Television makes strange bedfellows.
For Ross Murray and Mackenzie Harte of the GLAAD Media Institute, working in TV meant charting undiscovered country. For reality television impresario Jeff Spangler of Lighthearted Entertainment, dabbling in queer waters represented a step into the unknown, both from a personal perspective and from a creative one. The common project between the three: Season 8 of Are You The One, the reality dating show that airs on MTV Wednesday nights.
Spangler created the hit series Are You The One for MTV back in 2014. Each season finds 16 adults living together in a house with a common goal: a matchmaker has paired each of them into “ideal” couples. If everyone in the house can discover their perfect match through a series of challenges, and plain ole’ chatting it up, they win $1,000,000.
As the show moved into its eighth season, Spangler had a daring idea: what if the show included an all sexually-fluid cast? What if anyone on the show could pair with anyone else? When MTV green-lit the concept, Murray & Harte of the GLAAD Institute stepped in to consult on the series to make sure it accurately–and respectfully–represented its queer cast, as well as the LGBTQ folk in the audience.
We snagged time with Murray, Harte & Spangler to discuss the very addictive season, and it’s incendiary concept.
Thanks for taking time to talk with us today.
Ross Murray: I don’t believe we have spoken about having worked on the show until this interview.
Mackenzie Harte: You’re breaking it, so we haven’t been receiving too much from the public. I will say that I have gotten several of my friends very addicted to the show. The reception has been very positive. That’s anecdotal, but I’ve also seen positive sentiment across social media.
That’s exciting. So Jeff, you’ve been working on this series from the beginning.
Jeff Spangler: Yes, my partner and I conceived of the idea, so I’ve been with the show from the very beginning.
At what point did you decide the world was ready for an all sexually fluid cast?
JS: It’s funny. A lot of our shows in general—you know, we’re always looking for what’s going on out there. What’s going on? What’s the conversation? Over the last couple seasons of casting the hetero version of Are You The One, we just kept hearing from not only people who wanted to be on the show, but also viewers that [there was a] conversation about sexuality that was being ignored. We would have interviews with casts who wanted to be on the show, and they were talking about their relationships. More and more—both male and female—there was a conversation of “When I date guys, it’s like this, but when I date girls, it’s like this.”
JS: So really it was born out of the young people we were talking to who want to find love. We couldn’t ignore that. This younger generation has done more breaking barriers of love to them. That, to me, was inspiring and interesting. All of that wrapped up into how do we capture this moment? So we went to MTV and said we had noticed this trend. I give credit to Chris McCarthy and Nina Diaz—they totally got it. They said “Let’s do it.”
So MTV was open to it?
JS: It’s in its DNA, you know? They push the envelope. They evolve the conversation. I credit their viewers. They tend to be younger viewers who look at and see the world differently than people who are watching broadcast television. They’ve always been trailblazers. I think they had a moment and talked about it internally, but it made sense to them.
MTV does have a history of exploring same-sex relationships. However, that said—and this is true of same-sex relationships and queer characters on TV in general—they have a sordid history when it comes to television, particularly on reality shows. MTV had Pedro Zamora on The Real World which is still amazing, but they also had Tila Tequila, and the less said about her the better.
MH: One note about Tila Tequila show, when we were doing the screening with the crew of Are You The One, we talked about that show. And also, from a personal experience, I have had a few people say that’s the first time they ever saw a bisexual person on TV.
MH: There are many issues with the show itself, as well as the person she’s become in media now. We talked about that show from a historical perspective that there were a lot of areas where it went very wrong, but there were some areas where they could learn. For example, some of the marketing used the bi-colors in subtle ways.
In that case, what personal reservations did you have going into this premise? There haven’t been too many queer dating shows. My stomach still churns at the thought of Boy Meets Boy, which aimed for a similar dynamic. That was a gay dating show and it still couldn’t have an all-gay cast!
JS: I know that I don’t know what it’s like to be queer. And I recognize that. What I also recognize, not only as a human being but as a television producer, is I didn’t really care how they identified sexually. I just knew that they wanted to be loved. To me, that was my number one reservation. I wasn’t going to fall into a heteronormative trap: in other words, tell the stories through my lens. So to me it was important to have that conversation with everyone who worked on the show to keep ourselves in check. Otherwise, what’s the point? Are we doing this because they are sexually fluid, or are we doing this because it’s what’s going to help tell their stories?
How did you reach out to the GLAAD Institute?
JS: I wasn’t involved in the initial outreach. Because of the conversations we were having and the type of characters we were having on this show, we knew it was important to educate ourselves and make sure that our crew and development team and everyone that was going to be interacting with these kids or helping to put out this product on television make sure that it was representative of the community.
