Queer Women On Reality TV are Making a Difference

Jackie Warner Honey Labrador from Queer Eye for the Straight Girl

Whether or not lesbian relationships are likely to be portrayed more often on reality shows in the future is difficult to judge, if only for the fact that, according to Sasha Alpert, “If you're just casting one lesbian, there's probably not a lot of opportunity to hook up within the show.”

And casting for romantic possibilities, Alpert explained, is very difficult. “In all the years that I've cast for Real World, you can count the number of romantic couples that have evolved from that group on one hand. You'd think that you cast a bunch of people together and they're stuck in a house, they're automatically going to fall in love with each other, but they don't.” Alpert laughed and added, “It's always a surprise who ends up being attracted to whom.”

Though lesbian romance no longer appears to be a taboo subject for reality TV, one subject does remain problematic: gender. Lesbians on reality TV, like lesbian characters on scripted shows, tend to hew closely to traditionally feminine standards of beauty. Stolz, Labrador and Jackie Warner have all in their own way challenged these standards, but they have only been allowed to go so far.

“I felt that I was portrayed well,” Stolz said of how she was depicted on Top Model overall. “The one complaint I had was the way they behaved toward my talk of gender.” Although the judges on Top Model often praised Stolz for her style, which edged closer to a queer aesthetic — including more masculine clothing and hair than those of the other contestants — than a typically feminine one, they just as often criticized her for not being feminine enough. The curious back-and-forth nature of the judges' engagement with even a slightly nontraditional approach to gender expression revealed how tricky this subject is in our culture.

Lesbians are a particularly complex site of anxiety over gender norms and womanhood because lesbians represent a point of departure from the mainstream and the men who exercise power over the mainstream. They are still often seen as a threat to the status quo. Thus, lesbians on television are often forced to be extra-feminine in their appearance to soothe away fears that they are different enough to be a threat. When a feminine lesbian is seen on television, she does break stereotypes — especially the one in which lesbians are mannish and unnatural — but she also reinforces traditional femininity.

“I think mainstream producers are always going to go with stereotypes, and there is always the lurking idea of sexual intrigue and how this related to imagined gender norms,” Pullen stated. “So even when we get seemingly normal representations, it's always related to ‘not like you would expect' (like The L Word plays with).”

Similarly, Honey Labrador was “not like you would expect” in her role as the Lady on Queer Eye for the Straight Girl. “I feel that I am, like so many lesbians, a bit of a chameleon within my own community,” she said of her own style. “I'm the girl who owns her Skechers work boots, which I love to wear, and then I also have high heels in my closet. So I think that what they really probably honed in on was the lipstick lesbian in me.” Labrador said that she tries to stay away from that stereotype, but noted that we all attempt to put labels on each other by questioning “what kind of lesbian is she?”

“I guess that having me out there in workboots, jeans and a wife-beater were not really like what a straight girl might respond to,” Labrador said. “I guess they wanted me to … represent, I guess, a more ‘femme' demographic.” Although Queer Eye did give Labrador the opportunity to wear jeans and tank tops, she was never without makeup or feminine accessories that placed her, unmistakably, on the “girl” side of the gender continuum.

Even on Work Out, Jackie Warner — who was often given to wearing ties and camouflage — was shown putting on mascara and nodding in agreement when a date proclaimed that she appreciated feminine women, not butch ones.

When asked why women who are not traditionally feminine rarely if ever are cast on reality TV shows, Alpert said, “I don't think we'd be averse to casting someone like that if the right person came along. Again, it's the question … would we put this person on, no matter what?”

A moment later Alpert continued, “You know, there certainly are a lot of beautiful women on The L Word.” She laughed and said, “They certainly all are absolutely gorgeous and feminine except for maybe one or two of them. Have you ever noticed that? It's unbelievable. It's TV; everybody wants to live a fantasy life. Most people on TV — unless they're playing a character role — most characters are pretty damn beautiful.”

Beauty, still, means adhering to traditional standards of femininity. Diversity in gender expression is acceptable for gay men — possibly because effeminate men are a threat to no one — but still is not yet acceptable for lesbians. Gender, then, is the next frontier to be traversed on television, and not in terms of transgender issues. The majority of America seems to understand the transition from “male” to “female”; it is the shades of grey in between that continue to generate discomfort. It is in these areas that power is contested.

In Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, Annette Hill wrote, “reality TV is located in border territories, between information and entertainment documentary and drama.” It is fitting that it is within these border territories that lesbians and bisexual women — themselves figures who reside in between categories — have been depicted as complex characters. They are not merely mothers yearning to get pregnant on reality TV. They are manipulators, competitors, beauties, advisors, lovers and career women. They are not passive participants in someone else's show about what lesbians might look like.

“Gay people are becoming producers of their own lives, as both TV producers … [and] as contestants (wanting to make a mark),” Pullen observed. “There may be the stereotypical gay role on offer, but some gay contestants take this on and try and influence the outcome.”

“As far as I'm concerned, if productions out there are willing to portray a queer person positively, that's great, because I know that my presence on the show changed a bunch of people's minds,” said Stolz. “I get emails about it still from people saying that they used to be homophobic or they used to not be out, and it's really changed their mindset, so that's huge.”

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