99 Problems But A Gay Ain’t One: A Look at Gay Men and Reality Television

Our next guest post is by Zel McCarthy. Zel is a media professional and blogger based in Los Angeles. He tweets about music, politics, and nail polish at @ZelMcCarthy.

On a recent episode of Bravo’s show Most Eligible Dallas, likable girl-next-door Courtney told the camera about how much she enjoys her friendships with gay men. As she put it, paraphrasing Jay-Z, “I’ve got 99 problems but a gay ain’t one.”

In the following episodes that would prove to be true, even as one of her gay friends, Drew, picked a public fight with her over some mysterious and vague issue loosely regarding a lack of attention. That’s how friendships work on reality television: paradise to category 5 in a single episode. Truly, Drew is never a major problem for Courtney. While she hates when anyone dislikes her, Courtney’s biggest issue is (of course) finding a husband, who may or not be her best friend Matt.

It’s always bothered me when someone converts the word “gay” from adjective to noun. Comedian and Bravo star Kathy Griffin practically pioneered the noun-ing of “gay” by frequently referring to her homosexual friends, fans, and followers as “my gays.” Even if it’s not being used pejoratively, it’s always reductive. Instead of a person or man or even a self-obsessed reality TV personality, he is merely a sexual orientation. (Mind you, the phrase is never used to refer to gay women. They are excluded almost completely from Bravo’s narrative of gender and sexuality in society.)

Even more bothersome, however, is that gay characters on reality TV are so marginalized and stereotypical that they never get to be someone’s problem, much less have problems of their own. In fact, aside from fueling the on-screen drama necessary for its programming to function, gay men on Bravo’s slate of shows, like Drew from Dallas, are ubiquitous but never problematic because they are never the central figure of a story.

Whether watching the Real Housewives franchise, The Rachel Zoe ProjectPregnant In HeelsMiami Social, or Bethenny, the message is clear: if you are a gay man, you can be a human accessory in a rich woman’s life. From Jill Zarin’s “gay husband” to Kyle Richards’ “ladysitter” to the coterie of hairstylists, decorators, and event planners orbiting around an endless supply of narcissistic women, gay men are written to serve two functions: enhance the aesthetics of their mistresses, and act as a stand-in for the straight men in their life.

Even gay designer Jeff Lewis, star of Flipping Out, whose caustic outbursts at his employees pull focus from the window treatments, doesn’t get to be the star of his own life. He’s constantly appeasing the whims and fancies of the rich white ladies who hire him to revamp their homes. Through several years on the show (and a rough economy), we’ve watched the once successful house-flipper turn into a driveling decorator so desperate for the next job he’ll screw over his best friends to get it.

Meanwhile, the straight men (husbands, boyfriends, that sort of thing) serve as a foil to these flamboyant and endlessly problem-free gay men. The straights, such as they are, are coded as “real men.” They are fully sexualized, integrated into society with jobs, off-camera friendships, hobbies far beyond the confines of the feminized reality TV world, and comical only when they don’t understand the flurry around the importance of a pair of shoes or lighting at a party. On the axis of characters, they’re the rational yin to the emotional yang of gay men. Cheapened to stereotypes, gay men on reality TV become little more than well-dressed, occasionally articulate, placeholders in the lives of women.

These supporting characters of Bravo have become the reality embodiment of an archetypal role writer and comedian David Rakoff once named Fudgey McPacker. Without a life of his own, Fudgey stands on the sidelines, cheering on the leading lady, occasionally offering sassy retorts and painfully obvious tokens of wisdom. He gets to tell his girlfriends things like “girl, don’t you know he loves you,” before she runs to her leading man’s arms and they live happily ever after while Fudgey presumably disappears or finds another lady to devote his life to. Like Fudgey before them, the Brads, Dwights, LTs, Joeys, and Shawns of Bravo don’t get to have many independent storylines of their own; their on-screen characters don’t have their own essence. When they try to, they’re quickly jettisoned off the show (see Cedric from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).

While all media reflects the values of its culture, we look to reality TV to see our culture reflected, however misguided that notion is. I have often said to my friends that the gay community is so desperate for recognition it accepts any representation of itself on screen, no matter how negative. A glance at Logo’s The A List would prove that point handily, but also, consider how fervent Bravo’s gay audience is, despite the continued marginalization of its gay characters. I’d even say that there’s a certain comfort in seeing a stereotypical gay character; it validates one singular version of gay identity without straying beyond a previously accepted boundary.

Does anyone think that’s good enough?

We all know by now what reality TV is (scripted, sensational, entertaining) and what it isn’t (reality). Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that gay men have become a secondary staple of the genre and a lynchpin of nearly every Bravo series. But let there be no doubt about the space these characters inhabit: the periphery in the lives of a cadre of superficial women.

Ain’t that one bitch of a problem?

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Filed under Defining Gender, Gender Stereotyping, Homophobia, Pop Culture

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