When exactly did the British public fall in love with dating shows? It’s been a quiet takeover, but somehow the TV schedules have ended up filled with lonely hearts looking for love, from lunchtime marathons of Dinner Date to the late-night sleaze of Naked Attraction. The dating show craze hit its peak this summer with the latest series of Love Island, which ended up becoming such a phenomenon the finale was screened in cinemas and journalists wouldn’t stop asking Labour leader and absolute boy Jeremy Corbyn who his favourite contestant was (it was Marcel). The nation still hasn’t entirely recovered.
However, this love affair has traditionally been exclusively heterosexual. We’ve had Sexy Beasts, a show in which daters were covered in prosthetics and transformed into mythical creatures before they hooked up, but queer romance has been a step too far for most of the history of dating shows. We started to see LGBTQ folk appear in the 2000s, but it was limited to grim stunt shows like the wildly transphobic There’s Something About Miriam and American import A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila. The fierce backlash to the revival of Playing it Straight – in which a woman had to determine which of a number of potential male partners were secretly gay – in 2012 hopefully closed that era for good.
While we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of mainstream dating shows willing to open their doors to queer singletons since then, many remain depressingly straight. Hell, a few years ago, ITV2 aired a dating show literally called Girlfriends that was somehow entirely heterosexual. Even when we are included, queer contestants are often covered up in episode descriptions and the dates themselves can be unbearably cringeworthy. If you started a drinking game based on how many times either “All the Things She Said” or “I Kissed a Girl” is played behind the introduction of a queer woman alone, you wouldn’t live to see the end of it.
What’s a queer girl to do? The weird model of romance these shows rely on might not suit… well, anybody really, but it’s not fun being left out of the party. At least when talent shows were the big thing we had Alex Parks and Lucy Spraggan. And back then you only had to keep up with a couple of shows! Who has time to sift through all the dating shows out there to work out which ones have queer content, never mind which of those make you wish they hadn’t bothered?
Well, reader, I’m here to save you. This list isn’t going to cover every single dating show on UK television, because I only have Freeview and quite frankly I’m a little too scared to go digging around the more obscure satellite channels. However, I can guarantee you that it’s the most comprehensive review of the relative queerness of British dating shows you’re going to read this week. In true reality television style, I’ll be giving each show a score based on two metrics: the amount of queer content, and to what degree that content will leave you silently begging it to end.
6. Take Me Out / Love Island / Dating in the Dark
Consider this the sin bin. The only love allowed here is the pure, honest love between a man, a woman and a television production crew. Take Me Out‘s host, Paddy McGuinness, has said he’d like to see a gay edition of the show, but that was over two years now and we’re yet to see any sign it might actually happen. Meanwhile, despite featuring bisexual contestants in the past, ITV2 recently announced they wouldn’t be allowing same-sex couples on Love Island, claiming it would “take something away from the format”. You’re all getting an F. I don’t pay my television license to watch heterosexuals touch each other.
Queer Content: 0/10
Overall Score: 0/10
5. Ex on the Beach
Ex on the Beach is just as relentlessly straight as the shows above; this extra point is solely because its premise – being forced into constant contact with your ex – is as gay as it comes.
Queer Content: 1/10
Overall Score: 1/10
4. Blind Date
Simultaneously the granddaddy of dating shows and the new kid on the block. Blind Date started in 1985 and ran for almost twenty years until, in an incredibly baller move, host Cilla Black quit the show live on air. But now Channel 5, broadcaster of beloved TV classics like Touch the Truck and Celebrity Super Spa, has brought it back! And it’s 2017, so they can’t pretend queer people don’t exist any more! Now hosted by everyone’s favourite gay uncle and ex-drag queen, Paul O’Grady, the new and improved Blind Date aired six episodes this summer. Between them, they featured a grand total of one queer contestant – Alice, whose defining personality trait was being a big fan of Celine Dion. Despite Channel 5 promising there would be LGBTQ representation “throughout the series”, at two dates per episode, that’s a rate of one queer date for every eleven straight dates. Not fantastic. But there’s something about Blind Date’s old-fashioned charm that let me see past the numbers. Just like thirty years ago, contestants on the show are sent on a date with their pick from three potential, unseen partners. The entire thing is run like a game show, and even when the rejected lonely hearts are given the boot or the date goes horribly wrong, it feels like everyone’s in on the fun. It’s definitely the sweetest show on this list, and if it can just promise me a few more queers in future, I’ll be tuning in again when it comes back.
Queer Content: Technically 0.833/10, But Let’s Call It 2/10
Overall Score: 4/10
3. Naked Attraction
First things first, Naked Attraction gets bonus points right out the gate for being hosted by Anna Richardson, girlfriend of Sue Perkins, and therefore one half of Britain’s hottest (and, let’s face it, only) queer woman TV power couple. The rest of the show is a trip. Each episode involves one clothed singleton and six naked contestants vying for their affection. Their bodies are revealed in stages from the feet up, with one rejected at each stage. When only two contestants are left, the person deciding takes off their own clothes and chooses which one to go on a date with. They hug – yes, it’s awkward every single time – walk off together, and then we get to see how the date went. Channel 4 might call it a ‘social experiment’, but it’s a show unabashedly for that point when it’s 1AM, you’re a bit drunk and you just want to turn on the telly and laugh at some willies – and, honestly, I kind of respect it for that. The series has been slated by critics for being “degrading”, and it’s hard to deny that when you’re watching someone choose between potential dates based solely on their genitals. But there’s a strange kind of satisfaction in watching the objectification we’re all subjected to every day taken to the extreme. If your Tinder date is going to be staring at your boobs anyway, why not just whap it all out?
