Reality television has always been a way for audiences at home to see the “real” lives of “real” people – even though most of the story lines are planned out in advance. Sociologist Joshua Gamson has states that reality TV is “a welcoming place for gays and lesbians, who have served as efficient sources of disclosure and self-acceptance drama, symbols of authenticity, and lessons in tolerance” (2013, pg. 52). In some ways, reality TV has continued the stereotypical images of queer people – especially gay men – while it has also given attention to of forms of queerness that have long been overlooked by the media, like drag queens and trans people. Both cases have their problems though. Portraying queer people as nothing but stereotypes only allows the audience to view them one-dimensionally. But focusing on “quirky” or “strange” forms of queerness portrays queers as sensationalized spectacles on exhibit for the entertainment of the audience. However, this is not too unusual within the genre of reality television, because networks often turn anyone into a spectacle in order to attract a larger audience.
However, reality TV has also had positive impacts on the perception of queers in our society. In scripted fictional television shows, the queer character is often white (such as Jack and Will from Will & Grace, Kurt and Brittany from Glee, and Mitchell and Cam from Modern Family).
Within the last couple of years, queer people of color are becoming more noticeable on scripted television (such as Santana on Glee, Oscar on The Office, Mr. Wolfe on Suburgatory, and Tara and Lafayette on TrueBlood).
According to GLAAD, 23% of queer people of primetime broadcast scripted shows in 2013 were people of color. I think this recent shift is largely due to the portrayal of queer people of color in reality television for several years, beginning in 1994 with MTV’s The Real Word: San Francisco. According to GLAAD’s 2006 report, unscripted reality television include “numerous diverse representations that better reflect the LGBT community” (2006).
The Real Word: San Francisco
The first openly queer couple on reality television were Pedro Zamora and Sean Sasser on MTV’s 1994 The Real Word: San Francisco. Both Pedro and Sean were men of color (Pedro was a Cuban immigrant and Sean was black) and both were HIV positive during the show. This was America’s first taste of real gay men of color and they opened the doors for future queer people of color on television.
“Gay Male Style Guru”
One stereotype that gay men particularly have had to deal with in media is being portrayed as what Gamson calls the “gay male style guru”. Especially with the rise in popularity of style makeover and fashion competition shows, the audience (of usually straight women) is coming to expect gay male style gurus on these types of reality TV. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in the mid 2000s was the first reality show to depict gay men as style gurus. From there, gay male style gurus has been featured in countless reality shows, including Clinton Kelly on What Not To Wear, Tim Gunn on Project Runway, and both Miss Jay and Mister Jay on America’s Next Top Model.
Gamson explains that while these gay male gurus are in undeniably submission roles, with their only goal to serve their clients, they are also in positions of power because they are knowledgeable about the subject.
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
On TLC’s reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Honey Boo Boo’s uncle Lee Thompson is openly gay. While he is a gay man, he does not come close to representing the typical stereotype of a gay male style guru. Unfortunately, the fact that he is not a walking stereotype does not stop his family from treating him as such. They call him “Poodle”, because poodles are “gay dogs”. Honey Boo Boo’s mom explains that all gay men know the great dance moves and because of this, he is expected to coach Honey Boo Boo before every pageant. Honey Boo Boo exclaims, “Ain’t nothing wrong with being a little gay. Everybody’s a little gay!” While Lee is treated by his family as nothing more than a style guru stereotype, he embraces the show as a way to show America that there are gay men who live in the South.
America’s Next Top Model
As mentioned earlier, America’s Next Top Model has had several queer people on its show and the host Tyra Banks actively works to portray queers positively. Of all the queer contestants throughout the series, Isis King from cycle 11 and 17 (2008 and 2011, respectively) has become a role model for trans people in America. Isis’ role in ANTM was groundbreaking on television, especially since she is a trans person of color. Though she was eliminated relatively early on in both seasons in which she participated, she has maintained a successful career, recently modeling for American Apparel.
