Since the reality television genre debuted on MTV with The Real World in 1992, gay and lesbian cast members on unscripted shows have enjoyed increasing visibility—and notoriety.
Though the wildly influential MTV series was the first unscripted program to follow an ensemble cast throughout an entire season, the reality TV genre exploded in 2000 with the unprecedented popularity of Survivor on CBS. Coincidentally, a gay man, Richard Hatch, won Survivor’s first season—cementing the cozy relationship between reality shows and LGBT cast members.
Subsequently, most top-rated reality programs have included an out lesbian and/or gay cast member in at least one of its seasons. Gimme Sugar on Logo challenged lesbian and bisexual cast members to open their own club night in L.A. Top Chef on Bravo, Project Runway on Bravo and Lifetime, America’s Next Top Model on The CW, the Real World on MTV, and Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Big Brother on CBS have featured lesbians in prominent roles—often with girlfriends to heighten drama—with their sexual orientation as an integral part of their on-screen personalities.
Many cable networks have even developed shows around a lesbian or bisexual host, including A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila on MTV, and Work Out and Thintervention with Jackie Warner on Bravo.
In 2010 the Real L Word, the groundbreaking reality series that followed an all-lesbian cast as they went about their daily lives, debuted on Showtime. A blend of Real World-style cinema verite and the fictionalized drama series The L Word, the program explores the day-to-day affairs of six Los Angeles lesbians, touching on current issues like gay marriage, fashion and sex. The popular show has been renewed for a second season.
With more than ten years’ presence on the small screen, why do lesbians continue to fascinate both reality TV audiences and, perhaps more importantly, casting directors?
“I think the popularity of lesbians has to do with the fact that until very recently, [the mainstream] didn’t really know what lesbians were like,” says freelance producer Alex Polgar, who is co-executive producing a new reality series focused on an LGBT cast. “We were stereotyped like most minorities. And yes, I think we are still a minority group,” despite our increasing visibility on television.
At the same time, says Polgar, “we’ve broken through our very own glass ceiling. We are no longer defined by society and we’re fierce about it,” a quality that makes lesbian cast members so dynamic and refreshing. “And we let off a lot of steam, which is always fun to watch!”
Lesbian cast members offer another elusive quality that casting directors love: “Relevance. Lesbians are very ‘now.’ I can tell you, it wasn’t like this 10 years ago,” Polgar adds.
And yet, the fascination with real-life lesbians hasn’t translated to scripted television programming. According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which tracks LGBT representations in the media, the number of lesbian characters on primetime sitcoms or drama series lags far behind that of reality programming.
The organization’s recent report, Where We Are on TV, notes a modest increase in the number of LGBT main characters across broadcast and traditional cable primetime series. However, of the 587 total fictional characters counted across broadcast networks, only 23 were LGBT. Of those, just eight were lesbian or bisexual women. On cable’s scripted series, 35 LGBT characters include 17 lesbians and bisexual women.
Meanwhile, reality productions continue their love affairs with lesbians. Sources tell GO that a brand-new series, currently in production, is seeking sapphic cast members to add diversity and interest to its ensemble. NBC’s The Marriage Ref is branching out beyond heterosexual marriage counseling and recently held a casting call for lesbian couples
at Henrietta Hudson.
While we wait for scripted shows to catch up, reality TV is moving forward.