Lesbians Come Out of the Reality TV Closet in 2004


Leah on Starting OverRuthie on Battle of the Sexes 2

Making their debut on popular shows like Survivor (CBS), Starting Over (ABC) and Battle of the Sexes 2 (MTV), and on lesser-known series like Blow Dry (Bravo) and King of the Jungle 2 (Animal Planet), lesbian and bisexual women have finally come out of the reality show closet.

This year also saw a few reality show “firsts”: Survivor was the first network TV series to include more than one lesbian contestant at a time on a reality show, and Battle of the Sexes 2 featured an unprecedented five queer women on one show. Since Survivor consistently ranked in the top 10 series among adults and teens, tens of millions of Americans tuned in to watch Ami and Scout battle it out with the other heterosexual contestants week after week.

The lesbian/bi contestant (or at least, the lesbian hook-up, sometimes between bi-curious women) has become such a cliché of reality shows, in fact, that the new animated Comedy Central reality-show spoof Drawn Together even has a lesbian cartoon character.

Perhaps it was inevitable, given the sheer number of contestants reality shows churn through every year, that lesbians would eventually start showing up in the mix. Reality show burnout and declining ratings is also a contributor: as more and more reality shows compete for diminishing ratings, trotting out the lesbians is one way they can try to drum up a little controversy and stand out from the pack.

But while we might have come out of the reality closet this year, we still haven’t secured a place at the table. The number of lesbian/bi women on reality TV remains heavily skewed towards a single channel (MTV, whose Battle of the Sexes 2 accounts for five of the ten contestants this year), and network television accounted for only three of the ten (Ami and Scout on Survivor, and Leah on Starting Over).

Which means lesbian and bisexual women still make up only a tiny fraction of the total reality show contestants.

And although there is racial diversity among the contestants on Battle of the Sexes 2, all of the other lesbian reality show contestants are white. This is not inconsistent with the predominance of white contestants on reality shows in general, but it’s still an area that needs improvement.

Some would argue that more lesbians on reality shows isn’t necessarily a great achievement, given how poorly most reality contestants come across. But even with declining ratings, many of these series still command millions of viewers, and including lesbian and bisexual contestants gives the show an opportunity to challenge stereotypes, and gives lesbian and bi viewers a contestant with whom to relate.

Even if the quality of the visibility that reality shows provide us is questionable, all Americans should have the same opportunity to make fools of themselves on national TV, regardless of sexual orientation.

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