Pop Culturing: 'Are You the One' & 'The Real World' are the Queerest TV Shows You're Not Watching

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Friday August 30, 2019

The cast of "Are You the One?" Season 8
The cast of "Are You the One?" Season 8  (Source:Instagram / @areuthe1)

One of the biggest benefits from the era known as Peak TV is that the boom of new shows allows a number of diverse voices to be heard. Audiences can tune into any number of diverse shows from creative people that reflect their own story. But, despite of the plethora of interesting and dynamic series that have come and gone over the last few years there still seems to be a lack of queer shows.

Sure, there are plenty of shows that feature queer characters ("Killing Eve," "The Deuce," "Grace and Frankie," "Riverdale," "Euphoria"), but there are not many shows that take on LGBTQ issues head on. NBC recently rebooted "Will & Grace," which proved to be ephemeral fun but not the cultural juggernaut it was in the late 90s and early 00s. HBO's "Looking" came and went with much debate over its short run and "Transparent" proved to be groundbreaking when it launched in 2014. There are a few little-watched queer dramas, like "Vida" and "The Bisexual" but "Pose" is easily the most visible and best LGBTQ series of the decade.

But that's not considering reality TV, which has had a long and bumpy ride when it comes to LGBTQ representation over the last 20 years. Producers included LGBTQ people in reality shows since the early boom of reality TV (let's not forget, Richard Hatch, an openly gay man from Rhode Island, won the very first season of "Survivor," which is headed toward its 40th season next year, back in 2000) but it's only recently that queer people have gotten a more complex and diverse representation.

It's not an understatement to say that "RuPaul's Drag Race" is the most important reality show of the decade for queer people. The competition show has dominated the culture unlike any reality program — or scripted show — in the past. The hundreds of queens who have appeared on the show's 11 proper seasons and four "All-Star" seasons have changed the way we talk, our style and the way we think about identity. It's thanks to "Drag Race" and the room peak TV is making that queer representation is changing in reality TV.

MTV once dominated reality TV with docuseries like "True Life," and "Made" along with its long-running "The Real World" and its spinoff competition show "The Challenge." There was also its slew of dating shows, like "Next," "Room Raiders" and "Dismissed." More recently, MTV has lost its cultural appeal but still airs popular reality series like "Teen Mom," "Ex on the Beach" and "Are You the One?" which is arguably its most successful reality show currently airing. Since debuting in 2014, the last seven seasons of the dating show have featured straight single people looking for their one-true-love. Producers match contestants, who live in a house in an exotic location, based on scientific analysis. There are challenges, dates, and a "truth booth," which reveals if a couple who enter it are indeed a designated perfect match or not. iPads scanners and beams of light are involved. And there is also a "boom-boom room." If the group successfully pair up and pick their perfect match by the end of their time on the show, the love birds gets to split $1 million. If not, then they go away empty handed.

The eighth season of "AYTO" is currently airing and it is perhaps the most significant reality show since "Drag Race." The season features a cast who all identify as sexuality fluid, meaning there is no gender limitations impacting their potential perfect matches. With just a few episodes left in the dynamic season, the 16 people involved in the show sometimes find themselves in the pitfalls of the past straight seasons (fights, too much alcohol, and broken hearts) but for the most part, "AYTO: Come One, Come All" has proven to be a queer dating paradise of sorts. The queer cast doesn't have to be anxious about being judged for being who they are and are free to explore their sexuality without restrictions or prejudice. The blowups might be the same but there's never been a cast this queerly diverse on TV before. Kai Wes is trans. Basit Shittu is nonbinary. Both Max Gentile and Paige Cole identify as bisexual and are new to exploring their sexuality.

The newest "AYTO" season isn't the only new reality show depicting queer people. "The Real World: Atlanta," a MTV co-production that is airing on Facebook Watch, the first season of the long-running and groundbreaking show to not air on the network. (You can watch it for free if you have a Facebook account.) It also happens to be the best "Real World" season in years. This season features a truly complex cast that also skews a bit older (most houseguests are in their late 20s). Dondre Randolph is a 25-year-old recent college grad. He's African American, pansexual (who recently came out to friends and family) — and a Donald Trump supporter. One of the first scenes of the season finds Randolph facing off against his new roommate Arely Avitua, a DACA recipient and young mother, over her parent's immigration status.

"The Real World: Atlanta" also stars Yasmin Almokhamad, who also identifies as pansexual, and, over the first few episodes, helps her roommates understand each other. That especially goes for Megan Melancon, a reporter from Baton Rouge, Louisiana who is a devout Christian and virgin, and voiced her problems with LGBTQ people. Through honest discussions — that are intense, education and entertaining — viewers get to see the houseguests grow and understand each other. It's truly the mission statement "The Real World" has touted over the last 25 years being brought to fruition: "This is the true story...of seven strangers...picked to live in a house...(work together) and have their lives taped...to find out what happens...when people stop being polite...and start getting real."

With "Are You the One," "The Real World: Atlanta," and "Pose," queer representation has never been more dynamic, vibrant, divisive and thrilling. There may be endless shows to binge through but these shows are offering a queer perspective that has never been seen before.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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