While we’re still on the positives, the show makes a real effort at LGBTQ inclusion, having featured gay, lesbian, bi, pan and trans contestants over the course of its two series. Unfortunately, once you look past all the genitals, things start to take a turn for the worst. Why is it that the dating show with the most commitment to queer representation is the one designed to garner outraged Daily Mail headlines? Why do the strange educational cut-aways have such a terrible understanding of sex and gender? Why is a show ostensibly about showing off ‘real people’ so dominated by white, young, thin bodies without visible disabilities? Where the heck is everyone’s pubic hair? Naked Attraction certainly isn’t “the worst programme ever shown on television”, as Mediawatch-UK (the current incarnation of Mary Whitehouse’s infamous National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association) claimed last year, but you might end up feeling a little skeezy watching it. On the other hand, its second series does feature a contestant describing herself as being passionate about “feminism, eggs and gin” before explaining the concept of pansexuality, and I’m not sure where else you’ll find that on British television.
Queer Content: 8/10
Awkwardness: Depends On Your Feelings About People Critiquing Other People’s Genitals. 7/10?
Overall Score: 6/10
2. First Dates
If we were ranking on convenience, First Dates would win by a country mile. For those times when you just have to watch two women who’ve never met awkwardly chat about coming out, First Dates is there; every episode of the main show, its specials and weird spin-off First Dates Hotel is always available on demand for anyone willing to deal with Channel 4’s atrocious app. The premise is simple: each episode follows a night at a restaurant where everyone dining is there on a blind date. The show’s been LGBTQ inclusive since it began back in 2013, though it only features a few queer or trans singletons per series. The fact that each episode cuts between multiple dates also means that unless you’re happy to get familiar with your fast-forward button, you have to cope with a lot of hetero bullshit to get to them. The mating rituals of the straights are very strange. They spend most of the time arguing over who’s going to pay for dinner and, unlike the queer dates, very few of them end up with the happy couple driving off in a taxi to Soho.
As for how uncomfortable it’ll make you: very, probably. Most of the dates go poorly in some way, and watching a few episodes in a row will leave you questioning everything you thought you knew about basic human interaction. But at least it’s equal-opportunity awkwardness! Unlike most of the shows on this list, I’ve only really felt uncomfortable watching as a queer woman once: when a participant told the camera that “If [my date] looks like a lesbian, then I won’t like her”. Which gets us to a big problem with pretty much every show on this list: when queer women do appear, they almost always fit into one mould: thin, cis, white and high femme. While it’s great to see queer femmes represented, it means the real diversity of the British queer scene gets completely overlooked. First Dates in particular features a wide variety of straight singles looking for love, but most of the time we only get to see a depressingly narrow vision of queer existence. On one date, I literally couldn’t tell the two women apart. Though in the show’s defence, I do have face blindness.
First Dates, then. It’ll make you want to curl up and die, but that’s kind of what it’s going for.
Queer Content: 5/10, But With Bonus Points For How Easy It Is To Access
Overall Score: 7/10
1. Dinner Date
Honestly, I love Dinner Date. You might call ITV’s decision to just blatantly smush together First Dates and Come Dine with Me ‘cynical’. That, however, would be to ignore Dinner Date‘s subtle genius. The show introduces a lonely heart to three blind dates, each of which has to cook them a three course meal. The contestant chooses their favourite to take out to a romantic restaurant, while the others get delivered a microwave meal for one. It’s all shot on a budget of about £3.80 but, like all the best daytime TV, you can put an episode on for some background noise and four hours later you’re yelling at Helen from Exeter to take her cheese sauce off the hob before it burns.
Queer participants might appear less frequently than in other shows on this list, but with over 200 episodes broadcast and six participants in each (though only four actually get to go on the dates), Dinner Date certainly has numbers on its side. It’s also the only series here to consistently feature masculine-of-centre women, and many episodes have daters chatting about issues like femme erasure and the London-centrism of the queer scene over their dinner. Unfortunately, Dinner Dates is absolutely the worst offender when it comes to hackneyed musical choices; you will get sick of hearing t.A.T.u.
The music aside, it’s easy to fall for Dinner Date‘s low-budget charm. The entire thing is filmed in the participants’ homes and everyone is clearly only on the show to have a laugh, which makes it easier to swallow when someone who’s never cooked before decides to make a soufflé twenty minutes before their date turns up. Sure, it’s not the most original show on television, but it has heart – and isn’t that what we’re all here for?
Queer Content: 7/10
Overall Score: 8/10
Dinner Date is our winner! To be honest, though, that’s not saying much. This isn’t the place for an in-depth discussion of queer assimilation and the issues with replicating a heteronormative relationship model, but a truly queer dating show wouldn’t look much like a dating show at all. Sure, I enjoy the shows we have, but watching them en masse for this article was thoroughly depressing. When you’ve spent twenty minutes scouring through the episode list to find some queer women and you hear the opening drumbeat of “I Kissed a Girl” kick in again, it doesn’t feel good. I’m lucky enough to have been able to create a bubble for myself where queerness is the unquestioned norm. Even the best of the UK’s dating shows serve to remind me how fragile that bubble is, that for most of the population queer women are a novelty at best and non-existent at worst.
It’s not all bad, though. I was surprised to find that queer women appeared in more or less equal numbers to – and in some cases actually outnumbered – queer men. That’s particularly notable when you realise that while there have been multiple English-language gay dating shows, there’s never been a single lesbian one. And things are getting better, with newer series like Naked Attraction explicitly recruiting participants from across the entire spectrum of gender and sexuality, and the mainstream press beginning to raise questions about our exclusion from those shows that don’t welcome us. Then again, maybe being barred from the world of dating shows for so long has really been a blessing in disguise – at least we got to skip the indignities of Sing Date.