Recent news about the status of gays in this country can be chilling to say the least. These stories range from the frustratingly absurd, like Republicans blocking the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to the heartbreaking, including revelations of torment and bulling in individual lives. In the midst of these stories, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) recently reported that the number of fictional gays and lesbians being represented on scripted television increased slightly (up to a still paltry 3.9 percent of all characters from the previous year’s 2.6). It draws into question, if there are more images of queer folk on television than ever before, how does this reconcile with the lack of GLBTQ equality in the United States?
Certainly I do marvel at how much attitudes have changed since I first came out in the early nineties. At the time, the best one could hope for on television was a “very special” episode where a never-before-seen friend reveals that he or she is gay to the protagonist. The rest of those stories tend to be devoted to watching how that central character came to terms with the revelation. While these types of episodes did usually have a core message about “tolerance,” they more often served to emphasize just how “charitable” the main character was deep down. Once established, we would never see or hear mention of that gay friend ever again.
By the early nineties, fledgling attempts at “reality” television marked a sudden departure in representations of gay people. MTV’s The Real World and other similar shows began to show gay people with actual lives and concerns themselves, often times that had little to do with the straight people who surrounded them. This opened the flood gates to making at least one gay person de rigueur for any new reality program. Scripted television has likewise come along a bit in terms of adding gay men and lesbians as supporting characters. Yet, those shows tend to only make queer people accessible if they are white and safely locked in suburbia (That, though, is another blog post entirely). Despite these changes, “reality” television (which is usually anything but its namesake) remains the touchstone for gay representation. We would do well well to consider some recent forms of this entertainment.
My students these days have never known an era of television without gay and lesbian representations (transgender people, on the other hand, remain almost totally invisible – But that is a subject for another post). It is jarring to me when they mention that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (which I still tend to think of as “new”) was something that they enjoyed while in middle school. If Queer Eye represented a type of breakthrough in terms of the number of gay people in any given show, it also set the stage for remaking reality representations of those same people. Gone were the notions that GLBTQ people had independent lives that were worth learning about for their own sake. Instead, we found that reality television had come to depend upon representing our community (particularly gay men) as having value only in as much as they either entertained or served straight people. The show avoided delving into any of the leads actual lives and instead defined them by the job they performed for a socially inept straight man. In the end, I suppose it was better to help dress a straight man than be beat up by one.
Over the summer, a number of new and noteworthy reality shows launched featuring gay men and lesbians as the central stars. Each owes more than a little debt to Queer Eye. The producers of these new shows clearly sought to attract both a core queer audience as well as a more mainstream hetero viewership. They walk a tightrope between providing representations of gays who appeal to insider camp sensibilities while making sure that they also don’t threaten the hetero status quo.
On the Road with Austin and Santino reconciles those seemingly contradictory goals perfectly. The show centers on two former reality show contestants on a cross-country road trip together. Personally, I have adored the titular Austin Scarlett since he captured my imagination during the first season of Project Runway. Scarlett proved his talents by crafting impeccable fashion, including a memorable dress made out of corn-husks. I always felt that he was robbed of his spot in the final three (seemingly because the producers wanted a contestant who would provide more backstage drama). Aside from his glamorous persona, Project Runway highlighted his strong work ethic. While other designers went out drinking, Scarlett puritanically stayed in his hotel room to be well rested for the next day’s work. He also expressed a self-awareness that his nonconformity would provide inspiration to younger viewers who might be feeling harassed. I like that.
In his new program, Scarlett joined with his real-life friend Santino Rice for a Greek-inspired odyssey across the United States. Along the way, they stop in small towns, locate a specific heterosexual woman who needs a fashionable frock, and, after an appropriate amount of assurances that she truly “deserves” their services, they present the teary-eyed woman with the fruits of their labor. All in all, it is a pretty formulaic make-over show. To distinguish itself, the show looks to wring humor out of the notion that Austin and Santino are “fish out of water” in the small towns that they visit. In addition to the dress making, Austin and Santino frequently participate in the town’s local activities (like riding horses, fishing, or babysitting). The show implicitly juxtaposes Austin and Santino’s dilated personas against the austere town folk who surround them. Executive producer Rich Bye has commented on the reactions that some town people have had, noting “They would have been less surprised if an alien beamed into their store. They just kept staring. They didn't say a word.”
The show thereby makes gayness something that is always removed or set outside of the supposedly heterosexual towns that they visit. If Austin and Santino arrive to temporarily add some glamour and urbanity to the dull grey towns that they visit, then the town is also assured that they will just as quickly exit so that things will return to “normal.” Any hint that Austin or Santino might challenge local views of queer sexuality are avoided.
Many of the episodes center on the two preparing a dress for either a wedding or an anniversary. In an era where marriage equality dominates political discussions about queer life, it is striking that neither Austin nor Santino ever note the inability of gay men to celebrate comparable milestones legally. Instead, they happily work away to satisfy the needs of their heterosexual clients without complaint. While we occasional get hints of the affection the two have for each other, we also never learn much about their own romantic interests or ambitions. The show implicitly subjugates queer desires in order to highlight the supposedly more valuable heterosexual relationships on the show.
