Over the last eight years, Are You the One? executive producer Rob LaPlante has conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews with eager twentysomethings who hope to be cast on the MTV reality dating show. For anyone not familiar, the series asks young people who admit they “suck at dating” (as they all shout in the first episode of every season) to figure out which of their fellow cast members is their pre-selected “perfect match,” as determined by a behind-the-scenes team of matchmakers, psychologists, and other producers — a mind-bending goal that often pits heads against hearts. If everyone finds their match by the last episode (without making too many mistakes along the way), the group wins $1 million to share. For the first seven seasons, the show’s cast consisted of 10 heterosexual, cisgendered pairings: 10 men with 10 women. But this season, producers decided to go gender-fluid. The result is a show that transcends not just the series but the entire genre, portraying queer mores and dating culture with more compassion, maturity, honesty, and complexity than anywhere else on TV.
The annual casting call for Are You the One? elicits thousands of applications, which are whittled down to 80 finalists, who are then flown to L.A. to be interviewed. The goal is to find out who could match with whom, and who has the kind of personality to make great TV. After working on the show for nearly a decade with his business partner and co-creator, Jeff Spangler, LaPlante and the other producers have their process down: Potential cast members are isolated in separate hotel rooms and escorted to interviews to make sure they don’t encounter one another before the cameras are rolling. Producers even interview close friends, exes, and family members. The idea is to get to know the contestants intimately. But a few years ago, LaPlante began noticing a new trend.
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“We’d be interviewing them about their love lives, and one of the kids would say, ‘Well, when I’m dating a guy, it’s like this. But when I’m dating a girl, it’s this way,’” LaPlante says. “In past seasons, we had never seen that coming. First we came across three people like that, then there were five, then 10, and it continued to increase. The more we saw of these people, between the ages of 21 and 26 years old, the more we realized that this is a generation that has a fresh and evolved viewpoint on their sexuality.” Fresh, evolved, and not so straight. So, a new version of Are You The One? was born, one in which cast members are sexually fluid and, in some cases, transgender or gender-fluid or –nonconforming, too.
The resulting season of Are You the One? shows elements of queer culture that are rarely seen on television. It also goes beyond the normal dating-show formula, one that’s rife with overblown displays of both masculinity and femininity — like women in sparkling ball gowns and hypermasculine Prince Charmings. “People [on the show] are introducing themselves with their preferred pronouns. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that on reality TV before,” says Danielle Lindemann, a sociology professor at Lehigh University who studies and writes about reality TV. “And you see bisexual men, who you hardly ever see on TV.” Lindemann also notes that the cast members simply seem to be nicer to each other this go-round — less petty and jealous, more communicative than on most other dating shows. It’s something LaPlante witnessed early on when casting the show.
“So many of these people who we cast had lived in an environment where they were struggling on a day-to-day basis with acceptance,” LaPlante said. “And then, on the day before we began filming, all of them suddenly realized that the next day they’d be moving into an environment where everyone there just completely ‘got it.’ I’m so used to the cast members being concerned about being famous or being the star of the season, but this group was just geeking out to be around each other. And when they moved in front of the camera, it was magical. It was something like we’d never seen before.”
That magic includes a queer prom re-do where the dress code was anything goes, lots of kissing games, and way more group processing than any dating show you’ve ever seen.
Basit Shittu, one of the season’s most memorable cast members and hands-down its best drag performer, identifies as gender-fluid, and says they didn’t see people like them on TV when they were growing up. “From an early age I felt pretty genderless,” they say. “I feel like there’s not anyone like me in the world.” Even as an adult, they say, it’s sometimes been hard to date, because people don’t quite understand how to relate to them when it comes to sex and attraction. “I wanted to go on this season to prove that I could find love,” they say, and to make people like them more visible in a heteronormative world.
“I also went on the show not just to be openly queer but to be authentically queer,” they say. “What we did on this show was to accurately represent what it’s like to live in a queer community. We’re more open when it comes to how we show love, because we’ve been told for the majority of our life that we should not be proud of who we are. So we celebrate our queerness by being open.”
Cast member Kai Wes, a trans-masculine nonbinary person (meaning he identifies more male than female on the gender spectrum), says the show was like going to “queer summer camp.” Aside from the chance to find love, Wes was also drawn in by the idea of making people like himself more visible on television. It’s part of the reason, in one early episode, Wes asks his love interest Jenna Brown to accompany him while he injects himself with a dose of testosterone as part of his transition. Wes admits that it’s hard to watch certain parts of the show, especially the scenes where his affections (or lack thereof) spawn love triangles and fuel fights. But, he believes the show does more than just revel in dating drama.
“I can’t name another show where, in the first couple of episodes, you’re talking about transgender identity, nonbinary identity, homophobia, past abusive relationships, and it’s treated in a poignant way, so that no one person is a one-off anomaly,” he said.
Much to his surprise, Wes was one of the most sexually desired cast members on the show — something that he’s been excited to see on TV. “Desirability is a huge thing in the trans community,” he says. “A lot of people have this feeling that no one is going to want you, no one is going to love you. I thought I was going to show up there and there would be a bunch of buff dudes, and I’d be kind of a background character. Then all of the sudden it starts, and I’m Mr. Justin Bieber.” Since the show aired, Wes said, he’s gotten messages from other transgender men who find that storyline affirming. “Other trans guys have messaged me to say, ‘I love seeing that you’re the person that everybody wants.’”
Not every cast member was out before the release of Season Eight. Cast member Max Gentile had been keeping his sexual fluidity hidden for years. “I dated both men and women, nothing really serious though. Because of my own reservations, I wasn’t really comfortable with women because they didn’t know I also liked men, and I wasn’t comfortable dating men either. So when I auditioned, I’m sitting there saying, ‘Can I really do this?’ But then a friend told me, ‘What if one kid needs to hear your story?’” Gentile said.
Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, Gentile says, most of his friends were “straight bros,” and he was afraid to admit his sexual fluidity. “My family wasn’t the hard part, it was more this façade or character that I had built and that I just thought would come crashing down,” he says. “I was worried that my friends would never talk to me again. I felt a lot of self-hate, and I had to grow out of that. The show, in one way or another, helped me to accept myself.” And as for his love story on the show (they get close while pumping iron at the gym), according to Gentile, “It’s all real. It’s pure.”
However groundbreaking this iteration of Are You the One? may be, Lindemann says that she doesn’t expect the queer dating genre to extend to the big mainstream dating shows: “I don’t think you’re going to see a gay or bisexual ‘Bachelor’ anytime soon.” But LaPlante sees the potential to do more queer seasons.
“Reality TV is loud and crazy and it unnerves people sometimes, but I know we are having an impact on people,” he says. “Because we’re getting feedback from a bunch of people who are saying, ‘This is my story, too, and no one’s ever told it on TV before.’”