Saturday, September 4, 2010

Searching for QWOC on Reality TV: a Time-Suck at the Least

Some people consider reality television a version of cinema vérité or “truthful cinema.” Others dispute this, arguing that it is casted and staged, while others argue that some reality shows are “realer” than others and some more technologically advanced and creatively designed. As Queersighted blogger Dave White’s “film-nerd husband” said in regards to the newest season of Project Runway: “Are the Maysles in charge now?" Now, discussing cinema vérité as “real” and “reality” TV as manipulated creates a problematic as all documentaries are manipulated in a variety of ways, but if there is such thing as a scale of reality then there is certainly a lot of wiggle room for both documentary film and reality television.

A fun and depressing study of television, cinema, advertisements, and magazines is to look for commonly underrepresented people: fat people, Black people, queers, especially lesbians and transmen, Latin@s, Asians/Asian Americans, women in nontraditional roles, etc. Dr. Alexandra Juhasz has more recently begun the scholarly study of YouTube and shared this student-made video on Black representation on YouTube. Check it out.

Blacks on YouTube

Zulema Griffin
Much in the vein of VannaBlack4u’s search for Blacks on YouTube, I would like to do a quick rundown of reality TV in search of queer women of color. Because there is a much more noticeable lack than plentitude of QWOC on reality TV I would like to mention a few shows that have queers or women of color. We all know that Bravo was the home of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as well as TV specials about lesbians and gays such as Great Things About Being Queer, and Out of the Closet. But in my scrutinous search for lesbian women among the gay man/straight woman constancy in Project Runway I came across some interesting information. For one thing, it turns out that in season 4 there was a white lesbian model names Marie Salter. Secondly, remember Zulema Griffin from Season 2? Her character arc ended after she shocked her colleagues by stealing another designer’s model (sweetheart fashion professor Nick Verreos) just to get herself and the model eliminated in that episode. Well, it turns out that throughout the show she was an out lesbian with a partner but that information was completely edited out and she was portrayed as a single woman. I managed to reach behind the Tim Gunns and Michael Kors’ to reach a QWOC but unfortunately only the few of us looking can find her.

Another strange gay-erasing edit on Project Runway was the budding romance between Daniel Feld and Wesley Nault as documented by blogger Allison Kilkenny who chocked it up to homophobia. I am pretty sure most people consider Bravo a gay male TV station rather than queer or LGBT, but there is no denying that Top Chef has had its share of lesbian contestants, Preeti Mistry and Ashley Merriman of season 2, Lisa Fernandes and her partner Jennifer Biesty of season 4 and Jamie Lauren of season 5 were all “out” and Jennifer and Lisa’s relationship was a storyline rather than being erased.

Tila Tequila and the cast of a Shot of Love
My research on the subject of QWOC on reality TV is largely based on my consumption of advertisements and certain shows and on the advice of my Facebook network. No one knows reality TV better than my hometown friends and student colleagues in the media studies department, and they made to sure to point out that VH1’s dating shows are “pretty diverse”. Since they have more dating shows than Pandora radio has commercials (zing!) I will only mention a few.  Flavor of Love actually has women of color as contestants, and a Shot of Love with Tila Tequila featured a queer woman of color as the bachelorette who dated both straight men and gay women. I’m not sure if anyone has seen Bad Girls Club on Oxygen but it also features lesbian and bisexual women, mainly in party and club-scene environments. Brandi, Kayleigh, and Flo (from different seasons, not sure which as I do not watch this show) were out as lesbian and bi and Cordelia, a straight girl, suddenly becomes jealous of a female housemate’s boyfriend. According to commenter BAngieB, Cordelia acts “the way the fake-gay girls act on TV” adding that “If Tila Tequila is a lesbian, I'm a sparkly unicorn.” This brings up the oh-so-relevant point of “fanwhoreism” and lesbians as titillating ratings increasers. Can we ever forget the awkward Sandra Bullock/Scarlett Johannson or Madonna/Brittney Spears kisses? But there is a difference between gay characters played by straight actors, the contrived celebrity kiss, reality shows about queers, and reality shows that feature queer and questioning characters. Often the queer or LGBT communities shame questioners, saying they are just following a trend, and straight people and separatists pressure bisexual or queer individuals into “picking a team/side.” Therefore I will say that many people look down on New Jersey Housewife Danielle Staub who has of-late been insinuating that she is lesbian and Tila Tequila who has recently been self-identifying as lesbian rather than bisexual. For an example of bisexual pressure, see this clip from Bad Girls Club which unfortunately ends in violence.

Bad Girls Club Flo and Amber fight

The Cast of the Real L Word:
Tracy is to the far left and Rose is in the wine colored tank
I would like to briefly mention that Logo TV has brought us such queer goodies as RuPaul’s Drag Race, Gimme Sugar (QWOC!!!) and Transamerican Love Story, but unless you have access to more than basic cable (which I don’t) looking for QWOC is harder. VH1 and Logo also paired up for a dating show called Can’t Get a Date in which contestants represented a variety of sexualities. The Real World and America’s Next Top Model have brought us a few gay, bisexual and transwomen, some being QWOC, but I would like to end with The Real L Word (which is being called a “docu-series” by the way) as it shows lesbian relationships rather than just featuring gay characters and some of them are actually WOC! So Rose is supposed to have been the inspiration for Papi in the L Word which makes sense because both Papi and Rose have no depth and seem pointless. She is billed as a “sexy Latina” and a “flirtatious firecracker” (um exploitation much?) while Tracy is never discussed as a WOC but speaks to her mom in Spanish. And whether Sara (a love interest of Whitney’s, and she rolls the “r” every time!) is a WOC is a mystery to me, as well as Natalie, Rose’s girlfriend who is either a white girl who dresses a little on the chola side or a bleached blonde WOC. So yes, there is QWOC representation, in moderation and sporadically, on reality television, but you really have to look and within that small pool there are other issues such as butch/femme/genderqueer diversity, size and class diversity and as is always at issue in reality TV, a lack of self-awareness, reflection and critical (in this case queer) thought.

Espie Hernandez, 16.  One of the filmmakers of Mariposa
But I would like to end on a positive note. Reality television is made by rich people. Even the lesbian and gay producers such as Ilene Chaiken and the boys over at Bravo are upper crust. And as hard as it is to look for QWOC on reality television, I urge readers to look elsewhere. There are amazing QWOC filmmakers out there, whole organizations and film festivals devoted to them in fact. One notable group is the South Central based collective ImMEDIAte Justice which mentors and helps young QWOC to empower themselves to make films. One such film was shown at the Human Rights Watch film festival last year and is definitely worth a watch. This is an example of a community strengthening itself from within, placing tools in the hands of those without access and allowing young QWOC to become autoethnographers rather than only to-be-looked-at. The film is called Mariposa. See for yourself!



  1. Marina, I appreciate how your the images that rotate on your t.v. create dialogue with your postings. Even though they are subtle, they visually inform my reading of your arguments. Lovely (lovely) blog and visual arrangement.

  2. I appreciate learning about Mariposa, and the careful work of the blog, but I want to push you a bit about the differences between reality TV, cinema verite, and documentary: connected but distinct, especially in relation to their truth claims and our understanding of their proximity to truth.

  3. Marina, I can't stop thinking about the erasure of sexual identity (I am thinking of your reference to Zulema Griffin). It is a powerful, and reductive, statement on behalf of heteronormativity to say I will erase you of your identity while you are on our show. Again, it's a conversation of which bodies are considered to be hegemonically sanctioned for access and which ones aren't. Thank you for bringing Griffin to our attention.