The summer months are a low time for popular culture. From June to September, we’re left with little to work with beyond the occasional superhero movie sequel, Top 40 remix or makeup collection — nothing to write home about, and nothing that is guaranteed to make an impact on the cultural landscape.
Yet, in defiance of this seasonal slump, one show has dominated my barbecue conversations and patio playdates: the ragtag bunch of horny queers on the eighth season of MTV’s Are You The One?
In its first season of entirely “sexually fluid” contestants, Are You The One? brings together 16 queer and trans people and challenges them to find their perfect match. Over a 10-week stretch, the contestants must discover who among their housemates have been selected for them by a team of matchmakers, pairing off week by week in their march toward a grand prize of $1 million. Contestants bump and grind endlessly, couple off, break up and come back together, screwing things up for everyone else. I’m hooked.
The selection process for Are You The One? demands a track record of infidelity, insecurity and insincerity — the host, Terrence J, greets the contestants by reminding them that they are here because they “suck at relationships.” But in spite of their dark histories, the show offers each contestant a chance at redemption: by winning challenges and following their hearts, they all have the potential to find their perfect match.
Teased with the promise of future bliss, contestants run, jump and tumble over one another in their attempts to fall in love and find their perfect matches. The notion that the show might actually produce a perfect match in spite of itself is just fantastical enough to hold a magical allure. That one might confront and solve one’s serial relationship problems on-screen and go on to build a new life with a fellow contestant is no more or less ridiculous than any wishful thinking about finding one’s soulmate and living together forever in real life — a fantasy that has fuelled straight society and culture for ages.
In Are You The One?, queer people are finally given the same opportunity as our heterosexual siblings: the false promise of happily ever after. But if Are You The One? offers the option of a “perfect match,” it also illustrates its impossibility. At the time of this writing, we are eight episodes deep with only one perfect match confirmed to the contestants — Brandon and Aasha, who have both received very little screen time during the season so far despite their shared charm. Instead of perfect matches, this season of Are You The One? has produced a lot of red herrings. Jenna has been in the Truth Booth to test her perfect matches three times, with no luck. Couples who thought themselves to be sure things, like Nour and Amber, came together and split apart. Even fan favourites like Justin and Max are starting to look like less of a perfect match as time goes on. More than once, I’ve squinted at the screen and asked aloud, “Are any of them matches?”
I don’t put too much stock in the political merits of representation, but even I recognize that such a distinctly queer and messy display of romance is refreshing. Reality TV is a relentlessly heterosexual landscape, and where gays do occur, they’re rarely in numbers. But the trend goes beyond reality TV; even in the age of “LGBTQ2 content,” the primacy of male-female relationships and a traditional romantic trajectory remains unshakeable. And this trend as-seen-on-TV reflects the dominant cultural narratives that echo in off-screen life. What we recognize as romance or love has always been in heterosexual, boy-meets-girl terms. Even in the midst of millennial modernity’s loosened social roles, there is still something of a typical route: you meet, you fall for one another, there is a courtship, you get married, you move in together and you have some children. But then comes Are You The One?, in all its messy glory. Even as the show invites queer and trans people into the myth of the perfect match, it demonstrates the concept’s inherent incompatability with our way of life.
This season of Are You The One? exists in the shadow of gay marriage and the social, sexual and economic demands that such an arrangement offers — a queer and trans future of stable housing, job security and sexual exclusivity. Gay marriage, and everything that comes with it, is ubiquitous enough that it feels somehow inescapable. Yet, the institution of marriage — and the myth of the perfect match — seem to be under siege. A 2018 Angus Reid poll found that four in 10 Canadian adults were unmarried and generally unsure about the whole thing; in 2016, Statistics Canada found that 28.2 percent of adult Canadians were living alone, the highest number in 150 years. Stats Can stopped publishing data on divorce in 2011, but before then most research painted a picture that emphasized divorce over endless partnership. As millennials continue to kill the diamond and wedding industries, the trend seems clear: traditionalism is on its way out.
Queer and trans people are uniquely equipped to navigate this terrain, which explains part of Are You The One?’s success. We are living through a cultural shift in how we form relationships and how we relate to our own futures.
But of course, queer and trans people have often had to make do with alternatives to the traditional model of love and marriage, and we have done so pretty successfully. Rather than relying on the old-fashioned construct of a nuclear family, for example, we developed the concept of the chosen family: the friends we love and flock to, with whom we share events and milestones and, sometimes, our homes. Some people go a step further, raising children together or setting up a co-parenting arrangement with their closest friends and partners. Get a bunch of gays together to talk about their dream lives and you will quickly put an end to the fiction that queer life is inherently childless — I’d argue that, with some notable exceptions, within every gay person is an auntie waiting to get out.
