Though reality television has been widely criticized for its sensationalism and tawdry theatrics — VH1's Flavor of Love is just the latest in a series of shows like Temptation Island (2001–03) to trample all over the boundaries of good taste — reality TV has done something that serious scripted dramas have rarely if ever done.
This genre of television has brought lesbians and bisexual women into America's living rooms in a way that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. It has shown that queer women are just like any other Americans who manage to be cast on a reality program: sometimes obnoxious, sometimes sweet, competitive or complacent, strange or seductive, but just as “normal” as the conservative Christian teen who wants to become a model. And often, queer women on reality TV make a positive difference in how straight viewers feel about LGBT people.
This fall on CBS' Emmy Award-winning reality show, The Amazing Race, 27-year-old Lauren Marcoccio became the show's first openly lesbian contestant. Lauren's teammate was her father, Duke, who spoke frankly about not accepting his daughter when she first came out to him. The experience, he told AfterEllen.com, has brought him closer to his daughter, and he advises other parents of LGBT children to “Deal with it, cope with it, accept it and move on. Life is too short to hold on to problems or grudges.”
The show — and Duke's acceptance of his daughter — resonated with Honey Labrador (Queer Eye for the Straight Girl), who has a daughter of her own who watches The Amazing Race. “I think sometimes you don't see as much of the positive,” Labrador said of families grappling with LGBT children. “You hear a lot of how people get shunned by their families, and how they lose that connection with their parents because of a life choice, and I think it's so important to highlight the positive family relationships.”
Prior to this season of The Amazing Race, few families with LGBT children have appeared on television, except in stories of tragedy — making Lauren and Duke a significant addition to the roster of LGBT characters on television.
Since 2004, when Scout Cloud Lee and Ami Cusack became the first openly lesbian contestants on CBS' Survivor, the program that catapulted reality television into one of the top genres on TV today, the number of lesbians on reality shows has skyrocketed. In 2005, Kim Stolz was one of several queer women on America's Next Top Model, and Honey Labrador became the first lesbian to dispense fashion advice on Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Girl.
Other queer women on reality TV in the past year include Ivette Corredero, who was the runner-up on Big Brother; Jessica Cabo, who was a third-place finalist on Fox's Hell's Kitchen; and most notably, openly lesbian trainer Jackie Warner on her own reality series, Work Out, on Bravo.
These women have not only brought real lesbians into America 's living rooms night after night, they have pushed the boundaries in terms of how far a television show will go in showing same-sex affection. It is arguable, however, that none of these shows would be on the air were it not for MTV's Real World, which debuted in 1992 long before reality TV became such a popular television genre.
The Real World's premiere season, set in New York, featured a gay character, Norm Korpi. On The Real World: Los Angeles in 1993, Beth Anthony became the first lesbian character on a reality program. In the 18 seasons that Real World has been on the air, an additional eight gay or lesbian characters have been featured, including Genesis Moss (Real World: Boston, 1997), Ruthie Alcaide (Real World: Hawaii, 1999) and Aneesa (Real World: Chicago, 2002). The upcoming season of Real World, which is set in Denver and premieres this December, may include a bisexual character.
According to Bournemouth University's Christopher Pullen, a media studies scholar who analyzes reality TV and its gay characters, reality TV is a hybrid of soap opera and talk show. Therefore, because gay characters are typically included in those genres for dramatic purposes, featuring gay characters in reality TV was a natural extension.
“Obviously there are formats which don't stereotype, like The Real World,” Pullen said via e-mail. “But essentially it's still about drama. How are the other housemates going to respond to a normal gay couple? … Also in other notable reality series such as Amazing Race, it's often about how the normal cast respond to the outsiders.”