There’s a moment in LGBT cinema when the question you’re always asked is whether it’s possible to realistically depict same-sex relationships on film without appearing too (heartbreakingly) “gay”. Nothing exemplifies that tension better than last night’s episode of the trash-reality show, Tampa Baes: All the Bodies We Don’t Know, on Amazon.
The recurring episode, which recently broadcast in the US, is a misnomer: it merely represents online reviews of Tampa Baes items sent in to Amazon by viewers to vote for the recipient of its $1,500 prize. For the program’s grand prize, they were then given the opportunity to be photographed with the winner of the episode by photographers Amber and Jalston. The closest thing there was to a cast to the show was some factoids: one had “an experience with a toy shopping cart that once got her a black eye and another is starting to date a neighbour and … an online dating profile that she keeps hidden by block.” (You can check them out on a casting site).
It certainly did feel like a television show replete with an exemplary framework: one in which two women delivered out-of-character sentiments to their fans – such as expressing the desire to receive an assortment of makeup to use on their current boyfriends, insisting it wasn’t narcissistic to feel awkward in an interview, and experiencing sadness for their recently deceased father. Their relationships were extremely meaningful, the producers would argue, and the contest was designed to actually give them the opportunity to be able to settle down and have children with their partners in the real world.
But there were too many cases where Amazon users explicitly stated that the LGBT contestants were explicitly there to be representative of the LGBT community. One fan said, in reference to Tara, who was married when she appeared on the show but had just ended her relationship with a man, that “it takes the gay community one step further to being representative of the LGBT community.”
Another fan read through a full thread of other discussions on the show to add to the case that some of the contestants were gay: “It’s funny, because some people watching this were extremely homophobic until they saw that there were lesbians in the show,” they said. One openly gay man pointed out that Tara had been “married to a man” during their relationship on the show. She also alluded to them “not being comfortable with the other people in the [show]”.
The atmosphere in the show may have been fuelled by the video game system marriage resolution, but it almost certainly came from the show’s production team, who seem incapable of discerning whether someone is truly representative of any group. Nonetheless, it’s an issue which seems to crop up constantly on reality television shows: stereotypes are prevalent, but tokenism is difficult to avoid.
In recent episodes of Hollyoaks, the LGBT community has faced public shock when a lesbian character was portrayed so lowly. Although stars Sophie Porley and Hollie-Jay Bowes spoke publicly about how much they enjoyed their time on the show, many of their co-stars derided the character’s lack of significant storylines.
In Living Single, the alter ego of a gay character, Noddie Lee, was intended to represent a particular life experience. However, as he later became less of a focus of the show, the writers learned to use the storyline to call attention to the presence of a prominent black female lead in the show. Today, however, that is a tactic more commonly used in dramas or series in which the character is in a prominent or powerful position, such as Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives.
Even American reality television shows, such as The Real Housewives, known for spotlighting people’s lives at their worst have tried to include a sub-representation of the LGBTQ community – but after featuring two former contestant on the open lesbian show The L Word, the series went out of its way to ensure that any obvious representation of LGBTQ identities would be carried out by gay people.
The theme that fans from this subset of the LGBT community gave to their relationship/casting choices indicates just how polarized their feelings are towards this type of representation in particular. There’s always the speculation that the show is deliberately inaccurate in its representation of the LGBTQ community