Navigating Representation as a Viewer

By Zach B.

(Pictured: AYTO Season 8 and Taylor Swift)

(Pictured: AYTO Season 8 and Taylor Swift)

With pride month coming to its recent end, it seems that everything has been painted in rainbow lately. I always end up rolling my eyes at this time of year, simply because it feels like every brand and corporation is trying to show that they’re “gay friendly” now. They figured out that it’s good for business and they want in. When pride month is in full-swing, every capitalist entity gets their rainbow flags out and likes to play ally because that’s what’s in right now. And not doing so can potentially make you lose money. As a result, a lot of questions come up about the intention behind promoting inclusion and tolerance these days.

And right on cue in the month of June, promotions began for Are You the One?: Come One Come All. One of MTV’s biggest reality shows, Are You the One? has decided to hop on the gay bandwagon and release a season consisting of all sexually-fluid cast members. 

If you’ve never seen the show, it’s about a bunch of single straight strangers who get put in a house and have to figure out who their “perfect match” is; if they can match everyone correctly according to pairs made by a team of “psychologists,” they collectively split a million dollars and go home, ideally, with a new partner. Since the show’s premiere in 2014, the matches have always consisted of men and women. Now, the show is putting a spin on things by casting people who are attracted to all genders.

I tell myself that I watch Are You the One? ironically, but I’ve tuned in every week for a couple years now. My friends and I have joked about the possibility of a queer season and how it would be exponentially harder for the contestants to match up if the show wasn’t so heteronormative. To see the idea brought to life piques my interest. However, my reality TV guilty pleasure is not the only reason that I’ve been thinking about this so much. 

When I heard about this new queer season, I was immediately skeptical. These days, we often see and hear different things like “feminism” and “LGBT inclusivity” and “radical politics” being used as a ploy to fill some diversity quota and to make a brand seem more open-minded than it actually is. I wasn’t exactly holding out hope that this show would do anything significant.

That being said, I wasn’t just going to not watch it, and within the first ten or twenty minutes of the show, I was pleasantly surprised. The sexually-fluid premise wasn’t being used to showcase hot girls making out, it was actually allowing these people to talk about their experiences and feelings and what their identities mean for them. They actually included articulate cast members who were talking about how being LGBTQ+ has affected them and what it means for their love lives in present day. I also have to add that watching all of these queer 20-somethings meet and mingle made me feel a tinge of jealousy. Being on reality TV is something that I’ve never given serious thought to, but the opportunity to live with and get to know so many different people with the possibility of receiving that validation sounds so ideal.

The sun doesn’t rise and set on a reality show, but I was relieved to see some type of representation that resonated. This debate of accurate representation and promoting inclusivity does not just touch TV and film. Mere weeks ago, internet quarrels ensued over Taylor Swift's music video for “You Need to Calm Down.” The video was decorated in rainbow everything and featured a variety of familiar LGBT faces. It was quickly called into question whether she was doing this to profit off of the trending pride aesthetic, or if she had genuine intent to promote acceptance. Many people said that the video was gimicky and trying to pander to a wider audience, while others argued that we should simply be happy that someone so big and famous is promoting these positive messages. On top of that, she was simultaneously donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to LGBT organizations, and her video prompted an influx of donations to GLAAD.

All of this talk and consideration of what’s good and bad representation prompts me to sit down and think about how I navigate what I consume; how I decide who’s simply out for their own gain and who’s trying to make a positive change. It’s a hard thing to do, simply because I don’t always know where I draw the line and what my litmus test is for authenticity here.  When do I need to be critical? When should I simply be happy about how far we’ve come? When should I shut up and just accept what I’m given? (Hint: never.)

What I try to focus on now is whether the representation we’re seeing is doing anything positive. Is it causing actual positive change in the minds of its viewers or in the circumstances that certain groups live in? Or are we just being bombarded with words and images that executives think will connect in order to coax us into spending money? What I definitely know is that we don’t want to see diversity for the sake of checking an arbitrary box. We want it because it’s what exists in the real world, and we want to see that reflected, as opposed to ignored or erased.

I’m not the biggest fan of Taylor Swift, and when I see a music video swarmed with all things LGBT, it does make me roll my eyes and question things. Why haven’t we seen any of this in the first ten years of her career? However, when I think about the monetary aspect, and about how it is making actual positive, tangible change, I have to ease up a tiny bit. I’m not saying to ditch the skepticism entirely, I’ve been tricked before. (Think t.A.T.u. circa 2002) However, we need to look at the practicalities of what these kinds of promotions can do and if they’re actually inciting change, even if they don’t line up with our personal aesthetic or music taste.

I’m going to continue to be cautious about what media I consume and the intentions of its creators. Slowly, I am trying to learn to look at the positives of these kinds of things and understand that even if an artist or creative director has personal gain involved, that doesn’t poison the results of the entire project. If they are pandering, people want to see more inclusivity, and that is at least a good sign. If they’re not trying to make a group of people look bad or use them as an accessory, then maybe I can cross this off my list of things to be chronically angry about.