A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila
Tila Tequila’s show on MTV A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila (2007-2008) was the first bisexual reality dating show, similar to The Bachelor, with 15 straight male contestants and 15 lesbian contestants . While this show was portrayed as breaking sexuality barriers in reality television, it instead seemed to reinforce the view that lesbians and bisexual women serve little purpose outside of the pornographic. Right before the show aired in 2007, there was an article that ran in the Christian Post. This article states that this show was “a first for a network that doesn’t specifically target the LGBT crowd.” While that may be the case, it would seem that this show was not intended for the LGBT crowd whatsoever. It appears to serve the sole propose of reinforcing the pornographic fantasies of a straight male-dominated sexual culture.
RuPaul’s Drag Race
One of the most popular queer reality shows currently on television is RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-present) on Logo TV, described by Gamson as “a drag America’s Next Top Model”. Set up as a reality competition show searching for “America’s next drag superstar,” RuPaul’s Drag Race “challenges the very concept of gender itself” (Hicks, 2013) and brings drag into the homes of millions of Americans. In part because the concept of drag is to create a theatrical performance, the drag queens in the show fall into the stereotypical portrayal of queer people as quirky, sensationalized spectacles. Though most of the contestants on the show identity as men when they are not in drag, the show has also featured a transgender contestant, Sonique, who revealed that she was in the process of transitioning to be a woman. Fenton Bailey, producer and creator of RuPaul’s Drag Race, describes drag as an art form used to comment and make a satire of our culture. He explains that the show itself is dragging the concept of competition-elimination reality shows.
“Gaystreaming” and “Dualcasting”
Logo TV, the network the airs RuPaul’s Drag Race focuses mostly on shows geared towards a queer audience. However, Logo TV has recently begun a rebranding project in order to attract more straight women. Eve Ng (2013) calls this rebranding approach “gaystreaming” and argues that it undermines the original goals of the network, which sought to create an honest television portrayal for the queer community. Scholar Katherine Sender (2007) calls this approach of using queer people to attract both gay men and straight women “dualcasting”. Gamson explains that networks use dualcasting as a way to advertise products to straight women, thereby attracting more advertisers and increasing their profits. Logo even announced this year that they will begun casting straight people in their reality shows as a way to attract a wider audience, presumably as a way to attract more advertisers as well.
Reality TV has become a major form of entertainment in the United States and much of the audience believes it is real. It doesn’t matter that the most of the story lines are planned out in advance and the filming of the season is complete long before the first episode airs, a large percentage of viewers actively believe these shows are real. Because most queer representation on reality TV has been either as the gay male style guru or as a “strange” sensationalized spectacle, many Americans believe that all queer people are theatrical and stylish. While reality television has its drawbacks in its stereotypical portrayals of queer people, it does provide more diversity in the images of queer people in the media because scripted fictional TV often focuses of white gay men. With more accurate and diverse representations of queer people in reality TV, like queer people of color, scripted fictional television is beginning to portray “normal” queer people who are like everyone else. This is largely due to a shift in the audience. As the audience got used to seeing real queer people on reality television, they have become more welcoming of queer people portrayed as normal on fictional television. This is an important step for queer people to receive the social and political equality that they deserve.
Black, Nathan. “CP Entertainment.” Christian Post. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.christianpost.com/news/mtv-to-air-bisexual-dating-reality-series-29285/>.
Gamson, Joshua. “Reality Queens.” Contexts Spring 2013: n. pag. Web. <http://www.usfca.edu/uploadedFiles/Destinations/College_of_Arts_and_Sciences/Undergraduate_Programs/Sociology/docs/RealityQueens_Gamson.pdf>.
Hicks, Jessia. “”Can I Get an ‘Amen’?”: Marginalized Communities and Self-Love on RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Queer Love in Film and Television: Critical Essays. Ed. Pamela Demory and Christopher Pullen. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Palgrave Macmillan. Web. <http://books.google.com/books?id=6g8GZMdckQEC&pg=PR7&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false>.
Ng, Eve. “A “Post-Gay” Era? Media Gaystreaming, Homonormativity, and the Politics of LGBT Integration.” Communication, Culture & Critique 6.2 (2013): 258-83. Print.
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“Where We Are on TV Report: 2005 – 2006 Season.” GLAAD: Leading the Conversation for LGBT Equality. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.glaad.org/publications/tvreport05>.
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