There is a running question that my queer friends and I ask whenever we hear a heterosexual person do something ridiculous. Whenever a straight person claims they lost over a million to a dating scammer or that they need to put their child in an adorable “Lock up your daughters” onesie, or a million other absurd things, we turn to each other and ask:
“What are we going to do with these straight people?”
This question has become a shorthand to talk about the toxic mindset rife within heterosexual couples — and sadly, many emerging queer relationships — where they equate being in a monogamous relationship with self-worth.
It is also what immediately popped into my mind when watching the pilot of Love Is Blind — the Netflix reality show where contestants have to decide if they will marry someone they have just met based on a one-week timetable of intimate conversations. The catch is that they cannot see each other, hence the title, and can only communicate via audio. They select a partner, and then in-person, they simulate all the significant life steps of a relationship (e.g., honeymooning, moving-in together, meeting the parents, etc.), saving marriage for last.
Love Is Blind tries to present itself as a cross between 90 Day Fiance and a scientific treatise on how emotional connections can transcend the “superficial” aspects of modern dating culture. The show’s conflation of toxic heterosexual monogamy as love instead lays bare how isolating this narrative can be for queer people.
It’s a narrative that is limiting for everyone.
Love Is Blind so rigidly enforces the worst aspects of the male-female binary, that I initially assumed that it was a parody. For example, when in the pilot, the “guy” and “girl” contestants all congregate in separate common spaces, the women are seen gossiping and drinking, while the men bro out and do pushups.
And of course, they talk about marriage. The contestants are so giddy with the prospect of getting married that it gets sad very quickly. Early on, a character named Lauren gets engaged to a man named Cameron after only a couple of days, and the desperation they’ve attached to getting married is chilling. As Cameron says shortly before proposing to Lauren:
“If we get married, that’s it for me. We have to make it work.”
As the romantic music swelled in the background, I couldn’t help but see a slow trainwreck in motion. The question immediately popped back into my head:
“What are we going to do with these desperate straight people?”
This entire “experiment” — and the hosts and contestants do insist on incorrectly calling the show an experiment — is predicated on the fact that marriage is a successful end goal. This position ignores that marriage is itself an arbitrary social standard in which many of the contestants are invested for cultural, not scientific, reasons. In the pilot, a character named Lauren talks about her eagerness to get married, and nonchalantly jokes about how her mom’s unhealthy expectations are a factor in this desire:
“My mom calls me at least once a week and reminds me that my eggs are shriveling up. I’m just really ready for my husband. I know he’s looking for me, and its time for us to find each other.”
For me, this moment was sad. This is a woman who thinks she’s taking charge of her life, and, within moments, we learn that it’s partially a lie. She isn’t choosing anything, but rather, like millions of heterosexual women before her, she is blindly following in her mother’s footsteps.
Of the twelve contestants that make it past the “pods” (i.e., what they call the rooms in the talk-only segment of the show), Lauren is the only one you walk away thinking she is okay. Her job before the show was creating online content, and she came onto the show with a strategy to help her brand. She and her now-husband have since launched a couple’s YouTube channel, and it’s apparent that other considerations impacted their decision to wed.
The rest of the characters are not this strategic. They all come into Love Is Blind with a lot of toxic assumptions about marriage, which the show gleefully prods along for entertainment. For example, the character Amber is chronically underemployed and deeply in debt, and she just needs some economic stability. She marries emotionally-stunted bro Barnett out of desperation. The show films her poverty as a prop but does not bother to contextualize the fact that her “blind love” is the result of fear.
Another character named Jessica has so much anxiety about being in a relationship that she self-destructs on camera (note: the long hours of filming probably didn’t help).
And then there is Carlton — a queer man whose identity is destructively revealed to the world. The fallout he experiences from coming out on national television is dramatic, and the show ignores it.
Unfortunately, this erasure from Love Is Blind falls into a long history of queer exclusion on dating shows.
The “find your spouse on a reality TV show” formula is not new. The idea dates back as early as the 1965 series The Dating Game. The ABC show had a male or female contestant ask questions of three members of the opposite sex, without being able to see them. If the contestant liked one of the strangers’ answers, then they would go on a date with them, which was paid for by the show. Later the UK hit Blind Date (1985–2003) added to this formula by being the same premise, except that the camera followed the pair on an epic first date.
The dating show format would evolve over the years to focus more on the “which-one-will-they-choose” drama that comes with committing forever to a stranger. One of the most famous examples of this meet-cute-gone-wrong premise is The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise (2002-present). Another ABC property, this series has one man or woman choose between a group of 20 or more members of the opposite sex. Each episode, one or more of the potential spouses gets cut from the show in a rose ceremony that has saturated the public zeitgeist so thoroughly that even non-fans typically get the reference.
