Relationships

Bisexuals Have the Spotlight in the New Season of MTV’s Are You the One?

Whether that’s a good thing for the larger community remains to be seen.

Amber Martinez and Nour Fraij of MTV's Are You the One?
Amber Martinez and Nour Fraij of MTV’s Are You the One?
MTV

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In 1975, Woody Allen informed the New York Times that bisexuality “immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night.” Unfortunately, this logic—which I still hear quoted from time to time—doesn’t really hold up. For it to apply universally, everyone would have to be bisexual, and more fantastically, also willing to date bisexuals—something widespread biphobia precludes. However, the current season of MTV’s reality dating game show Are You the One? has manufactured a special situation where Allen’s formulation might just hold—but where doubling your chances for a date means significantly worsening your odds of winning the game.

The show, now in its eighth season, works like this: A group of people are selected to live together in a house and search for their “perfect match” among the housemates. They’re told at the beginning that a panel of “relationship experts” has paired up everyone in the house. At a “matchup ceremony” each episode, all the contestants select the person they think is most likely to be their perfect match; once they’ve all paired off, they’re told how many matches they’ve guessed correctly, but not which. As the show continues, they can use a combination of statistical deduction (derived from the matchup ceremony results), as well as growing knowledge of one another, to try and make more accurate guesses. If at any point during the season they’re able to guess all eight matches correctly, they win $1 million to share.

That’s already hard enough, but this time around, Are You the One? is doing something revolutionary that will also make the game even more difficult: Everyone in the house is attracted to people of all genders. If the house had eight straight men and eight straight women, there would be 40,320 possible combinations. But in a house with 16 people who could all potentially be attracted to each other, there are 2,027,025 possible combinations. And after each matchup ceremony, the statistical likelihood that any two people are a match changes. (Audiences can follow these changes on a blog devoted to the math behind the show.)

When I first heard about this new wrinkle in the game’s design, I was skeptical. There is basically a one-to-one overlap between the qualities that make someone a bad bisexual stereotype and those that can make someone a great reality TV star—attention-seeking, devious, hyper-sexual, self-involved, and generally messy. It didn’t seem possible that a reality show of this sort would represent my community well.

But when I began watching the show with my girlfriend (a lesbian who is willing to date bisexuals), my immediate reaction was emotional, not critical. I had never seen so many bi, pan, and otherwise non-monosexual people together at once on TV. And then, rarest of rarities, these people are actually happy about their sexual orientations! Within the first few minutes of the show, contestant Kari declares, “I’m bisexual and I fucking love it.” Justin echoes her: “I am very proud of being bisexual, I think of it as a superpower.”

Seven of the contestants are men, seven are women, and two are outside the gender binary (Kai identifies as trans masculine and non-binary, Basit as gender fluid). All are MTV hot.* All of them enter the house understanding that they could be attracted to anyone there and vice versa. And while navigating a variety of gender identities and levels of comfort with sexuality (Paige, for example, is coming out by way of the show) isn’t always simple, it’s refreshing to see them scoping out new love interests without having to explain and justify their sexual fluidity. The host makes it explicit: “You guys are in a safe place where you don’t have to worry about your sexuality being a boundary to you making a connection.” For a bi viewer like me, this is no small thing.

Early in the season, there are some really lovely moments of connection over issues that affect bisexual people. Kari describes herself as “very damaged,” which isn’t an uncommon way for bi people to feel. Several studies show that bisexual women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than lesbian or straight women (as many as 75 percent of us have been, according to one study), and we are also more likely than women of other orientations to experience intimate partner violence, mental health issues, and poverty. Kari was in a relationship with a man who abused her physically, mentally, and emotionally. Kylie, meanwhile, has an ex-girlfriend who was so controlling that she eventually stopped speaking to her own mother at her ex’s behest. The two contestants bond over their past trauma, but also over the tenderness of spirit they’ve managed to maintain, eventually embracing after Kari tells Kylie that she has a “pretty heart.”

After the two-part premiere in June, I was hopeful that the show would represent bi and adjacent communities relatively positively. Everyone seemed to want to work together to win. But as the season has continued, it’s become frustrating to watch different contestants put the group’s chances of winning at risk by creating conflict, hurting one another, and failing to strategize about finding a perfect match. While I recognize it wouldn’t make for the most riveting TV, I desperately want to see them all sitting together with a piece of paper, charting out the best ways to play their odds intelligently.

Instead—surely with producer encouragement—they’re making a series of alcohol-fueled mistakes. Kari and Kylie didn’t get much screen time when things were going well for them, even though statistically, they’re more likely than any other couple to be a match from episode to episode. Their storyline only starts to matter after Kylie drunkenly takes part in a fivesome. Indeed, the show is increasingly focused on contestants who put the house at the most risk for losing the game. For example, there’s Kai and Jenna, who gravitate toward each other even as it seems increasingly unlikely and then impossible that they are a match, and Nour who, after establishing that Amber is almost certainly her match, betrays her.

Of course, it’s unsurprising that the producers and editors of the show would encourage drama. That’s how the genre works. Still, it’s disappointing to think that the trend toward messy trysts might ruin the Are You the One’s potential for positive representation and reinforce stereotypes about bi people being greedy and untrustworthy. But then again, I have to hope we’ve reached a point where audiences could see this show and realize that the messiness on display isn’t exclusive to bi people. We watch reality TV to watch the ugliest and most dramatic aspects of humanity and love the characters despite—and sometimes for—their bad decisions. If viewers can watch bi people struggling with their worst impulses and judge them the same way they’d judge straight reality stars, maybe that’s progress after all.

Update, July 24, 2019: This piece has been edited to include text that was left out due to a production error.