Many queer couples are strictly monogamous. Many others go through phases of being open and closed, and there is a greater acceptance of this permeability than I have encountered in straight spaces. Others are more definitively polyamorous. When Ezra Miller cursed us with the word “polycule” (a portmanteau of, yes, “polyamory” and “molecule”) earlier this year, even amid our laughter we recognized the bizarre concept of several people all dating one another simultaneously as a known entity.
There are endless jokes and memes about the particular patterns of queer and trans dating, most of which are accurate in their absurdity. Trans people tend to tesselate to the point that everyone seems to know everyone else’s ex. That pattern is just a half-step beyond the common lesbian trope of your ex-girlfriend also being your best friend, your current girlfriend being your ex’s ex, and your ex’s ex’s ex being your current girlfriend’s therapist. Friends and lovers overlap with abandon and introduce their own mess. These and other tropes (including those surrounding gay hook-up culture) are often used as a lens through which straight audiences are meant to understand queer people and our sexual lives — hence the ubiquity of scenes where characters are literally scrolling through cruising apps as a way of explaining to audiences what a twink is. These arrangements, however messy, are part of our lives, yet their ridiculousness is regularly depicted at our expense, and without a trace of heart. So when queer sexuality appears in pop culture, it is so often to invite ridicule by straight writers or parodic speculation by well-meaning tokens.
But these dynamics are captured earnestly in Are You The One?, creating space for honest dialogue in real life. Kai, a caricature of a horny trans boy, is at the centre of everyone’s relationship drama. And when Kai and Jenna crumble, the exes go after fellow exes Nour and Amber, respectively. Remy and Basit, both written off early-on as being either too feminine or too slutty, emerge over time as wise and sexy sage-like characters who intervene in bad relationships. Nour’s possessiveness and Kai’s flirtatiousness are viewed as fun until they get ugly, prompting a group-mediated accountability session. When one contestant, Jonathan, puts himself before the collective in choosing Justin as his ill-advised perfect match, the whole match-up system falls apart, costing the cast a pooled $250,000. Here, the stakes are literalized, tragically.
Other discussions are played out on the show, in the style of an accidental drunken after-school special. One is the matter of sex: with whom, what it means and what it doesn’t. In the first episode, Kai tells Jenna that sex with Remy was just sex, whereas sex with her was “intimate.” Jonathan chases everyone with muscles for multiple episodes, before somehow waking up to the fact that he’s wrongly dismissed Basit as a sexual candidate on the basis of their femininity. Justin muses aloud that he “loves holes,” and then Max wonders if he can overcome internalized homophobia and fear of vulnerability to open up to Justin, inviting questions over the conflation of emotional and physical intimacy in gay sex.
Another issue is the matter of exclusivity. Justin has kissed literally every other contestant, and his boyfriend Max doesn’t know how to feel about it. The normally sunny Nour gets possessive and bitter when she gets drunk, and Jenna introduces herself by declaring her propensity for violent jealousy.
Many of us are not so different, if a bit less self-aware. Navigating temptation and expectation is an ongoing process, one that requires a kind of trust that may not come in the short weeks available to a reality TV dating show. But we get to watch that negotiation, to see our own insecurities and indiscretions mirrored on screen in a context that feels far less alien than if its contestants were all cishet. Virtually every couple on the show has some kind of debate over how closed or open their relationship can be, a conversation that dovetails neatly into the FOMO highs-and-lows of Pride season and the pull of the beach — those summertime patterns that similarly invite couples in and out of monogamy. The whole affair is so queer it is almost funny.
None of this is to say that the queerness of Are You The One? renders it a perfect object, or that the relationships it depicts are true-to-life. I am not so easily swayed by the idea of representation as to believe it to be an end in itself, but I won’t pretend that I don’t get a kick out of watching something I can recognize. Queer and trans relationships are not perfect. But as Remy says, it is not the job of reality TV contestants to be good representatives of the community; they are real people. As a result, they manage to refract the same dynamics we regularly observe and enjoy in our own lives, and do so with earnest, bumbling authenticity. It is rare that they are allowed to be so imperfect, to be so casually and distinctively messy, in the way of straight relationships. With the concept of a perfect match crumbling all around us, it’s fascinating to have evidence on screen of queer people’s negotiations with it, and their capacity to come up with alternatives. The mess is clearly portrayed, and so is the love.
For so long, we’ve been fed the message that our love is incompatible with traditional ideas of futurity and romance. Maybe that’s a good thing. And maybe shows like Are You The One? are useful in how they illuminate these shortcomings — and give us space to engage in alternatives.