MTV's 'Are You the One' shows that dating is more fun when it's non-binary
It’s a typical day at the Hotel Playa Escondida just outside of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and Demi Burnett is in tears. The bubbly blonde interior designer is sitting by the beach with her friend and fellow Bachelor in Paradise Season 6 contestant Katie Morton, revealing for the first time on the show that back home in Dallas, she’s been in a relationship with a woman. Burnett is not the first person on the franchise to be out as bisexual—that would be The Bachelor Season 16’s Jamie King, who was not embraced for her sexual fluidity—she’s the second. This time, instead of alienating her, Bachelor Nation is celebrating Burnett’s public coming out. They even invited the woman she’s been seeing, Kristian Haggerty, to Paradise. Haggerty is the only non-Bachelor franchise contestant who’s not a family member to appear on the show, and she and Burnett are the first same-sex relationship on the American iteration of Bachelor. Because the show is split by gender, to make this work, the very kind and understanding host, Chris Harrison, let Burnett hand out a rose with the boys at the end of Week 3: Part 2.
Quick location switch. Now we’re in Kona, Hawaii, at a house filled with sixteen single queer twenty-somethings. There’s Justin Palm, the faux-hawked California hottie with tattoos and pretty eyes, and the man who can’t get over him— the very attached Ohioan, Max Gentile. There’s Kai Wes, the promiscuous, transmasculine nonbinary platinum blonde who has everyone starry-eyed. And Jonathan Monroe, a Floridian with a huge mane of curly hair that instantly caught the eye of Basit Shittu, a glamorous human from Brooklyn who says their preferred pronoun is Basit. Then there’s Nour Fraij, a divorced Muslim woman from New Jersey who has a habit of popping off, most memorably at Mississippi native Jasmine Olson, because they’d both hooked up with Kai. I especially root for Jenna Brown, a sensitive, level-headed but fun-loving brunette, and Remy Duran, a cutie from New York’s queer scene who calls himself a “hook-up king,” and who fell hard for Paige Cole, a lanky, pixie-haired babe from Texas who used the first episode to come out to the world. This is Are You The One Season 8, the hottest dating show of the summer, and probably of all time.
The premise of AYTO, a kind of hybrid of Real World and the network’s quirky ‘00s dating game shows like NEXT, Room Raiders, and Date My Mom, is that everyone in the house has a perfect match. The goal is to find them. For a prize of one million dollars! After the contestants take an IQ test, meet with a psychologist, are interviewed multiple times, and have their friends and family consulted, professional matchmakers do some love math to pair everyone up. The contestants try to figure out who their match is by going on dates, pairing off for games (such as an obstacle course of relationship issues), and being chosen for the Truth Booth. Usually, someone among them has a head for numbers, to help with strategy. Sometimes a therapist (this season, the lesbian relationship expert Dr. Frankie Bashan) drops by the house to give them pointers, and talk them through whatever emotional implosions may have happened.
At the end of each episode, there’s a ceremony in which the contestants are subjected to some serious suspense, waiting for a row of light beams to tell them if they’ve chosen the right matches. In last week’s especially tense episode, Max and Justin were confirmed Not A Match—a devastating reveal for the former, as they coupled up in an early episode. During the light ceremony, the group finally managed to get six beams, two short of success. Tonight, in the season finale, we find out if the sixteen contestants will deduce the remaining Perfect Matches.
It’s very convoluted, and often really silly, which is apt, because so is dating. That’s what makes this show so enjoyable, how it doesn’t take itself too seriously, except when it does. How it’s very tongue-in-cheek but at the same time very earnest. How it riffs on the concept of playing games in romance, and takes the idea of the “match” from apps like OKCupid and eHarmony to such an extreme it almost reads as critique. What even is a perfect match anyway? Attraction and compatibility aren’t the same; someone who is perfect for you on paper might totally turn you off IRL. The contestants make connections with each other this way and that, often falling for someone who’s not their match, giving the show a hint of polyamory (there’s only one big bed in the house). It’s telling that out of the past seven seasons, only one Perfect Match has lasted. Love is chaos.
It’s very convoluted, and often really silly, which is apt, because so is dating.
Are You The One stands out from the group dating show crowd, popularized first by Bachelor Pad, a series that premiered in 2010 and acted as a “second chance at love” for ex-Bachelor contestants. That series was replaced in 2014 with Bachelor in Paradise, a show that doesn’t include challenges or games and is basically just a bunch of hot people hanging out and making out on the beach. A whole crop of these beach-set dating shows have popped up just this year, including USA’s Temptation Island, FOX’s Paradise Hotel, and, of course, CBS’ American take on the popular British show Love Island, which featured its first openly bisexual contestant this year.
MTV has been historically progressive with its programming, but this is the first time in eight seasons of AYTO, which MTV premiered in 2014, an all sexually fluid cast is featured. And thank god for it. The contrast between AYTO Season 8 and the rest of dating television is stark. MTV had the exact right idea: as opposed to trickling queerness in at a snail’s pace, so as not to offend anyone’s sensitive hetero sensibilities, they went for it full throttle. In the ocean of dating shows, the queerness of AYTO Season 8 is like, the best island ever. This is Paradise!
It really does sound idyllic, a house full of queer people by the sea, looking for love together. Especially when there are extremely glittery and steamy dance parties and a Boom Boom Room (the only private space, for, y’know) that’s simply begging for group sex (see Episode 5). Next to AYTO S8, Demi Burnett’s bisexual plot thread looks drab. Don’t get me wrong, any step in the right direction is a good step, and I’m so proud of Bachelor Nation for their willingness to get with the times. But there’s definitely room for improvement on this front. As Ali Barthwell wrote in her recap of BIP Episode 5, “Imagine what a show with the resources and reach of Bachelor in Paradise or The Bachelor(ette) could do for LGBT representation...Bachelor in Paradise could have taken a stand and included same-sex romantic options from the beginning of the season, or at least portrayed Demi’s journey without playing into tragic queer tropes.”
Maybe some people live in heterosexual vacuums but most certainly do not. More than ever, queerness is the mainstream. Our young stars like Billie Eilish, Clairo, and Lil Nas X come out nonchalantly, with a tweet or side note. Are You The One Season 8 is what sex and romance looks like in 2019. Why split things along the binary?—all the options are way more fun than only some. Plus, it means double the drama.