Queer Women On Reality TV are Making a Difference

Scout from Survivor Genesis from The Real World

Though lesbians on reality shows do defy some stereotypes, they also fall into recognizable categories that generate dramatic interest. “I think it's all down to entertainment value,” Pullen explained. “If gay people conform to some stereotypical norm (butch or camp) it's basically theater for the masses, and most reality formats tend to tease out this possibility.”

On Big Brother, Ivette was a conniving, back-stabbing, stereotypical villain. On Survivor, Ami and Scout led a women's alliance to near-victory by waving the “woman power” flag. On Top Model, Kim seduced a straight girl — another stereotypical role for lesbians.

But although reality shows tend to highlight stereotype to tell a recognizable story to a wide audience, casting director Sasha Alpert of The Real World says that they do not cast for the “gay” factor. “Generically, our kind of motto, for lack of a better word, is don't ever put anyone on a show just because they're something — just because they're gay or black or have long legs,” Alpert told us. “Like you would cast them even if they weren't X, Y or Z. They have to also be a good character.”

Alpert, Vice President of Creative Development at Bunim-Murray Productions, oversees the casting on all of Bunim-Murray's projects, including The Real World, and has been casting The Real World for at least 10 seasons. Her first season was Real World: Boston in 1997, when she cast Genesis Moss.

“She was definitely a great find because not only was she young, very young actually, adorable, very well-spoken, and from a part of the country where coming out that early at that time was surprising,” Alpert recalled. Moss, in effect, fit the definition of a “good character,” which Alpert described as “a strong personality; strong opinions, someone who's generally … very comfortable in their own skin, so that they're memorable.” Alpert laughed as she concluded, “Their opinions are well-thought-out or at least loud.”

The fact that Moss was openly gay was also important. “One thing that we don't want to do is put someone on a show who is not out, and either a) this is how they'd come out to their parents or b), they would say, ‘Well, I'm going to be straight for the show, even though that's not how I am,'” Alpert explained.

When Scout Cloud Lee, now 61 years old, submitted her application for Survivor: Vanuatu, she made the decision to come out to a stranger — casting director Jerry Wentworth — for the first time. “Although I've lived with women most of my life, it's not something that — you know, I just never considered it anybody's business, for obvious reasons,” Lee said over the phone from her ranch in Oklahoma, where she has lives with her partner, Annie. “There would be a price to pay for that in homophobic, Bible Belt, red-neck Oklahoma.”

She decided to reveal that she was partnered with a woman because she felt “in her bones” that she was going to be cast on Survivor. “National Enquirer and everybody else is going to know everything about me, so I'm gonna tell the truth. And Annie and I talked about it, and we told the truth.”

But Lee feels that she was not cast because she is a lesbian. “I think the fact that we were lesbians probably was interesting to them, but I don't think it was the thing that drove them to cast us,” she said of Survivor's decision to cast her and Cusack. Other factors, Lee believes, came into play, including her ability to survive in the wilderness and to communicate with younger players.

In contrast, sexual orientation was the starting point in the casting process for Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, which attempted to ride on the success of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy with a spinoff makeover show. According to Labrador, “It was a show that they cast for three months to get the right characters for.” In the end, Labrador was chosen to represent “the Lady,” one of four makeover areas on the show, including the Look, the Locale and the Life.

But unlike Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which five gay men made over a straight man, thus creating dramatic situations ripe for sexual innuendo, Queer Eye for the Straight Girl defused the tension by only casting one lesbian. The other three queer eyes were gay men. “In my personal opinion, though the boys are some of my best friends, I think for the show to work it should have been four lesbians,” Labrador admitted. After Queer Eye for the Straight Girl was canceled in 2005, Labrador, who had been in the fashion industry for 19 years, became an on-air anchor for a daily morning talk show on the Q Television Network, which folded in May 2006.

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