Perhaps I can come to understand why Lifetime, a network that started by targeting an audience of [heterosexual] women, would create such a representation of gay men. But the gay network Logo’s decisions about Rupaul’s Drag University leave me almost entirely baffled. I have previously written that I am a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race. That show excelled because it presented an impressively diverse cast that reflected a wide range of drag performers (even if I remain concerned that the show also discriminates against contestants with non-English accents). So when Logo announced Drag University as the new companion series, I expected that it would center on established drag queens mentoring young gay men who desired a career in drag. Wrong!
The show actually focuses on “biological” women being tutored by the established drag queens. Prof. Susurro has an excellent assessment of the show’s positives. I agree with her totally (after all, she starts and ends the post by agreeing with me). The show does provide an unusual opportunity to see mostly working class women claiming the spotlight. In good Judith-Butler fashion, the show also utilizes drag as a means to highlight how all gender roles are artifices that can be manipulated at will (regardless of the anatomy of the performer). It also provides a strong emphasis on claiming femininity as a source of power. "Ultimately, DragU is a comedic send up of a genre I find largely detrimental to both the female viewers and female participants," Prof. Susurro notes, "While it is nothing deeper or more meaningful than light entertainment, it does it with the kind of diversity and attention to people’s needs that rings decidedly hollow in shows that claim to take these things seriously." All of that is great for me.
At the same time, though, the show also makes the drag queens into little more than exposition for the straight women’s transformations. Much attention is given to the straight women’s ambitions and personal relationships (I am also more than a bit disturbed by how many of the contestants report that they are participating in the show to please their man rather than for their own enjoyment, but that is another entry entirely). The drag queens, meanwhile, apparently have no lives outside of the work room. They are given only enough airtime to sprinkle the screen with glitter and sassy one-liners before literally being cast to the sidelines while straight women take over the stage.
The phenomena of queer helpers improving the lives of deserving heteros isn’t the exclusive territory of gay men, either. Out-lesbian trainer Jackie Warner has been given a new reality program on the network Bravo. In place of her first show, which emphasized Warner’s grappling with personal and professional commitments, the new show relegates Warner to the sidelines as she trains a group of straight women and men (and one gay man, who is set up as the comic relief on the program) to lose some weight. Warner acts as a combination of therapist and cheerleader to the show’s central figures.
Shows like Austin and Santino, Drag U, and Warner’s program suggest the compromises that have been made to get queer representation onto reality television. Queer people are acknowledged as important members of society, but only to the extent that they can provide valuable services to the dominant heterosexual community. Any explicit desires for civic and social equality are muted in favor of a narrative of mutual cooperation and humorous shenanigans. Queer people become hetero helpers, monitoring their fashion sense and opening the gates to their own happiness.
Maybe the only summer reality program that sought a more balanced view of queer life appeared on the obscure network Planet Green. The Fabulous Beekman Boys charts the foibles of two elite New York gay men who purchase a rural farm. The show’s link to the network’s supposed environmental message is tenuous at best. Nonetheless, of the new queer reality programs Beekman manages to show queer figures as a bit more complex and multifaceted than the others (even if its cast is exclusively white). This includes the two leads, Brent and Josh, (whose bickering defines the show), a gay goat herder (who is really attached to his charges) and another gay couple (who own the local hotel), along with a number of straight people who surround the life on the farm. Beekman allows [white] gay men to be the actual story of the reality program rather than as a plot device.
Even here, though, the show could not resist putting the queer figures into the service of hetero hegemony. One episode focuses on a straight couple using the farm as the site of their wedding. We mostly see Brent’s devoted efforts to preparing the event and insuring its perfection. Unlike the other reality programs, which tend to pretend that marriage is not a political issue, at least Beekman included commentary by Josh that noted his inability to have his relationship to Josh legally sanctioned. The two had pledged that the first wedding on the farm would be theirs, but apparently Brent sorta forgot about that when he saw the size of the bride’s deposit check. In the end, even Josh set aside his political position and came to the aid of the happy straight couple. Queer people might be treated like second-class citizens, but that doesn't mean we aren't gracious hosts.
It’s hard to consider whether these queer images represent actual real people or clownish characters who spend every waking moment wondering how they can spruce up previously depressing heterosexual enclaves. I grant that it is a type of improvement after decades of media images that presented queer sexuality as something to fear and destroy. If the trade off for my sexuality not landing me in jail or sent for electroshock therapy is being forced to sew couture, then hand me that bobbin. Nonetheless, these images also tend to present queer people as frivolous and less fully human than their hetero counterparts. These shows subsume their stories, political needs, and personal desires (including, ironically, their sexual desires given that their sexuality defines their roles on these shows). Instead queer people have been relegated to being decorators and decorative objects for heterosexual escapist fantasies.