Analyzing the lack of queer representation in reality dating shows

It’s more than a casting issue when heteronormativity is built into the premise

A graphic of two male and female symbols divided into a pink and blue background
PHOTO: Magda Ehlers / Unsplash

By: Petra Chase, Arts and Culture Editor and Hannah Kazemi, Staff Writer

Reality dating shows have a huge influence. With 52 seasons of The Bachelor franchise, it’s safe to say that audiences are heavily invested in all the messiness and cheesiness the genre delivers. Newer series like Love is Blind, Singles Inferno, and Love Island were also huge hits. While these types of shows are widely considered mindless entertainment and not to be taken seriously, it’s important to note that the way they frame gender, sexuality, and dating is fabricated with intention, and reinforces how audiences view the world.

It’s no surprise reality dating shows favour producing heterosexual relationships. The Bachelor follows one man as he dates 25 women in an attempt to find one to marry. The Bachelorette is the same with the genders reversed. Bachelor in Paradise is the only spin-off within the franchise that opens up the opportunity for queer relationships to be formed, though there’s only one case in which a couple has been openly queer on the show.

Similarly, in Love is Blind, the men and women are in separate groups and only interact by going into “pods,” with a wall between them. A couple must get engaged in the pods to enter the next stage of in-person dating. The Love is Blind “experiment” tests whether the couple will follow through with the marriage within 30 days of leaving the pods to see if love is “blind.” It goes unsaid that this only applies to straight couples and identities that can be sorted into a rigid gender binary.

When 2019 star of The Bachelor, Colton Underwood, came out as gay after his season ended, the internet exploded. It was hard for viewers to believe he was gay after dating only women on-screen. It was also big news when Brooke Blurton was cast in The Bachelorette Australia as the first bisexual bachelorette; the franchise hadn’t seen any queer leads before her. In season one of Love is Blind, couple Carlton and Diamond broke off their engagement immediately after Carlton came out to her as bisexual. When Diamond expressed she was upset he wasn’t honest before he proposed, Carlton raged, hurling misogynistic insults at her. This was difficult to watch, as it demonstrated how internalized homophobia and biphobia can fuel misogyny.

When queer contestants participate in these shows, it exposes how norms about marriage and dating are systemically built for straight, cis people. It also exposes how much they hinge on sexist and binary gendered representations of dating. Love is Blind casts single women in their late twenties as desperate for a man to tie the knot, as if their desirability is running out. The men who participate are often seen as having established their careers, and looking for a potential partner because becoming a provider is the logical and responsible next step.

Both shows feed the fantasy of a traditional wedding solving everything. We’ve yet to see a woman propose in three seasons of Love is Blind; men are viewed as noble pursuers, while women are often pitted against each other, depicted as overly emotional and irrational. In The Bachelor’s coveted rose ceremonies, which involve the lead giving out a rose to the person they want to keep for another week, women receive a rose to hold, but men receive it as a boutonniere — why is that? Is it not manly for a man to hold a rose? Are the producers scared he’s going to crush it with his big man hands? The competition to get a rose, which is usually more physical for the men, is cutthroat and often leads to conflict that perpetuates stereotypical competition amongst men and pettiness amongst women.

Meanwhile, many women contestants enter Love is Blind claiming they’re tired of being judged for their looks and want to form deep connections, expressing contempt towards image-focused, modern dating culture. This is a valid issue, but Love is Blind clearly doesn’t care about properly investigating it. Ironically, some men on the show are notorious for asking questions in the “pods” to figure out characteristics of the women’s appearance, like, “Will I have trouble picking you up?” The show hides behind the facade of being a genuine experiment, but in reality, its main goal is to create drama surrounding the mens’ physical attraction to the women. It also perpetuates thin, white, able-bodied beauty standards in its casting.

All of these examples show that the problem doesn’t lie with one particular show, but with how the whole genre is structured off of heteronormative society. If there were more dating shows structured for queer partnerships and non-binary identities to participate, it could help question the heteronormative mold. It’s time for reality TV to challenge the norm and invite different perspectives.

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