Unscripted television continues to be one of the primary genres in which lesbians and bisexual women can be found on the small screen, from ABC’s Fat March to CBS’ Pirate Master and WE’s American Princess. In fact, in many cases, lesbian/bi women are much more stable, positive individuals than their heterosexual counterparts.
Lesbian couple Pepper and Judy Lane encountered blatant homophobia on Fox’s Trading Spouses when Pepper spent a week with Julie Chase, and Julie’s husband, Charlie, spent a week with Judy. Julie Chase turned out to be a hatred-spewing bigot who characterized homosexuality as a birth defect, but her homophobia made Pepper and Judy, in comparison, seem like ideal parents.
On The Amazing Race this fall, Episcopal ministers Kate Lewis and Pat Hendrickson, a lesbian couple that CBS described as “married ministers,” only made it through the first two episodes, but were one of the most stable and loving couples on the show. Not only did they give a face to older lesbians, but they also showed that religion is not just the territory of conservatives.
African-American lesbians were represented on unscripted TV in BET’s College Hill: Interns, which featured out and proud Kathy Harris, who even took home the series’ MVP award for her hard work and leadership skills. On MTV’s I’m From Rolling Stone, butch lesbian Tika Milan was one of the series’ early standouts. On Sci Fi’s quirky Who Wants To Be a Superhero?, Paula Thomas’ character, Whip-Snap, made it through five episodes before being eliminated.
Lesbians were also featured in somewhat salacious reality-style documentaries in 2007. WE’s Secret Lives of Women: Lipstick Lesbians took a look at feminine lesbians from a slightly skewed heterosexual perspective, but also managed to present several loving lesbian couples, including a butch/femme couple, Melissa and Amanda. (Amanda later showed up as a butch-hating lipstick lesbian on A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila.)
And MTV’s Engaged and Underage documented the wedding of two 19-year-old lesbians, Cassie and Emmelie, putting youthful lesbian U-Haul dreams on a par with straight Romeo & Juliet fantasies. In this case, good or bad, at least lesbians were treated the same as their straight counterparts.
Bravo for Bravo
Other than gay channels here! and Logo, Bravo has provided the most gay-inclusive programming of any television network, featuring lesbians in three reality series this year: Work Out, Shear Genius and Top Chef. In these series, lesbian and bisexual contestants are simply part of the team; their sexual orientation is neither over-hyped nor ignored.
Shear Genius, Bravo’s competition for hairstylists, featured two out lesbians, Tabatha (who made it to fifth place) and Daisy (who reached third place), as well as judge Sally Hershberger (long rumored to be the inspiration for Shane McCutcheon on The L Word).
Top Chef ‘s third season included out chef Sandee Birdsong, who lasted only two episodes but was brought back for two reunion shows and the Top Chef Holiday Special. The Holiday Special also featured out chefs Josie Smith-Malave from Season 2 and Tiffani Faison from Season 1.
The second season of Work Out, centering on out lesbian Jackie Warner’s gym and personal life, was a groundbreaking one. Warner could have been reduced to a power-hungry, predatory lesbian, but instead became a more three-dimensional, complicated character. In particular, Warner’s trip home to Fairborn, Ohio, which spotlighted Warner’s uncomfortable relationship with her mother, humanized her and showed how one’s family can struggle for decades over one’s sexual orientation.
Work Out also presented a more fluid understanding of sexuality through Rebecca Cardon, a trainer who began dating Warner during the second season. Cardon, who was straight before her relationship with Warner, explained on the show, “I don’t like to put myself in a box, and I think a lot of times we want to have people black or white, and there’s a ton of gray.” Rather than grapple with self-hatred or internalized homophobia when she discovered that she had feelings for Warner, Cardon seemed to slide quite easily — and happily — into a same-sex relationship.
Work Out has shown that lesbians can be represented on reality television without descending into Real World-style exploitation, and that real LGBT issues can be dealt with in a realistic and ultimately positive way.