Everything You Missed On the 'UK's First Bisexual Dating Show'
'First Dates' meets 'Love Island' in E!'s new reality series, 'The Bi Life'.
All images via E! Entertainment
When Sophie Gradon confessed to being bisexual on Love Island in 2016, Zara – the recipient of this information was shocked. "Huge bombshell!" she said, before asking an innocent but absurd question: "If a lesbian walked in and you found her hot, what would you do?"
Sophie's appearance as a bisexual woman on British TV was a rarity then, and remains one now. After this year's Love Island, Twitter users were calling for a queer version of the show. Meanwhile, everyone continues to go mushy for the same-sex pairings on Dinner Date and First Dates; British drama The Bisexual recently started airing on Channel 4; and wider popular culture is edging slowly towards the acceptance of bisexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation.
The appetite for a queer or fluid dating show, then, has been there for some time.
Enter The Bi Life, a reality series promoting itself as the UK's first bisexual dating show. Set in Barcelona – because who wants to see Brits snog in Kidderminster – bisexual men and women from Manchester and London were flown over this summer to spend their entire trip dating. They go dates, facilitated by the show, and are allowed to date each other and any civilian they might meet. The idea, of course, is to find love regardless of gender.
It perhaps seems obvious, but a successful bisexual dating programme needs to depict the reality of what it actually means to date as a bisexual in 2018.
The reality is more or less: you co-exist between straight and queer culture, with one foot more in one than the other, depending on who you're dating. It's going on a Tinder date in a gay bar one month and having a beer in Spoons the next. It's being asked your birth chart and making jokes about The L Word, then watching Take Me Out and listening to Radiohead in a room with no plants. It's navigating the different dynamics of a straight relationship and a queer one, each of which comes with its own difficulties. It's equal parts freeing and scatty and lonely, depending on your outlook, especially if you're close to evenly attracted to all genders. If it sounds like a head-fuck, that's because it can be.
So, does The Bi Life show any of that complexity? From the first episode, which aired last night, it would seem there will be flashes of it. The show itself has that heavily-formatted, Americanised quality of a show like The Real Housewives – lots of pieces to camera and reducing every emotional arch to a tight beat – but at its heart is First Dates x Love Island.
In the opening credits, contestants reveal snippets like, "I've had a lot of labels... that I'm greedy, confused, gay. I think that's kind of ignorant," and, "Yes, I have more choice, but I'm still single and I need some help." In between the dates, which make up the majority of the show, there are brief montages of contestants doing things like sitting around drinking wine or cycling along the Barcelona seafront saying, "It really hurts your vagina."
The bisexuality presented is notably palatable for a straight audience. All the female contestants, for example, are femme, and everyone is cis. On a more positive note, there is racial diversity, unlike Love Island, and showrunners have clearly gone out of their way to cast different types of people.
At its best, the show tells the stories of various men and women at various stages in their love lives as bisexual people. There's shy, retiring angel Michael, who has his first ever date on the show because he's been working so hard at his swimming career; but also serial dater Daisie, who tells us she's been on hundreds of dates. When confronted with her choice of dates on Tinder-style cards, one option is a woman with large breasts. Daisie says bluntly "massive hooters". "Are you a fan of a massive hooter?" asks Courtney, to which Daisie replies, "I’m more of an arse girl." I don't remember seeing women crudely sexualise other women on reality TV since The Real L Word, and I have to say I quite enjoyed it.
This show is clearly meant to both entertain and educate viewers, which it does.
At the launch event in London, host Courtney Act – a RuPaul's Drag Race favourite – told me, "Reality TV doesn't have to be sensationalist. People are actually interested if information is presented to them in an accessible way. You're having your perception expanded via osmosis, there's nothing strange or confronting about it."
That insightful aspect of the show comes from the date footage, during which contestants have been encouraged to talk about their sexuality (although it's not a rule). Ryan goes on a blind date with a blonde woman and discloses to her that he is bisexual. "Was your last relationship with a guy then, or a girl?" she asks, in a way that strongly suggests she'd find it odd if it were a guy. He says it was a guy. She looks puzzled and not especially happy. "I've never dated someone that's bisexual before, but I'd definitely be open to that. But I guess the only thing that kind of niggles in my brain would be like, ah, and this probably sounds insecure, but, 'Is he looking at guys, is he looking at girls?'"
At the event, Ryan told me he'd only slept with women, but not had a relationship with one. "I've never told women about my sexuality for fear of how they'd take it," he said. "I'd heard conversations before of how women didn't like [bisexuality in men], so I'd only open up and get close to men. I'd heard that men receive it better."
A universal bisexual experience is having your sexuality treated with suspicion, even by the person you're dating; regardless of whether you're a bisexual man or woman, it's always assumed that you'll return to some default factory setting of preferring men. For a bisexual woman, a straight man will tend to not be that threatened by your bisexuality, whereas a lesbian may be more apprehensive for a multitude of reasons (the ease of straight privilege, many gay people having said they were bisexual before realising they were gay, to name a couple).
To its credit, the show cuts straight to a piece-to-camera where Ryan explains that, in the court of public opinion, having wandering eyes is part of being bisexual – when it absolutely isn't.
Beyond this, it's unique on British TV to see bisexual people brought together. After the dates, all the contestants gather on a sofa area to watch themselves back, and mostly say "awwww" and clutch their acrylics to their face. At other points they hang out around Barcelona and talk about bisexuality as a concept and in practice, in among your general dating chat.
When interviewed, none of the contestants said they had bisexual friends; most had majority straight friends and usually gay friend groups. There was a clear correlation between those who had majority straight friends and how few same-sex dates they'd been on and how comfortable in their sexuality they were before the show. Not knowing other bisexuals – while existing in a monosexual culture – is often what keeps bisexuals in the closet, or from recognising and acknowledging it in themselves.
"I've known I've liked girls from the age of four, and I do know that I'm 50-50," Leonnie told me. "But I didn't start sexually exploring with girls until I was 21. I felt like, 'Oh, this is naughty, I shouldn’t be doing it,' but as I got more comfortable in my sexuality I realised I did like both the same." Leonnie's is a common experience that a lot of bisexuals will find extremely relatable. If you are sure you like one gender, it's easy to assume that that's you sorted.
Whether the show gets juicy is yet to be seen – from this episode it all seems a bit saccharine, which, fine, but: shagging? – but it does seem as though a valuable message for both straight and LGBTQ+ communities will emerge: the freedom of people to self-identify. As Ryan told me, "If you’re dating more women or more men, that's totally up to yourself and I don't think you can say to anyone 'Oh, you're more on the gay side,' or 'the straight side'. You are 'bisexual'. The person that you’re with at the time doesn’t change anything. You know who you are as a person."
The Bi Life premiered on Thursday the 25th of October at 9PM on E! UK & Ireland.