The following article has been adapted from a piece that first appeared in the on-line journal, Slate.com.
WHAT’S GOING ON with gay men and reality television? Even as the debate rages about whether or not to deface the U.S. Constitution with an amendment banning gay marriage, practitioners of the love that dare not speak its name are repainting America’s apartments, critiquing our moisturizers, hurling us into black SUVs, and taking us to the barber.
And that’s just on Bravo’s playful makeover hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which has brought gay men into the mainstream, not as subjects or objects of desire, but as dispensers of fashion, taste, and wit. On dating shows like Fox’s short-lived 2004 series Playing It Straight—postmillennial versions of The Price Is Right, where what you win is no longer a thirty-foot catamaran but a fortune, a lifestyle, and a mate—gay men have come to serve a different function, something between booby prize and bargaining chip. They’re what’s behind Curtain Number Three. It might be said that by complicating the binary logic of the heterosexual dating show, gay men have earned themselves a tenuous perch on television, but at what cost? The one thing that gay men still can’t be found doing on reality television is the very thing that defines them as “gay” in the first place: loving other men.
Whether overhauling the straight guy’s wardrobe or flirting with his potential girlfriend, gay men on reality television exist to impart some intangible quality of sophistication or savoir-faire to the otherwise drab lives of their heterosexual brothers. In their more positive Queer Eye incarnation, they’re allowed to be arbiters of style, smartass sidekicks, sexually non-threatening superheroes on a mission from Planet Fabulous. In the more depressingly Hobbesian world of dating shows like Playing It Straight, gay men function principally as romantic pariahs, the surprise Old Maid Card hidden in the deck of boy-girl romance, and are seldom if ever portrayed as desiring beings. (Lesbians have been conspicuously absent from the reality-TV scene. Perhaps that’s because, ever since Ellen DeGeneres’s legendary on-air coming out in 1997, lesbians seem to have carved themselves a cozy prime-time niche in which they can love other ladies with impunity, as long as everyone concerned is affluent, extraordinarily attractive, and, most important, fictional—see Showtime’s popular Sapphic soap opera The L Word.)
In the summer of 2003, Boy Meets Boy (Bravo) at first presented itself as a gay version of The Bachelor, with a charming young catch named James whittling his way through a field of fifteen prospective boyfriends. But midway through the season, James discovered what the audience already knew, that a cruel trick had been played on him. Of the three remaining men, only two shared his sexual orientation. (In a rare moment of reality-TV candor, James’s straight female friend Andra lost it when she found out about the producers’ deception, screaming “This is bullshit!” and encouraging him to leave the show. Instead, James stayed, ended up choosing one of the gay men, and won them both a trip to New Zealand.)
Boy Meets Boy was stupid, mean-spirited, and shallow, but Fox’s new series Playing It Straight, the first gay-themed reality show to appear on network television, easily wins the race to the bottom. The setup: Jackie, identified by the voice-over narrator as an “innocent young girl” with “small-town values,” is isolated on a Nevada ranch with fourteen strapping lads. Over the course of the season, she will choose a mate in traditional reality-show fashion, by eliminating two contenders per episode through a series of talking-head interviews and horribly uncomfortable televised picnics. The twist, revealed to Jackie in the season opener, is that an undisclosed number of these suitors are in actuality batting left-handed. They’re polishing with, not against, the grain of the wood. They’re—well, you know. That way. Seriously, I would rather listen to the euphemistic prevarications of a Tennessee Williams heroine than sit again through the montage from the opening episode of Playing It Straight, in which a lineup of nervous, defensive contestants confesses to the enjoyment of such questionably gendered activities as baking a cheesecake, using a hair dryer, and “singing Spanish ballads.” (My favorite is the guy who sheepishly concedes, “I do know a little bit about art.” Good luck, gallery boy!)
Watching Playing It Straight is a gender theorist’s day in the sun. Perhaps not since the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas hearings have a culture’s unspoken anxieties been so starkly projected on the small screen. Let’s look at the show’s two prospective outcomes. If Jackie guesses “right” and narrows the field down to a straight man, then the two of them will split the million-dollar prize and ride off into the sunset in a chauffeured car, glasses of champagne awkwardly balanced on their laps. But if one of the secretly gay men tricks her into choosing him, he will walk off with a cool million all his own. In other words, “Sizzling Saddles Ranch”—an Elko, Nevada, resort that was thus mortifyingly renamed by the show’s producers—is a microcosm of American society, where gays can best get ahead by remaining alone in the closet, while straights openly pair-bond and consolidate their resources.
What’s saddest about shows like Playing It Straight is their cheerfully apolitical disavowal of the actual lives of gay people, their staging of a context-free erotic competition that is utterly disconnected from any—dare I say it?—reality outside the gates of Sizzling Saddles. Jackie may hail from a town in Wisconsin too small to have a gay subculture, but many of the male contestants come from cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago. Straight or gay, can we let these men get away with pretending to think that queerness is signified by hair dryers and cheesecake? It’s easy to write off these shows’ individual participants as so many gay Uncle Toms, ready to sell out their sexual identity for a buck, and it’s just as easy to turn off the television. (In fact, it was hard to leave it on for the length of time required to research this piece, since not only is Playing It Straight ideologically offensive, it’s also colossally boring.) But the hothouse machinations of these psychosexual parlor games have real consequences, not just for the individual participants’ lives—in the course of the filming of Boy Meets Boy, one of James’s suitors, a Navy combat instructor, was discharged after eight years of military service when a fellow sailor spotted him on television—but for the culture as a whole.
Here’s my diagnosis. Shows like Playing It Straight are a symptom of heterosexual America’s collective guilt, our sense as a culture that we are not, in fact, playing straight with the gay community. This guilt is not far from the surface in the hedgings of Playing It Straight’s executive producer Ciara Byrne in an interview: “Is it fair, is it cool? I’m not sure. … I’ll be honest, some of them found it very difficult, but the upside to that, if there is an upside, is that a lot of them said they came on the show to break stereotypes. … Some of them say that this was a very difficult experience, that it felt like being back in the closet. And coming out in America and being gay in America is a very difficult thing, and I think it’s an important message for America.” The moral confusion and intellectual dishonesty of this statement find their echo in rhetoric from fence-straddlers on both left and right about the future of gay marriage. Reality television, it seems, is like everyday life in at least one sense: the experience of those Americans who love others of their own sex has no real place in it.
Dana Stevens (aka Liz Penn) writes on television for Slate.com and on film and culture for the High Sign.