Ten years ago I was about to turn sixteen and trying to come to terms with the nuances of my own queerness. While I was grappling with my own identity, MTV was airing A Shot at Love. The show followed both women and men competing in a series of challenges to win the heart of bisexual Myspace starlet, Tila Tequila. It was ridiculous and over the top as all reality dating shows are, but it was also the first time I remember hearing somebody call themselves ‘bisexual’… and the first time I had ever seen queer women interact with each other en masse. Through the lens of all of the overproduced, over the top reality TV ridiculousness, I got to see a world of queer possibility I had never quite allowed myself to imagine before (I also gained a crush on one of the contestants, Dani Campbell who was a firefighter and lesbian heartthrob).
Reality TV provided the vast majority of my early interactions with queer women, and the world they inhabited and almost all of my formative crushes were on reality TV stars. I fancied Alex Parks (winner of series two of the short lived BBC talent show Fame Academy); I was deeply in love with Kim Stolz (a contestant on cycle five of America’s Next Top Model); and I was smitten with Big Brother 11 contestant Shabby Katchadourian.
“Seeing queer people in participate in these shows still offers viewers far more authentic representation than anything scripted television has to offer.”
The first 27 days of Big Brother 11 gripped me as I, and queer women across the nation, watched as the potential fledgling romance between Shabby and fellow housemate Caoimhe play out in real time. Catherine Baker remarked on Twitter:
“I spent six weeks on tenterhooks in the summer of 2010 because of [Caoimhe and Shabby] […] I mean, I and so many other queer women have been in *exactly* those situations […] And that was the first time – thinking about it – I’d ever seen that part of my experience represented as authentically as that.”
The actuality of the situation is that, despite the strange augmented world of reality TV, seeing queer people in participate in these shows still offers viewers far more authentic representation than anything scripted television has to offer.
Watching the dynamics of love, romance and sex play out in real time through a television set still draws a crowd. This summer, viewers across the UK were gripped by reality dating show Love Island,; the contestants were welcomed in to people’s hearts and their homes, and the show became ITV2’s most viewed show ever receiving an average of 2.43 million viewers per episode. Despite the runaway success of the show, and Love Island’s large LGBT fan base, it seems like queer people won’t be extended an invitation to the Island anytime soon. Head of ITV Digital Channels Paul Mortimer claimed that: “The format doesn’t really allow it.”
“It’s easier for the ITV2 bosses to claim that it isn’t possible to include LGBT contestants, rather than just to admit that they don’t want to.”
The problem with claiming that this is the major roadblock to LGBT people participating is that when you’ve created the format you are also in the enviable position of being able to alter it. The other major flaw in this statement is that LGBT people have already competed on the show; Katie Salmon is bisexual and was a contestant on the second series, and even paired up with another female contestant whilst on the island. It’s easier for the ITV2 bosses to claim that their hands are tied and that it isn’t possible to include LGBT contestants, rather than just to admit that they don’t want to.
Despite Love Island’s reluctance to include LGBT people, plenty of other modern dating shows are making some headway. Take Me Out is still a strictly heterosexual affair, but Blind Date, Naked Attraction and First Dates are offering tentative glimpses in to queer romance. Despite this, participants still frequently express biphobic and transphobic views that go to air without ever being questioned.
Speaking on Twitter, Bee May Bishop opened up about her frustrations with dating shows as a queer viewer.
“I think generally there is a lack of understanding of lgbt+ folk […] how they date, how they live their lives, [and] no questioning of hetero-normative dating beliefs i.e. monogamous romance [and] sex [is the] most important. Queer inclusion [in dating shows] is either non-existent or mainly white cis gay men/lesbians and completely ignores nuances. it’s generally just frustrating.”
I can turn on any channel on TV and see cisgender heterosexual people meeting, flirting and falling in love. Straight people and their romantic dramas dominate both scripted and reality television, there is no shortage of depictions of heterosexual dating dynamics. However portrayals of queer love are neglected, the ins and outs of our relationships don’t get to be the subject for a must watch reality TV show or fodder for water cooler conversation. LGBT people deserve to see ourselves in the world of dating shows, but more importantly we deserve dating shows where our identities aren’t treated as novelties, plot twists or complications. We deserve better than shows like There’s Something about Miriam, Playing it Straight and A Shot at Love.
However silly it may seem, seeing the realities of your existence mirrored on reality television can offer an authentic representation that you might never have otherwise imagined. Moreover dating shows are just fun, the sort of pure unadulterated fun that LGBT people deserve to be included in.