This is pretty much the history of straight, dating shows: a man or a woman competes for their opposite-sex counterpart.
Many shows have followed in The Bachelor’s footsteps, often adding a twist rather than reinventing the formula outright. Joe Millionaire (2003) had women contestants thinking they were dating a millionaire, but really he was broke. Millionaire Matchmaker (2008–2015) tried to help the ultra-wealthy find love. VH1’s Flavor of Love (2006) and Rock of Love (2007) had female contestants competing for the love of a washed-up male celebrity (i.e., Flavor Flav and Bret Michaels respectively).
Lastly, we have Love Is Blind, a show where either contestant has the power to reject the other at the altar.
One thing you may have noticed about most of these properties is that they are exceedingly heterosexual and monogamous. Queer representation, like with most forms of media, has been underrepresented in reality TV dating shows. It was hard to find queer contestants from the 60s through the 90s (and no producer was really looking) predominantly because queer relationships were heavily stigmatized, and in most cases, illegal.
Over the decades, this would break away.
This media exclusion started to change in the 90s with the Music Television channel, better known as MTV. The network wanted to tell transgressive stories that were cool and hip, and also cheap to make. The reality show format reduced costs because contestants were technically not actors, so they were not paid a salary and did not gain residuals for past shows.
This emphasis on cost was a significant selling point for the flagship MTV show The Real World (1992-present). Producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray (who is a gay man) had initially intended to make a scripted drama called St. Mark’s Place. It would have been about 20-somethings living together in New York City, but for cost reasons, they reworked that same premise into a reality TV show format. While not a dating show, per se, there were definitely “encounters” caught on camera. Entire arcs on the show were devoted to the romantic interests of housemates, and the show made sure to have queer characters consistently.
First season contestant Norman Korpi, for example, shocked airwaves in 1992 as one of the first bisexual characters on TV (though retrospectively, we’ve learned that he was a gay man the network labeled as bisexual to not spook advertisers). The portrayal of Korpi, as well as other queer contestants in future seasons, earned MTV the impression that it cared about LGBTQIA+ representation. Queer media organization GLADD, as another example, has consistently praised the show, and given it several awards.
MTV would create many dating shows going forward, and while few of them were 100% queer, they would occasionally have gay episodes. The show Room Raiders (2003-present) had a premise where someone selected their date based solely on what’s inside their room, and it had several gay episodes with all cisgendered male contestants. The show Next (2005–2008) had an equally catty premise: the bachelor/bachelorette character could say “next” to their date at any time and move on to the next one in the list. Alongside straight episodes, it also had episodes featuring entirely gay or lesbian contestants.
The most prominent queer dating shows in the 2000s were focused more on the spectacle of homosexuality than on humanizing their contestants as people. The failed Bravo series Boy Meets Boy (2003), for example, was a Bachelor spin-off with the twist that some of the contestants were secretly straight. This hook was for the viewer to offensively gauge the contestants’ sexuality through personality characteristics, and not so much about the gay men themselves.
Likewise, MTV’s A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila (2008) — a reality show in the same vein as Flavor of Love and Rock of Love — focused more on the shocking nature of the celebrity’s bisexuality.
It’s taken a long time to shed the voyeurism of the aughts and early 2010s, but it looks like we are finally approaching that point. As queer rights gain more ground, albeit tenuously so, networks have become more tolerant of queer relationships on the small screen. Recently, the Netflix show Dating Around (2019), which is a series about a person going on multiple dates, centered two of its six-episode run on queer characters.
Even the Bachelor franchise has had several queer contestants. In 2019, contestant Demi Burnett had the franchise’s first onscreen same-sex romance in the spin-off Bachelor In Paradise (2014-present).
The creators of Love Is Blind chose to ignore this emerging trend of queer acceptance so they could sell a fundamentalist narrative about toxic heterosexual monogamy.
Yet because this is 2019, and not 1965, queerness seeped in anyway.
And people got hurt.
There is one nonstraight wrinkle in the Love Is Blind “experiment,” and that is Carlton. He reveals via camera confessional that he is “fluid” (i.e., his preferences are not confined by gender). He used to date men and women, but like all contestants on this show, he’s there for some complicated reasons. He now wants a wife because he thinks women are the appropriate gender to form an attachment to. As he remarks in the pilot:
“I feel like women bring a certain nurturing, love and affection to the table that I don’t get from guys.”
There is a lot of baggage there, and rather than take the emotional space to reflect upon it, he tries to get married. He proposes to a woman named Diamond without first revealing to her his sexuality.
