September 6, 2001
Reality Doesn’t Bite
Last night, I was watching "Big Brother," a show mocked for its lack of action. Call me crazy, but to me, it's Chekhov; it's all about the subtext. Anyway, a contestant named Bunky was voted out of the house last week. That's when I realized that slowly, quietly, the new breed of reality shows is causing a revolution.
Bunky's first order of business in the house was to come out, one by one, to his fellow contestants, which he did with ease and patience. There was only one problem, and his name was Kent, the Platonic ideal of a Southern homophobe. It didn't take long before Bunky and Kent became friends, real friends, with private jokes and a comfortable rapport. Faced with Bunky, a real person and not a stereotype, it was impossible for Kent to completely retain his idiotic views about gay people.
When Bunky was evicted, his partner of 11 years was there to greet him. The screen identified him as "Gregg, Bunky's husband" as if this happened on television every day, no big deal.
Where's the firestorm of hate letters and canceled sponsors and Republican housewives collecting signatures? If this is happening, it isn't making news.
A discussion of gay people on reality shows wouldn't be complete without Richard Hatch, the man who won America's first "Survivor." Hatch shattered stereotypes -- at least when he had his clothes on. He was tough, a competitor, deeply honest and most important, a winner. And America loves a winner.
More people saw Hatch win that million bucks than have ever been to a pride parade or even caught an episode of "Will & Grace."
Perhaps the most affecting of reality T.V.'s homosexual cast members was Pedro Zamora, who appeared on MTV's "Real World, San Francisco," before he died of complications from AIDS. This guy was handsome, courageous, didn't take any guff from grating roommate Puck and gave educational talks about HIV.
It wasn't just his housemates that fell in love with Zamora, it was all those kids sitting home watching MTV, kids who may have been spared Zamora's disease because of what they learned watching him on some silly reality show. Another season featured a lesbian cast member in a supportive, healthy relationship.
Isn't it amazing that these cheesy, slandered game show operas have gone where sitcoms never really could? Will may be gay, but he isn't married. I doubt he ever will be.
The reality shows bolted ahead of television movies, dramas and mainstream films in terms of tolerance.
The first time I noticed was watching "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" when Regis Philbin introduced a contestant's same-sex partner sitting in the audience. This happens regularly on the show, without an audible gasp from the home viewers or protesters yelling that Philbin is hosting the funeral of family values.
While this quiet shift warms my heart, I still eagerly await that Jewish reality television contestant who will make us all proud.
The real winners on these shows may be minorities -- racial, religious, sexual --who couldn't find a decent reflection of themselves on television until it started getting real.
Teresa Strasser is now on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.