Lesbian/Bi Women in Reality TV 2008

 
 

For the first time ever in television history, this week there are at least a dozen lesbian/bi women on prime-time TV in reality shows on three different networks: Bravo’s Work Out and Top Chef, MTV’s Shot at Love 2 With Tila Tequila and Logo’s Gimme Sugar, which premieres tonight. (Logo is AfterEllen.com’s parent company, and Gimme Sugar will also be available here on AfterEllen.com later today.) These women range in age from 20 to their late 30s, have many different interests and personalities, and even represent some diversity in race, with several Asian-American lesbian/bi women among them.

In other words, these women make up the most diverse and representative group of lesbian/bi women ever to be seen on TV at the same time. They include a successful businesswoman (Jackie Warner on Work Out), an internet sensation with a dubious reputation (Tila Tequila on Shot at Love 2), a professional chef (Lisa Fernandes on Top Chef) and a young club promoter (Charlene on Gimme Sugar).

That doesn’t mean that this moment — though unprecedented — comes without its drawbacks. Each of these four reality shows have positive and negative aspects to them, and A Shot at Love has some especially troubling characteristics. However, it cannot be denied that at this time in television history, lesbians and bisexual women have become not only acceptable in unscripted programming, but welcomed and even celebrated.

Here’s AfterEllen.com’s examination of where these four shows stand today in their representations of lesbians and bisexual women.

Top Chef (Bravo)

Now in its fourth season (the season finale airs Wednesday, June 11), Bravo’s culinary competition reality show first premiered in March 2006, and it has featured at least one lesbian/bi contestant each season.

Clockwise from top left: Tiffani Faison, Josie Smith-Malave,
Sandee Birdsong, Zoi Antonitsas, Jennifer Biesty, Lia Bardeen

In Season 1, openly bisexual Tiffani Faison was the runner-up; Season 2 featured out lesbian chef Josie Smith-Malave; Season 3 featured lesbian Sandee Birdsong and bisexual Lia Bardeen; and Season 4 has included three lesbian chefs — Zoi Antonitsas and Jennifer Biesty (who are also a couple in real life) and Lisa Fernandes, who has made it to this season’s top three.

The Good: On Top Chef, the sexual orientation of the contestants has always been publicly acknowledged, but it has never turned into an issue. Indeed, homophobia has been virtually nonexistent on the show, and the contestants who are not gay or lesbian have always been welcoming of their LGBT cohorts and comfortable living and working alongside them.

The Top Chef world, in fact, is nearly ideal in the way it treats lesbian/bi contestants: Their sexual orientation and gender expression has nothing whatsoever to do with how well they do in the culinary competition.

In other competitive reality shows such as American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Next Top Model, competitors who do not fall into the traditionally feminine or masculine roles of their sex are routinely ridiculed by the judges, who seek to enforce mainstream gender roles and appearance. On Top Chef, four of the six lesbian/bi contestants have not been traditionally feminine in their appearance, yet all of them have been accepted and embraced by the show and their cast mates.

This is something that is rarely seen on television, and it is likely due to the fact that the network behind the show is Bravo, which has consistently supported LGBT people in its casting choices in shows such as Project Runway and Shear Genius. Top Chef is yet another demonstration that LGBT people can be part of a reality show without their sexual orientation becoming the issue of the week.

The Bad: Although Top Chef mostly excels in the way it includes lesbian/bi women, it could go even further by including a lesbian/bi chef as a regular judge on the show. Lesbians have sometimes been guest judges, but given the apparently plentiful number of lesbian/bi chefs in this country, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give one of them (perhaps Elizabeth Falkner, who guested in the Top Chef Holiday Special in December 2007) a regular seat at the judges’ table.

The one area in which Top Chef falls behind consistently — the fact that no women have ever won the title of "Top Chef" — is not about sexual orientation at all. Instead, it probably is a reflection of gender bias and the old boys’ network among professional chefs.

This season, however, the series’ producers seem to be trying to break that abysmal record by bringing three women to the final four; two women compete this Wednesday in the finale, including Lisa Fernandes (pictured left). Hopefully one of these women will break through the glass ceiling in the kitchen this time around.

The Bottom Line: Top Chef is one of the very few reality shows in which a person’s sexual orientation makes no difference at all — and yet each competitor’s sexual orientation is openly acknowledged with no judgment.Top Chef represents what lesbians and bisexual women hope for in television: representation without sexuality becoming an "issue."

Next page: Work Out

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