Back in June, the producers of popular dating show Love Island claimed that LGBT+ contestants pose ‘logistical difficulties’ to the structure of the show. Despite being an uncompelling excuse, this does kind of make sense within the show’s current set-up. The show relies very heavily on establishing a strong divide between male and female contestants, utilising heteronormative gender roles to create much of the narrative drive. The binary dichotomy between the contestants is absolutely integral to the functioning of the show. The vast majority of heterosexual dating shows rely on these structures.
But queer people don’t interact socially in the same way cishet people do. Our methods and understanding of sex, dating, and friendship are different, diverse, and fluid. How then could mainstream queer dating shows exist within current reality TV paradigms? We’ve had short-lived attempts, (or spin-offs) but many tend to frame the queer contestants as inherently comedic for their same-sex attraction or gender. If we wanted a show that could accomplish the same light drama and fun filled results for a queer audience, we would need a significant change up to the base structure of such competition shows.
Much fuss is made in these heterosexual shows about building to sexual intimacy. Touching, then chaste kissing, and barely ever sex. Even with the aesthetic ‘raunchiness’ of these shows, the contestants are in reality quite restrained – when contestants like Abbie Chatfield were openly sexual, they were faced with backlash both on the show and from its audience. However, much of Love Island for example, revolves around single gender friendship dynamics. In fact, the majority of show run-time isn’t about dating. It’s about the gendered in-group fighting and discussions. Making friends in these kinds of environments is very much a necessity for the mental health of participants. What would the interaction between friendship and romance look like in the absence of heteronormative relationship dynamics?
Compared to our heterosexual contemporaries, it’s very common to be friends with exes, or date friend’s exes. The notion of ‘guy code’ and ‘girl code’ don’t really work without the extensive dating pool that heterosexuals have. They especially don’t work when you aren’t a man or woman. Paired with a more nuanced and fluid approach to sex, queer contestants would likely be a lot more relaxed and explorative across platonic and sexual intimacy. These are things that I, and many queer people, enjoy about our culture.
The sexually fluid season (featuring all bi/pan contestants) of MTV’s Are you the one? encountered this phenomenon – early in the season, five contestants have sex with each other. This obviously has an effect on the plot lines and couplings, but most of the contestants consider the group sex harmless fun and a maybe a touch dramatic. They’re queer, they’re fun, they use protection and best of all, they’re hot. Of course they’re going to have sex. More queer datings shows would have to address this more exploratory understanding of sex.
Done well, it could be a fantastic display of healthy communication, sexual health and wellness, and a portrayal of the multifaceted nature of queer social dynamics. Unfortunately, this season fails to do that . The producers didn’t move or adjust the structure of the show to reflect queer experiences. The idea that there is a ‘perfect’ two-person, monogamous pairing for each contestant is honestly rather jarring when the contestants seemingly don’t feel the same. As a result, the show’s queer season is rather messy and odd, even though it is fun television.
To say that heterosexual relationships are as culturally ‘sacred’ as they once were would be disingenuous. The last twenty years have proved how little the cultural institution of heterosexual pair bonding really matters. Shows like 90 Day Fiancé or Married at First Sight prove that the claims of sacredness for heterosexual pair bonding (as pushed by conservative political parties and most religious institutions) are false. They are simply relationships — nothing unique or special about them. Heterosexual culture promotes a nuclear family and restrained sexual activity as an ideologically-loaded cultural relic, rather than for its actual merits.
Queer relationships (in all their beautiful forms) have managed to resist most mainstream commercialisation until fairly recently. We had to fight for, and build new socio-cultural structures that recognise us and afford us legal protections. Beyond that, the structure of and precedent for our relationships is still being determined. This raises the question: what do we want for our relationships? Maybe we don’t want to follow in the path of the heterosexuals. Maybe dating shows that would actually reflect our community won’t be able to manifest until broad culture changes. Or maybe we can’t have ‘accurate’ queer dating shows due to the broadness, depth and difference in each queer relationship.
At their best, reality dating TV is fun and superfluous. It is titillating and filled with drama, without being worrying or pornographic. I personally would love a queer dating show that reflects my community, and offers the same casual popcorn-flick vibes that the heterosexual community enjoys. And perhaps, like what Rupaul’s Drag Race did to America’s Next Top Model, the queer re-interpretation of reality TV will become more successful, more popular, and more cultural relevant. We can only hope.