Reality TV is struggling to cope with a painful moment for LGBTQ rights

Credit – Netflix (2); Paramount+; Hulu

“Everything just keeps getting better,” proclaims the groundbreaking reality show’s theme song weird eye, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in July. For years, that sentiment has rung true when it comes to the LGBTQ rights movement. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in 2011. The first state and local same-sex unions led to nationwide marriage equality in 2015. The trans community gained unprecedented visibility with personalities like Laverne Cox, Elliot Page and Virginia. state legislator Danica Roem burst onto the national scene. But the 2020s have been painful for gay and trans Americans. Hear a New Orleans marching band belt weird eye‘s upbeat refrain in the new seventh season of the NOLA series, you might ask: Everything continues… to do what now?

Such is the bittersweet experience of watching LGBTQ reality TV in 2023. Yes, it is heartwarming to see evidence – carefully choreographed and selectively edited – of people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities on the rise . Yet there is something surreal about weird eye making joyful makeovers in a state with a ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in the works and RuPaul sending queens down the runway amid a flurry of anti-drag laws. After decades as the small-screen vanguard of a movement that used pop culture as a soapbox, these shows are scrambling to meet a moment their creators might never have anticipated.

weird eye And RuPaul’s Drag Race, two hugely influential series whose origins date back to the reality boom of the 2000s, deserve a lot of credit for bringing LGBTQ people and culture into the mainstream. But they weren’t the first shows of their kind to do so. The real world made Pedro Zamora, a gay AIDS activist who died of the virus in 1994, a lay saint. A generation earlier, An American family, the PBS documentary that is widely considered the first reality TV series, took viewers to the queer demi-monde of New York City with the family’s son, Lance Loud. Zamora and Loud had fictional television counterparts, but each had a unique and profound impact at a time when they might have been the first true gay people many viewers experienced.

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Jonathan Van Ness and Stephanie Williams in weird eye Season 7netflix

While The real world And An American family dug deep who their subjects were, drag race And weird eye especially highlight what their stars are doing. Title Queer Eye for the Straight Guy when premiering on Bravo, this latest series paired hapless straight men with a quintet of gay male stylists and lifestyle gurus for uplifting makeovers. Despite capturing the zeitgeist in the early 2000s, as contemporaries of will and grace For Queer as Folk For The word I queer-centric protagonists, the show has been rightly criticized for portraying its Fab Five as little more than helpful helpers. Netflix 2018 weird eye revival avoided falling into the same trap thanks to a new cast, more engagement with who these Fab Five 2.0 are as people, and a wide range of makeover topics, some of which are also part of the LGBTQ community.

The series has always been jubilant, and it maintains that tone in Season 7, its first in 18 months. But there are also unmistakable nods to our current political moment, from weird eyein the Deep South to the rainbow-hued dresses that grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness, who came out non-binary in 2019, wears throughout the season. Moving episode highlights Stephanie, a lesbian who channels her butch gender expression into a character as the ultimate New Orleans sports fan, as a way to make herself more publicly acceptable in the wake of a traumatic experience of homophobia. It is an acknowledgment that, as powerful as the Fab Five are, many members of the community still experience prejudice on a daily basis.

To understand the effect drag race has had on pop culture, just take a look around the reality TV landscape. In the 14 years since the drag competition launched on Logo, before moving to larger platforms including VH1, MTV and Paramount+, it has spawned not only 11 active international editions (with three more in the works ) and several US spin-offs, as well as a world of drag-themed streaming entertainment, from HBO’s drag-road-trip series We are here in the Discovery+ renovation game Trixie Motel. This year, the week adjacent to Pride Month after Memorial Day brings a second season of queen of the universean international drag queen singing contest and Hulu’s joyfully anarchic premiere Drag me to dinner, which pits drag duos against each other to throw the most entertaining dinner party. All of the above titles frequently feature or feature artists who have participated in drag race.

Current events have, in turn, influenced drag race. The franchise partnered with the ACLU to create a Drag Defense Fund, unveiled in April’s Season 15 finale, which also crowned Sasha Colby as the show’s second consecutive trans winner. In the show’s all-star eighth season, which airs Fridays on Paramount+ — and with a wave of bathroom bills and restrictions on gender-affirming care for trans people sweeping conservative states — she has also welcomed back Monica Beverly Hillz, who made TV history in 2013 when she came out as a trans woman. The revelation sparked important conversations about the relationship between drag and gender identity. His return to drag race promised to continue them, now that trans people are both more visible and more targeted than they were a decade ago. If only she hadn’t been eliminated in the premiere. Such are the limits of competition lounges.

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Yoly Rojas and Xander Boger in The ultimatum: queer lovenetflix

It is perhaps surprising thatWhile some of the most iconic queer voices on TV provide advocacy, inspiration and delight to their fiercely loyal audiences, the LGBTQ reality TV series that seems most timely now is The ultimatum: queer love. Rolling out between May 24 and June 7 on Netflix, this edition puts a Pride-friendly spin on a format that, in last year’s first season, uploaded couples who couldn’t get along. on whether to get engaged in “trial marriages” to other cast members in hopes of clearing up what their future might look like (or, you know, instigating some addictive drama) . This time, all participants are women or non-binary people.

What distinguishes the show from the two weird eye and the overabundance of drag content is that, rather than a platform for banging celebrities, it’s a window into the everyday lives of its non-famous subjects. Couples contemplating marriage have universal questions, whether or not to commit to having children, whether to even believe in the institution, and the casting of strange love is no exception. Although most come across as kind, genuine, and thoughtful about what they want in a partner, like in the original Ultimatum, not everyone here is friendly. Still, there are aspects of their situation that should relate to anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship.

This painstaking performance of relatability is, admittedly, a double-edged sword. As Lindsay Lee Wallace noted in an essay for TIME, the series strives so hard to be universal that it rarely seems specifically weird: f-ckboi lesbians, supposedly enlightened androgynous astrologers, and always-taken bisexual girls. trapped in the gender expectations of their past relationships with heterosexual and cis men? Where are the poly people and the “ethical bitches” who would throw the entire premise of the series into a fascinating question? »

It’s probably not a good sign that the most resonant LGBTQ reality show of the season is one that not only echoes the slogan of equality before marriage Love is lovebut also, as The real world And An American family, serves in part to highlight the humanity of queer people. No one should need such a reminder, and many potential right-wing voters are unlikely to watch anyway. But just as there is value in the performative empowerment of drag race And weird eye, it’s worth zooming in on the everyday realities of queer love in the age of marriage equality. If the entertainment industry in general seems frustrated and helpless in the face of repressive legislation, at least these shows are a balm for those struggling to survive it.

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