RM: They reached out to us pretty much when they started putting the concept together. And, probably because of the contacts we have at MTV, they briefed us on the concept. I’m not a dating reality show person, so that was helpful catch-up for what the format of the show actually was. They wanted to bring us in from the start. They were pretty set on the concept, but they weren’t sure how to execute it. So we were there from the beginning.
How did you react to the idea?
RM: When it was getting explained, I sort of read it back: “So there’s a matchmaker or an algorithm that tells people who you’re supposed to be with?” So I was like does reality match what personality tests and quizzes? And then, hearing that part of the algorithm was that anyone could fall in love with anyone…it sort of exploded the possibilities. In some ways, it makes it simpler, and in other ways, it makes it so much more complicated.
What were your biggest concerns?
MH: Some of our concerns were that it would potentially go in some stereotypes about bisexuality, that there would be negative associations made, and some inaccurate and harmful connections between behavior often seen on reality TV and bisexuality and sexual fluidity. So knowing that the team at MTV was very aware of those issues, and knowing that they wanted to avoid that and come to us as experts on how to avoid that was pretty exciting. All of the things we did had the teams very enthusiastic and open to listening to ideas about it so they could make the show they wanted to make but still do right by the bi+ and sexually fluid community.
JS: I give all the credit in the world to MTV to leading the charge on that. It made a big difference to myself and my partner. It made a big difference to the crew and the story producers who interacted with these kids every day.
What were the points GLAAD really tried to drive home?
MH: We had several points, but first, I wanted to make sure they were inclusive of multiple gender identities beyond just male and female. A common misconception about bisexuality and sexual fluidity is that it’s men and women, when it’s actually genders like or unlike your own. One area where we all felt there was a major opportunity because we were brought in early in the process was to make sure there were people on the show who were not just cisgender men or cisgender women, but there were also trans men, for example on the show, or genderqueer people on the show. MTV was very enthusiastic to take our advice.
One other concern I had was just around any association with negative behavior stemming from having a bisexual or sexually fluid identity. The way MTV was able to avoid that association was by having personal narratives be driven through the show, which was something we really advocated for saying “Give the contestants a chance to use confessional interviews to tell their own stories to counteract many of the negative behaviors seen on the show as well as the issues bisexual people face, like higher rates of domestic partner violence, or higher rates of mental illness.”
RM: The narrative became a great opportunity to kind of directly address tropes and stereotypes, and the way they saw that play out for themselves; the way they were unlike those stereotypes, which meant they got to name it explicitly, then talk about their own history of dating. Mackenzie and I watched the first one, and I know it’s like the show for people who suck at dating.
RM: That’s the tagline, right? It’s a lot of people saying “This is my bad history with dating. Here’s why I’m not as promiscuous as one might stereotypically think that I am: I have these trust issues.” They’re talking about their own personal issues in a really good, direct way.
Was there anything you cut in order to save face for queer people, or because it would be too controversial?
JS: To be honest, if you look at my resume, I’ve never run away from controversy.
JS: At the heart of any good show, there’s always an edge. What I always try to do, is fine, yes, we acknowledge there’s an edge to it. The moment you tune in, you’re also pleasantly surprised because your eyes are open to something you didn’t expect.
MH: They sent us the first couple of episodes. Myself and a few others looked at them. We provided comprehensive notes, and a lot of them were very positive. Then I think that as the production schedule was moving forward, we provided less and less notes because we were becoming more confident with the show.
RM: Also, we asked a lot of questions about things like marketing. There was a conversation about a group of people that were not all going to have the same sexual orientation terms. So what’s the term that we use? And we landed on “sexually fluid.” They’re not all bisexual, they’re not all queer. So what’s the best term to refer to this group, because that’s what’s going out on marketing materials. That’s going to impact people before they even see an episode.
MH: We explored more points to emphasize. We did a lot of education upfront, so their team was very aware by the time they started putting episodes together. It was a more positive experience.
Let it be said too: the show had caught flack for its premise and content before it even aired.
RM: I’ll add this too. Sometimes it’s easier to say “Here’s the pitfall you can fall into.” So you can make choices you want to make, but be aware this is how it can be perceived. The important thing to mention is the consistency: how this show, behavior-wise, is very similar to previous seasons. These are not saints, but they’re not worse sinners from past seasons either.
JS: Going back to that filter that I made sure we were working through…I wasn’t going to shy away from Kai taking testosterone shots. That’s part of who Kai is. I’m not asking permission for that. I’m also not asking for permission if Kai is going to be topless, because Kai identifies as male. That’s who he is. There wasn’t this kind of filter of what is the audience going to say? Can society handle this? Once we decide to go for it, we go for it. We want to be authentic.
