Homophobes have been having a tough time of it lately, what with Lil Nas X’s queer anthem Montero being at No 1 for four weeks despite a backlash from conservative critics, and Love Island producers said to be actively encouraging LGBTQ+ singletons to apply via Tinder.
This step wouldn’t provide the show with its first same-sex couplings – female bisexual constestants have already coupled up in both the UK and Australian editions – but it would mark the first time the show has intentionally included LGBTQ+ people. It’s hard to tell whether this is yet another cynical spin on the prevalent practice of queerbaiting (a marketing technique in which creators hint at, but then do not actually depict, queer romance or representation). In any case, it’s a stark U-turn from comments in 2017 from ITV’s director of television, Kevin Lygo. At the Edinburgh television festival, when talk turned to proactively including LGBT+ contestants in dating shows, Lygo swatted away the suggestion, saying that the format didn’t allow it. He went on to add that “there are quite enough gay people on television”. In fact, according to Glaad in the US, LGBTQ+ representation in television has dropped for the first time. It is lacking in TV generally, and in reality TV and reality TV dating shows in particular.
The reality TV boom of the early 00s prioritised salaciousness which, disturbingly, meant TV shows were more than happy to feature queer contestants, but only to use their identity as a punchline. In 2003’s Boy Meets Boy, a gay lead had to choose a partner from 15 potential male suitors, with the “twist” being that both gay and straight men were in the lineup. A year later, There’s Something About Miriam tasked men with winning over the heart of Miriam Rivera and a cash prize, with the series built around the revelation that she was transgender. The same year, Playing It Straight required its female lead to guess which of her suitors on a Nevada ranch were gay in order to win prize money. A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila didn’t feature such obviously problematic plot points, but nevertheless presented bisexuality as equal parts confusion and greed.
Progress has undoubtedly been made since. We see heartwarming dates between queer couples on shows such as Dating Around, First Dates, The Cabins and Dinner Date. But these one-off episodes aren’t comparable to the season-long coverage and visibility of a show like Love Island. ITV recently reiterated that the lack of gay contestants to date has been a “logistical” issue. The former contestant Megan Barton Hanson, who is bisexual, also wondered how it would work in practice. “I don’t know how it would work if they just chucked in a few token gay people in there,” she said, in a recent talk at Cambridge Union’s debating society. “I feel like we need a whole gay series. If you’re going to do it, do it properly. I mean, I’d definitely go back on there if there’s a gay season.”
While I’d usually be concerned that a standalone series could lead to “othering”, a gay series might be a brilliant option, if the eighth season of MTV’s hit dating series Are You the One? is anything to go by. As something of a connoisseur of the genre, I will say it was unequivocally one of the greatest dating series ever produced. Ordinarily, the franchise sees 10 women and 10 men who “suck at relationships” (their words, every single season) tasked with finding their perfect match in the house as picked by a team of experts. Each week, they’re given the chance to secure the correct combination of couples and a $1m cash prize. In 2019, however, the cast was made up of 16 sexually fluid contestants whose perfect match could be anyone. The result was total carnage. There was a series-first fivesome, and it later transpired that half of the trysts were left unaired due to time constraints.
For once, pansexuality and bisexuality were not portrayed as uniquely libidinous identities. However, the visibility of their hookups felt important, far from the neutered, sanitised and desexualised portrayals often seen elsewhere. Take a show like Towie; for a long time characters such as Bobby Norris, Harry Derbidge and Vas Morgan were real-life iterations of Sex and the City’s Stanford, gay best friend characters, with their input limited to pithy one-liners and fashion advice, and who spent most of their time discussing the relationships of others and not their own. This has since changed, with Harry and Bobby’s relationship in 2013 remaining a central plot line to this day and the hooking up (and now breaking up) of Demi Sims and Francesca Farago being focal.
ITV could learn a great deal from MTV, which presented Are You the One? without apology or explanation, dropping viewers in the deep end of a world that is rarely depicted. We watched Basit, a non-binary drag performer, be continually snubbed by their “perfect match” Jonathan due to their gender presentation; we saw Max battle internalised homophobia. “This isn’t PeeWee’s Playhouse, this isn’t PBS,” MTV’s senior vice president of programming, Sitarah Pendelton, said to TheWrap. “We weren’t trying to have an educational show.” Truly, it was accidentally enlightening, as the best reality TV is, getting surprisingly deep for a show with the tagline: “Come one, come all”.
While it may have been the best, it isn’t the only one. In 2018, E!’s The Bi Life was hosted by Drag Race and Celebrity Big Brother alum Shane Jenek AKA Courtney Act, and was well received. Two years before that was Finding Prince Charming, a Bachelor-style show where suitors vied for the heart of a gay heart-throb; and in 2019, nearly 18 years after it premiered, The Bachelor franchise had its first same-sex romance, between Demi Burnett and Kristian Haggerty, on Bachelor in Paradise. Love Island can choose to trailblaze for British TV or get onboard later, when everyone else catches on. Either way, to borrow a slogan: the future of reality TV is bright, the future of reality TV is rainbow-coloured.