“Work Out” Complicates Lesbian Stereotypes

In the history of lesbians and bisexual women on television, Bravo’s Work Out, a reality series centering on out lesbian Jackie Warner and her upscale Beverly Hills gym, stands alone. There are no other reality series on television, now or in the past, that have focused on an out lesbian. The result has been a TV series that begins with stereotypes — the egotistical businesswoman, the predatory lesbian — but ultimately subverts them.

And though some of the story lines in Season 2 seemed extremely staged, reality did intervene — in the death of trainer Doug Blasdell as well as a trip back to Jackie’s home town — and led to some truly genuine moments in the life of an out lesbian that have rarely if ever been seen on television.

In other reality shows, lesbian characters seldom are well-rounded individuals. Ami Cusack from Survivor: Vanuatu or Kim Stolz from America’s Next Top Model ultimately were characters in an ensemble cast who fulfilled particular roles: the feminist leader or the lesbian seductress, for example.

But on Work Out, Jackie Warner is the star, and she is presented in a much more three-dimensional way.

In the course of two seasons, but particularly in the recently concluded second season, viewers see several facets of Jackie Warner: the businesswoman, the conflicted daughter, the emotionally damaged lover, the seductive Casanova. Some of these roles, so to speak, were double-edged swords. While they skewered some stereotypes about women and lesbians, they also underscored them.

The stereotype of the power-hungry businesswoman who will stop at nothing to get to the top of her career is alive and well in the United States in 2007. Last year’s box office hit The Devil Wears Prada is testament to the enduring, sexist stereotype of women who claw their way to the top by being as egotistical and driven as necessary, leaving behind their femininity — and any hope for a happy, well-adjusted family — in the process.

On Work Out, Jackie consistently presents herself as a highly driven businesswoman, at times so consumed with her business that she appears extremely egotistical. In Episode 202 she says to Brian Peeler, one of her trainers, "I’ve like only built my whole empire and hired you on my body." In Episode 206, when she is upset about the poor quality of her clothing samples, she says in exasperation: "If I don’t do everything myself, it doesn’t get done properly. And that becomes quite a burden, because I can’t rely on anybody but myself."

When she finally sits down with the manufacturer to tell him that his samples just don’t cut it, she makes no bones about it: "I can’t sell anything that I wouldn’t wear myself. And there’s not one piece in there that I would wear. Not one."

Jackie’s ambition and single-minded focus on entrepreneurial success land her squarely in the realm of power-hungry businesswomen in the mold of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly of The Devil Wears Prada, but she is saved from complete stereotype by her sexual orientation. The typical power-hungry businesswoman is so aggressive in her career that she becomes too masculine to be a "normal" heterosexual woman.

But Jackie, of course, isn’t heterosexual — a simple but key difference.

Jackie rarely expresses any need to be feminine, and she is never interested in attracting a man. Because she has little or no interest in fitting into those traditional female roles, her ambition is not tragic, which is the way a heterosexual career woman might be perceived if she prioritizes work over marriage. But Jackie’s self-absorbed ambition is simply a character flaw. She becomes, essentially, like any businessman: blunt, direct and sometimes self-aggrandizing.

Some of Jackie’s actions in Season 2 also dredge up another stereotype: the predatory lesbian. This stereotype has been done to death in television and film, from exploitation films about women in prison to the recent Notes on a Scandal.

The stereotype of the predatory lesbian is also alive and well in real life. Pokey Chatman’s resignation from coaching LSU’s women’s basketball team after it was revealed that she had dated one of her players raised the persistent fear, among many parents and players, that lesbian coaches can persuade their players to become gay as well.

More you may like