When Carlton finally does talk about his sexual fluidity, it’s at his “honeymoon” in Mexico. The conversation does not go well. He reacts defensively and pushes Diamond away almost from the getgo. After a very charged fight where both parties say derogatory things to one another, the conversation ends with their fake relationship imploding.
After this happened, Carlton was not sure how his story on the show would unfold. There were two other couples united on the show who did not end up on camera due to time constraints. Carlton and Diamond didn’t know if or to what extent they were going to be portrayed. As Diamond told People in a joint interview:
“At one point in time, I’m like maybe they might cut us out. Because we didn’t go do more things on the trip and the others were able to walk down the aisle. We didn’t make it to the altar, so I didn’t know if they were going to use us or not because our story didn’t end as a fairytale story.”
Their stories did make it through the cutting room, however, and it led to both Diamond and Carlton scrambling to do damage control. As is typical with marginalized groups, they both reportedly received death threats for their portrayal on the show.
Reality television is built on the drama of “ordinary” people. While that exploitation can typically be ignored when it happens to privileged white people, it becomes more transparent when it occurs to contestants from more marginalized groups. Carlton is a queer, black man who came out to America in an ugly way. He did not know how his story was going to drop to the world. He was denied the ability to control his own coming out narrative, and that’s a dangerous position for a show to take when handling more vulnerable contestants.
Queer people have died for less.
For example, queer Love Island contestant Sophie Gradon reportedly took her own life after the show ended because of depression. There was obviously “other stuff” besides the reality TV show that led Sophie to that tragic conclusion — Sophie had been diagnosed with depression — but that’s the point. For more vulnerable groups, there is almost always “other stuff” happening in the background. Carlton is, unsurprisingly, also seeking therapy in the wake of a 911 call that transported him to the hospital.
These types of vulnerabilities are all too common for queer people, and like a lot of straight reality TV shows, Love Is Blind ignored them. When it came time for the show to acknowledge the harassment of Carlton and Diamond, they pretended like it was a nonissue. During the Reunion episode, the hosts were unwilling to take responsibility. They referred to Diamond and Carlton’s harassers as “keyboard warriors,” which is quite frankly a negligent position to take.
“What are we going to do with all these lying straight people?”
The toxic hetero-monogamy of the show, however, is not an inevitability for the world of reality television. It can change.
Reality shows are inherently exploitative. They were founded on the principle of cutting acting costs, and what we have heard on the set of Love Is Blind is not good. The contestants had to endure long hours and sparse conditions. As contestant Kenny told Refinery29:
“The first four days we filmed on average I’d say 18 to 20 hours. We slept in trailers and they were correctional facility beds. The design was to just strip us down from our comfort level.”
Some parts of the reality TV dating industry, though, are evolving for the better. In the eighth season of MTV’s Are You the One? (2009) the show dropped the “guy dates girl” formula entirely so that anyone can date anyone else at any time. All the contestants were cast as either bisexual, pan, or genderfluid.
The show is based on a hokey premise that contestants have to find their “perfect” algorithmic match, but there is also a sincere focus on helping them. They recieve group therapy and have to do challenges that encourage personal growth rather than just drama. For example, in episode one, they have to run an obstacle course that focuses on the psychological barriers they need to work on as people. You watch as contestants jump over obstacles with the words “Fear Of Commitment” and pick up bean bags that say “Trust Issues” and “Insensitive.”
There is reality TV drama, to be sure — contestants hookup, cheat, and fight — but the focus on contestants’ fulfillment makes for healthier television. You aren’t watching a trainwreck, but rather pieces painfully falling into place.
Are You the One?’s focus on understanding its contestants’ damage is what, in comparison, makes Love Is Blind so thoroughly disappointing. The formula presented on the Bachelor was archaic and offensive when it first aired in 2002, and it’s not any better now that Love Is Blind has adapted it for our (not so) modern times.
Additionally, the show’s new space in the market meant that it could have shaken things up and created a series that actually works on building healthy relationships.
Instead, we get a thoroughly toxic show that revels in the mess. For all its overtures to love and happiness, the show seems to want its contestants to stay hurt. It doesn’t give them the tools to be happy, only the illusion of the endproduct.
In many ways, the title for the show is perfect. Everyone is blind to love, even the producers. It treats love like building a rocketship while already launched into the stratosphere — the explosion is all but inevitable.
What are we going to do with all these burnt up straight people?
The problem is that these straight people assume they can get fixed through a relationship. It’s created a stale, damaging, and quite frankly dull script on reality television. Everyone is trying to find a guy and get married, and few people are working on themselves.