I love Kai’s character. I love that the biggest stud—or Mac Daddy, as we said in my day—is a transgender genderfluid person. There’s something awesome about that.
JS: I will tell you, I share in that joy. We cast all these young people separate from each other. They don’t get a chance to interact prior to the show. They meet for the first time on camera in the house. This happens every season: I never know what I’m going to get, what that stew is. The moment these 16 kids walk into that house, they all were so open. It’s probably such a breath of fresh air to them to be authentically who they are for the first time of their lives, and be in such a safe space. All the rules and thoughts they have about who they are and what they’re attracted to peel away. And yes, Kai was a mac daddy!
Awesome. Springboarding off of that, the show is also very sex-positive. There are orgies, lots of hooking up, but nobody ever shames anyone for that. Was that a conscious choice? Did you discuss this in advance with the cast?
JS: That is organic to the cast.
MH: One area around this is that this is the eighth season of the show, and hook-ups happened on other seasons. “Promiscuous behavior” is nothing new on the show. One area where we think the show does a great job is in having open discussions about sex and sexuality. There are people on the show who are very confident about being sex-positive, people who will explore different options in their life. Then there are people on the show who are very monogamous and speak openly about that in a safe place. That allows for showing variety and that bi+ people are capable of choosing or not choosing monogamy as monosexual people are as well.
JS: One thing we try our best not to do is hinder the story in any way is make them be something that they’re not. We go through the casting process to figure out who these characters are, what their particulars are. We try to get a good mix of personalities and stories, then we throw them in the house. The “rules” are more production-related than character or story related. We want them to be them. So if someone is going to start—pardon my language—slut-shaming someone, they’re going to be reckoned with by the house. I don’t think the house would have put up with that. They create their own rules. This particular group was sex-positive; sex is part of dating. Sex is part of connecting. For some that’s more emotional, for some that is more physical and everything in between. By the way, this house was very supportive of each other on their journeys they have to take. Of course, there is drama, but they kept themselves in check.
RM: I also imagine, with the cast, there is also a level of self-awareness. I think Mackenzie encouraging the personal narratives and using the confessional to talk about themselves means they already know what stereotypes they’re facing. They know which ones they are against, which means, going into the show, they probably know better than a straight cisgender person who doesn’t have to think about this so often. These folks say “Oh, if I’m seen on camera doing this, people will think this about me.” Part of that is a self-aware cast. They can do whatever they want to do, but also be informed of how they will be perceived.
I’m glad you said that. One thing that sets this show apart from other reality television is that everybody is working together and being supportive of one another. They’re not trying to backstab one another. They’re coming together and working toward a shared goal. Everybody basically seems to like everybody else. More than that, it also makes being queer or fluid look really cool. On the network side, and from the point of view of the GLAAD Institute, what’s the reception been?
JS: The reception has been nothing but positive. We’ve have several instances where the network has gone out and asked programming to give us more time to tell our stories more in-depth. I think we’ve had nothing but support from MTV on this project. I think this story that we’re telling—maybe because of the kids’ backgrounds, maybe because of the journey they’re on sexually, there are more layers there. We’ve been given this opportunity to guide them to who they are, and it has been nothing but praised by MTV. They love the storytelling.
RM: People seem to get it and understand it, which, at the institute, makes us feel really good.
MH: From a personal perspective, I’m not a big fan of dating shows, but I’m loving this season. I would like to see more sexual fluidity in more dating shows. We’re also seeing queer people being included in other dating shows that are still pretty much straight dating shows, like The Bachelor. I think Are You the One is showing a great path forward.
Are you talking about doing another season like this?
JS: I cannot confirm nor deny another season of Are You The One…
JS: But I can tell you our goal always is to explore how young people are dating, all the permutations that can entail and the complications that come with it. As you say, a lot of dating shows, there is one goal to be attained, one person who has a bevy of options and needs to pick one. Thus, the backstabbing. Are You The One was born out of a simple idea: if you are standing in a room with a bunch of people, would you know if the perfect person was there? Could you pick him out of a crowd? All of us have done that in our dating lives. By having that be a collective dance, they can be supportive of each other. It doesn’t mean they don’t disagree, but they have a collective goal. That, to me, is what has allowed the show to find success.
When do we get the all-male version?
JS: As soon as I get that phone call, I’m on it.
I’d like to expand my dating prospects. Keep me in mind.
Are You The One airs Wednesday nights on MTV.