and tempestuous attraction.
Their disobedience causes tensions within the group that are neutralised during group sessions with the shows’ therapist, ‘Dr Frankie’. She questions Kai’s polygamous lifestyle and advises Jenna against pursuing toxic infatuations and longing for those not meant for her. Kai is chastised for continually resorting to casual sex and accused of not “trying hard enough” to find their perfect match. Dr Frankie pressures both to move on. The show’s successful realignment of its rebellious contestants detracts from laying blame on AYTO’s monogamous premise requiring its queer contestants to restrict their options to ‘the one’. The show places blame on the contestants; by desiring someone the algorithm deemed wrong for them, Kai and Jenna’s commitment to their most authentic selves is questioned.
|Group discussions are essential in AYTO. Contestants disclose details about past abuse, previous relationships, and how they have come to accept their queer identities.||Dr Frankie often leads these group discussions as therapy sessions. With the reassurance of Dr Frankie’s homosexuality, these sessions are set up as a safe and accepting place; however, her interventions also reinforce the show’s perfect match.|
Dr Frankie’s ‘therapy sessions’ bring to light the problems inherent in instructing queer people whom they should be with and then blaming them when they choose wrongly according to the show’s own fixed logic. This logic is not only historically damaging, it also harbours assimilative discourses. As Jeffrey Bennet argues, LGBTQI+ identities are generally recast as “ontologically secured” on reality TV, that is, “queer practices are hegemonically appropriated to comfort audiences.” Similarly, AYTO ensures that individuals with disruptive sexuality and/or gender identities get pushed into subservience—subservience that must satisfy normative perceptions of queer relationships in keeping with monogamous ideals and a relative repression of sexual experimentation.
In terms of narrative development, AYTO’s presentation of these relationships and the revelations they inspire are substantially more complex than the tight regulation of its ‘perfect match’. Evolving romances are conveyed to us through a combination of observational and testimonial styles that confer a sense of process and naïve ‘truth.’ This happens alongside significant intervention by programme makers with their continual reliance on staging and heavy narrativization. The participants’ unambiguous performative disclosures consistently work towards revealing core truths (who is my perfect match?) and simultaneously revealing ‘self’ (who is right for me? And critically, who am I?). But at the same time AYTO embraces artifice when staging the development of supposedly ‘real’ romantic relationships.
The core setup of most reality dating shows, after all, is fundamentally paradoxical: the shows propose that ‘true love’ between real people can and will be found in entirely unreal situations. With the show often taking place in a specially constructed house or wilderness, individuals are transported to an entirely unfamiliar environment over which they have little control. This is reflective of AYTO’s holiday villa in Hawaii, and Love Island’s Majorcan villa, The Bachelor’s ‘Villa De La Vina’ and Paradise Hotel’s (2003-2019) ‘Rancho de Costa’ in Mexico. Such settings are manufactured with the specific intention of encouraging romantic interactions, often including shared bedrooms and private dating locations which are contrasted to communal and ceremonial spaces. A television host frequently oversees these staged environments, serving enthusiastically to reinforce the value of the show’s premise, host dramatic result nights, and actively direct the contestants in their pursuit of love.
|(Clockwise from top left) AYTO’s Hawaiian villa, the Majorcan villa in Love Island, The Bachelor’s Villa De La Vina’ and the ‘Rancho de Costa’ in Paradise Hotel are specially constructed holiday locations that pull their contestants into escapist luxury worlds.|
As Christopher Grobe outlines, reality TV’s openness when confronting viewers with its own conceits suggests that its many confessions are “both theatrical posturing and authentic behaviour, laboured performance and effortless being, styled rhetoric and artless talk”. Performance takes place on a spectrum—at one end the spontaneous and impulsive behaviour of individuals observed by a hidden camera, and on the other, individuals consciously exhibiting and enacting roles for the camera that are distinct from their real identities.
Without disputing the reality of their (often) heteronormative values, I argue the reality dating shows harbour a subversive form of documentary—with a fluidity in their construction of relationships—that lets viewers see discontinuities which run rampant within queer contexts. Queer identity possesses a disorganisation and disaggregation that disrupts the regulation of heterosexual coherence: sexuality and gender may not directly follow from sex, or rigidly reflect one another, but rather are free-floating and transgressive of boundaries. The oscillations between authenticity and performance—essential to how reality dating shows understand people’s identities, their sexualities and attractions to each other—echoes this disturbance essential to queerness.