Is reality television bad for minorities?
Black women are up in arms over the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the latest season of Celebrity Apprentice. The slew of “wife” shows aren’t so flattering to women either — see: Real Housewives, Mob Wives, Sister Wives, Bama Belles, Teen Mom, Hip Hop Wives, Basketball Wives, etc. Series like The A-List and The Real L Word show the less-than-perfect sides of gay men and women.
Years ago when most reality shows were competitions, focused more on skills than narrative, minorities were enthusiastic. But the narrative turn in the genre, toward soap opera and sitcom, has changed the game. Seeing Reichen Lehmkuhl race around the world was different than watching him try to out-catty his rich New York friends.
Now we’re getting more reality shows on the web, and the new medium may be replicating the flaws of the old.
There are a growing number of reality shows online, and true to the Internet, they all promise something a little new. Two series showcase black gay men in Los Angeles and Atlanta — Hollywood Houseboys and Tha Life Atlanta. Canadian series The Avenue follows the high-heeled YouTube beauty star Gregory Gorgeous and his girlfriends. Long-running In the Loop follows three regular-looking guys as they cut each other down. Hollywood 201 promises to give us fame-hungry twinks engaged in Real World-esque shenanigans involving sex and booze. For lesbians, there are shows based in Australia, Generation L, and Texas, LezBeProud, which promises to avoid TV’s sensationalism. My Secret Society follows lesbian and straight women of color down South as they hobnob with celebs like Omarion and Amber Rose. And there are examples you’d likely never see on TV, most notably In Their Room, an erotic web series that presaged Playboy TV’s Brooklyn Kinda Love.
This is all good news, to a certain extent. So far the narrative gay reality shows on TV are limited to Sundance’s marvelous Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, The Real L Word and the controversial A-List. Bravo shows like Million-Dollar Listing and Flipping Out come close but are more focused on professional tasks than personal lives. All of these shows are less diverse in terms of race, age, location and style than what we can see online.
But many of the new shows replicate reality television’s focus on fame-whoring, sensationalism, consumerism and the glorification of unproductive living (see: the Kardashian franchise). The best of them, like In the Loop, show some ironic distance, even camp, letting us know that one some level “reality” is a game.
If it premieres, Hollywood 201 promises to deliver just the kind of lowbrow sensationalism that we’ve become used to on shows like Bad Girls Club: young and mischievous people being horrible to one another. Like the Bad Girls and E!’s Girls Next Door, it gives older audiences something pretty to watch, a bit of scopophilia to amuse in the middle of the day. Take, for instance, one of the opening lines from Jayden, one of the many twinks in the house: “Today I had to jack off twice. I’m getting super-fucking horny. I wake up with boners.” Classy.
Why do these series end up so “awful”? On the web, like on TV, the pressure is to get views. And no viewer wants to be bored.
Take, as another example, the Hollywood Houseboys. A well-made show about “aspiring actors” and “semi-working models,” the show promises one thing: drama, including alleged prostitution, sugar daddies and cheating boyfriends. “The Hollywood Houseboys are guaranteed to redefine the meaning of Hollywood drama! And bring to you reality television with a twist.” It’s not a lie; the series is fun!
The industrious producers who make these shows know what they’re getting into. Ryan Hope, an actor and the show’s producer, is aware that his series might perpetuate negative stereotypes, but he believes viewers will see the show’s leads as real people.
“I am conscious of my material and what parts of our lives would be the most compelling in order to start those ‘water-cooler’ conversations,” Hope said. “Whether people feel good, bad or indifferent about us…this is ‘our’ story and the Hope is that by sharing our story it may give others like us something to relate to.” (UPDATE: Click here for the full interview).
The web is about being seen. Or rather, the eternal possibility of being seen, of circulating rapidly through social networks. Web fame or notoriety can often be more powerful than TV notoriety: web stars from Ryan Higa and Lucas Cruikshank to Felicia Day have much more rabid fan bases than most Hollywood celebrities. Video moves fast, and if your reality series is crazy enough, your fame can move fast too.
But what we’ve seen from TV is most reality stars cannot translate their notoriety into a career, instead selling their privacy and revealing their flaws for the public’s fleeting attention. For every Kim, Khloe and Kourtney, or Elizabeth Hasselback and Christian Siriano, there are countless individuals who thought visibility would lead to a sustainable living, the increasingly elusive job with steady pay and good hours. It’s a desirable enough dream to understand why people put their lives in front of cameras, but clearly it’s not worth it for everybody.
That said, these series are some of the most interesting stories you’ll watch online. At their best, they discuss issues so specific to their niche cultures you’d be hard-pressed to find them anywhere else. And, by my unscientific count, they are at least as popular, if not more popular, than the scripted gay web series currently online. Here’s hoping some of them make it.
Below are some trailers and episodes from the series mentioned in this post: