Drama. Glitter. Overcoming Internalized Homophobia. Season eight of MTV’s Are You the One has everything you didn’t know you needed from reality TV, whether you’re on the LGBTQ+ spectrum or tragically heteronormative. Here’s the rundown: MTV has once again dropped 16 hot, drunk, half-naked singles into a Hawaiian Airbnb. Their mission: to flirt, kiss, and “boom boom” in hopes of correctly identifying their (matchmaker designated) Perfect Match™. If every contestant correctly identifies their match, they will collectively win, gasp, One Million Dollars! But the currently airing eighth season features an unprecedented producer-orchestrated twist: Instead of a group of cis heteros trying to decide which boy/girl combo the matchmakers pulled out of an MTV-branded hat, everyone on the show is sexually fluid. Meaning: There are no gender limitations and “the one could be anyone.”
What proceeds is Are You the One’s best, most entertaining version of itself, equal parts messy, beautiful, entertaining, and #important. Here’s why you should do yourself a favor and watch this gloriously entertaining time capsule of gamified queer dating.
Okay, not to make the queer dating show about the straights, but I’d like to think that there’s more than one person staying tuned into MTV after watching The Hills who might benefit from seeing a bunch of glittery queers discuss they/them pronouns. Throughout the season we’ve see onscreen testosterone shots, nonbinary drag performers, transmasculine fuckboys, femme-for-femme romances, and a lesbian therapist who looks like Pink in a fun-house mirror. If you didn’t understand any of the topics I mentioned in that last sentence, guess what: You will after watching this show!
Additionally, the fact that all of these contestants are bi, and not gay or lesbian, is honestly more radical within the queer community than you might think: A recent CDC survey suggests that more people identify as bisexual+ than as gay and lesbian combined, yet according to GLAAD, the rates at which they’re represented in media are much lower than gays and lesbians. That’s not even mentioning the bisexual erasure and hostility that’s rampant within the LGBTQ community. As someone who identifies as sexually fluid, I’ve been made fun of, told I’m going through a phase, and asked my entire sexual history on a first date — all by other queer people. But on Are You the One, everyone is sexually fluid, so “you don’t have to worry about your sexuality being a boundary to finding your perfect person,” which honestly sounds like a queer utopia to me!
For those of you who may have been living under a rock, being openly queer in America is NOT easy, and AYTO does not shy away from that. In past straight seasons of the show, we might see contestants struggle over which nose-ringed girl they’re going to make out with, but this season we see contestants grapple with coming out, repression, trauma, gender identity, and which nose-ringed girl they’re going to make out with.
From Kai, who talks about coming out as a lesbian, then as transmasculine nonbinary, then pansexual, to Amber and Nour bonding over not being out to their conservative fathers (then making out in a hot tub), to Kari defending her bisexual identity by saying, “I’m ambidextrous and no one ever questions that,” our chosen crew are able tell their stories in a complicated and vulnerable, yet extremely entertaining, way. Even Remy (an internet-famous hookup king and lover of bucket hats) cries that he’s not just a “sex robot,” he’s “a multifaceted person who’s capable of intimacy.” Additionally, just because the contestants are “out” by being on the show doesn’t mean that they’re comfortable with themselves: At one point, Max, who discusses at length his internalized homophobia, confesses that he’s never had a “male-to-male relationship” (which we all knew the moment he said “male-to-male relationship”), then has his first on-camera kiss with a man in a LITERAL closet! This is like if Shakespeare made queer reality TV, and honestly, the world is better for it.
Perhaps the most realistic thing about AYTO season eight is the community that’s formed on- and offscreen. Unlike with past (straight) versions of the show, you get the feeling that season eight’s contestants are really looking out for each other. At one point, Kai, who is described as “literally [having] fuckboy written all over his body,” emotionally manipulates multiple cast members, and instead of shunning him or allowing him to move on to the next person, the group organizes an impromptu intervention/therapy session. We see the house gather around Kai, genuinely concerned for the emotional pain behind his toxic behavior: “We all love you and support you and we believe that you can change,” says his extremely buff housemate from the hot tub.
This feeling of fast intimacy and genuine support feels realistic to the queer community this show represents. Recently, I was at a viewing party hosted by local cast members, when one of the hosts asked an audience member what they did before coming to the show. The answer? “I came out to my grandmother today.” If the show hadn’t returned from commercial break, I assume that we would have all joined hands and continued processing until one of us reached peak queer enlightenment and morphed into a Pride flag.
For anyone unfamiliar with queer culture, let me just say this: It’s called “drama queen” for a reason. Queer communities are breeding grounds for drama: the smaller dating pools, the insular politics, the importance of “chosen family,” not to mention that many queer people go through a second adolescence in their 20s or 30s, either from suppressing their identity in high school and/or from taking gender-confirming hormones. Honestly, my own dating life sometimes feels like I’m at a particularly messy Gen-Z middle-school dance, and I’m not even on TV. (Those kids get to be queer in high school and I’m not jealous at all, okay!) What I’m saying is that queer culture is naturally predisposed to reality TV–worthy dramatics and AYTO season eight makes great use of this. We’ve got forbidden attractions, fivesomes, more than one declaration of love in the rain — and that’s just between Kai and Jenna! At one point, an explosive fight occurs between two women dressed as mermaids, whom savvy watchers already KNOW are a Perfect Match (because of blogs dedicated to figuring out the matches using a dark art known as “math”), but who both think they are meant to be with Kai. One queer mermaid screams at the other, “You know I’m not the one, so don’t even try me bitch!” But … she is the one! In what other dating show is your direct competition also your potential love interest? I love/hate being queer so much!
Speak of the goddexx and they will appear! Basit is the intelligent, fashionable, gender-nonconforming emotional center of the show whose “preferred pronoun is Basit.” Not only does Basit exert superhuman patience with Basit’s “Perfect Match” Jonathan (Basit’s true Perfect Match is either Beyoncé or God, and I will not budge on this) while Jonathan goes through some “masc for masc” bullshit, Basit also facilitates almost every emotionally vulnerable moment of growth on the show. I cannot tell you how many Reddit posts I have read from straight watchers of AYTO who are at first completely put off by Basit’s gender presentation and then grow to not only understand but love Basit. I am currently starting a petition for Oprah to produce a talk show hosted by Basit that will be named simply Basit!, in which Gayle King finally gets to be an out lesbian and everyone in the audience wins an unlimited supply of glitter.
Is this show perfect? Absolutely not. It could use more variation in the gender presentation of contestants (give me a long-haired butch! Or at least more than one cis woman without acrylic nails!), more discussions around intersectionality and race, and more queer people involved in the production, all of which will hopefully materialize in future seasons. But at its core, AYTO season eight is an unexpectedly poignant, thoughtful, and entertaining piece of glittery trash that the LGBTQ+ community deserves. Honestly, seeing queer people being given the opportunity to be just as messy as straight people on TV, without having their sexual fluidity questioned, gives me hope for the future. Yes, that future still seems pretty dark, but if Are You the One is any indication, we might at least have something interesting to watch.