It’s easy to dismiss UPN’s America’s Next Top Model as a trashy reality show about vapid supermodel wannabes (cue the requisite long-nailed catfights), but since the program premiered in May 2003, Top Model has become one of the most queer-friendly shows on primetime. This fall’s “fifth cycle” of the series ups the queer ante even more by including its third openly queer contestant: out lesbian Kim.
But the fact that Kim is openly gay isn’t what gives Top Model top honors as the most queer reality show on TV. It’s the fact that Kim is openly butch (in appearance—we don’t know whether she identifies as “butch”), and that Tyra Banks and the other judges overtly support her masculine look and style, going so far as to tell her to “go with your strong masculinity” rather than trying to feminize herself on the runway.
Although reality TV has been the most gay-friendly genre on television, with openly gay contestants appearing on everything from Survivor to Big Brother, lesbian contestants have largely been feminine in appearance. Only three American reality shows have included lesbians who have been masculine or androgynous in appearance.
On a February 2005 episode of Wife Swap, lesbian mom Kristine Luffey traded places with conservative Christian mom Kris Gillespie—and was lambasted for her sexual orientation. Also, during season three of American Idol in 2004, Briana Ramirez-Rial briefly vied for a chance at being a pop star, but was voted off before she could do more flash across our gaydar. Though Ramirez-Rial looked every inch the butch dyke, she never really had the chance to come out. Finally, there was Cynthia on Animal Planet’s King of the Jungle, a cable series that wasn’t seen by nearly as many viewers.
In contrast, reality television in the U.K. has been more flexible in terms of showing variation in gender expression. In 2003, out lesbian Alex Parks won Fame Academy (an American Idol-type program), even with her baby butch looks and sky-high fauxhawk.
But the United States has always been more conservative in its gender expression; even scripted television shows rarely show lesbians who don’t conform to traditionally feminine norms.
Other than The L Word, which has given us the probably-butch Shane and the genderbending Ivan, there have only been three butch lesbians on television in the past year, and only as one-time characters.
On a January 2005 episode of Las Vegas we had Pam, a butch African-American dyke; in February 2005 there was Ricky on HBO’s Lackawanna Blues; and in May 2005 a Cold Case episode investigated the death of a butch African American lesbian. (The fact that all three of these butch lesbians were African Americans is a disturbing indicator that Americans still closely link race with sexuality, and in particular, non-normative sexuality with people of color.)