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1 September 2011, 2:00 pm 3 Comments

Not Your Average Prom Queen: Reality After Pedro

This post was submitted by Jean

In our intensely divided country there is one thing that brings together the rich and the poor, the married and the love-seekers, the beautiful and the homely, those asking for help and those offering advice.

Reality television.

When MTV’s  The Real World began its edited broadcast of 7 strangers residing together in a house in 1992, it was clear that their actions would leave the world of televised entertainment changed forever.  The intimacy, the honesty and the grit were impossible to recreate in small screen fiction, and the viewer addiction was dangerous.

Fast forward 20 years and it’s impossible to click through even a few television channels without landing on a reality show. In fact, the variety has increased to a level where we don’t even think of the shows as being of the “reality” genre – they are just TV now. There are still “sharing a house on camera ” shows like The Real World and Big Brother,  but there are also “get help” shows like Intervention and Hoarders, “warning/encouraging bad behavior” shows like 16 And Pregnant,  as well as animal shows, wedding shows, buying/selling house shows, survival shows and plastic surgery shows. There are even shows with no detectable premise (Keeping up with the Kardashians).The list is endless. Today, it could be said that getting your own reality show is one form of Making It in America.  And if that’s true, maybe this trend has brought one gift to the gay community – a slow yet steady increase in visibility.  Gay reality stars have been making a serious impact on visibility of LGBTQ issues, and maybe even acceptance as they stream into American households every night.

The beginning of this impact can be traced to The Real World’s third season castmate Pedro Zamora. The openly gay and HIV positive Zamora brought LGBTQ issues and AIDS awareness into millions of American homes in the early 90s, a time when we were still not talking about openly about homosexuality and certainly not AIDS.  Diagnosed HIV positive when he was only 17, he auditioned for the cast of the show intentionally to spread more information about AIDS awareness. Zamora passed away from HIV related illness just days after the final episode of the season was broadcast. He was 22.

Unfortunately, not all LGBT representatives can be as admirable as Zamora. Sometimes reality shows reinforce negative stereotypes, like Patti Stanger’s attempt to pair up a gay millionaire on Bravo’s Millionaire Matchmaker (read AfterElton’s POV and AfterEllen’s POV on this episode) or LOGO’s The A-List which features a cast of selected stereotypes of gay men, and, as the Washington Post commented in 2010, doesn’t make a great social study but feels more like depressing voyeurism.

More often in recent years, a reality show might feature participants who just happen to be gay, thereby helping to normalize homosexuality. On TLC’s Baby’s First Day a lesbian couple is featured celebrating the birth of their child.  Gay couples get married on wedding shows or buy houses on house hunting shows. (Look honey! Those gays like bamboo flooring, just like us!”)

We have a revolving door of gay competitors on shows like Project Runway, Top Chef, America’s Next Top Model, The Amazing Race, and even a few on American Idol. These shows do a lot to normalize LGBTQ folks. Their sexual orientation comes second to their design ideas, knife skills, vocal talent or travel smarts. Americans root for them for these talents, and maybe sometimes forget that they aren’t hetero. They aren’t gay chefs or gay models – just chefs and models.

We still don’t have a same-sex couple on the US version of Dancing with the Stars (they do in Israel), which is broadcast into 10 millions homes a week, but the cast might be ready for it.

The popularity of reality TV shows might be a result of a lack of creativity of TV execs, our own creepy desire to peer into someone else’s lives, or our desperate wish to feel better about ourselves by focusing other batty people, but they might also be a subversive tactic in the LGBTQ fight for normalcy.

What are the best and worst representations you have seen of LGBTQ folks on reality TV?

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  • James said:

    Interesting topic, Jennifer Pozner’s “Reality Bites Back” is an awesome resource for musings on this.

  • The New Gay » The New Gay Week in Review: Rieslings and Rhinoceri Edition said:

    [...] Jean reality checks reality television [...]

  • you know who said:

    Reality shows a considerably cheaper to produce, which is why they are everywhere now.