Opera is gay
Lifetime’s new reality dating game disaster comes with the awkward title, Gay, Straight, or Taken? Just how awkward it is became clear in the frequent print and television advertisements leading up to the premiere, urgently asking viewers, “Do you have GST?” Why not call it what it is? The show is about gaydar, that mythical power of instant identification that gay men and some women seem to wield so naturally.
GST? presumes the existence of some such spidey-sense, or worse, some irreducible gayness marked on the body and in behavior that gives away the ghost for the straight girl who is able to read men “correctly.” Such feminine ability to interpret male orientation is of vital importance to the show’s assertion of the “difficulties” of heterosexual, female-targeted romances (apparently part of the empowerment message sold by Lifetime, “Television for Women”). As marketing for the show insists, GST? is “the dating game you already play,” the “you” being, presumably, restricted to heterosexually-identified single women.
In each episode, one such gal is presented with three prime male options, only to be informed that one of them is gay (and, immaterial to the show, also partnered), one is straight but taken, and only one straight and available. If the girl picks the straight and available boy, they jet off on some vague but fabulous vacation. If she picks one of the two “wrong guys,” he and his boyfriend or girlfriend get the trip.
Gay, Straight, or Taken?‘s reduction of all men to one of these three options has a number of rather dire implications for women today. For one, the set up implies that fully two-thirds of the men out there are totally unacceptable (that is, gay) or unavailable (that is, taken). In what world is 30% of the male population gay? Additionally, the show suggests that even if not gay, any given man may “really” be a player lying to get you in bed, only to return to his wife or girlfriend afterwards. Poor straight girls, so beset and beleaguered by scrubs and liars.
Perhaps most distressing for the show, and, I guess, for girls today, is that gayness in men is becoming indistinguishable from straightness. The real anxiety the women face on the show and in their “real” lives, and the real threat signaled by these men is that anyone of them could “really” be gay. It’s hardly the most progressive or fluid understanding of sexuality, assuming that sexuality is a singular thing that an individual has/experiences singularly throughout her life. Any of these men could identify now as straight, only to recognize in a day or a decade his same-sex desire or another non-heteronormative desire and identification.
But no. On GST?, gay boys are gay boys and straight boys are straight boys, always have been and always will be. If it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell gay from straight physically (whatever that means now or might have meant in the past) then this makes it even more imperative to be able to read men, thus the necessity of fine-tuning your straight-girl gaydar (or “GST”), thus Gay, Straight, or Taken?, and thus the show’s incessant focus on determining which one of the three boys is gay.
It is hardly surprising, though maybe it should be, if one believes GST?‘s implicit assertion of the non-difference between gay and straight men, that the show encourages its female contestants to make the most stereotypical presumptions in order to identify the gay boy. In the first episode, contestant Jenner is nonplussed when Chris, in their getting to know you chitchat, expresses his love of music and begins to sing opera. In one of those reality show interviews interspersed to add “veracity” and “interiority,” she looks out at us and wonders, “Then he sang opera… is he gay?” The other male contestants are, or at least act, as taken aback as she is. Mike avows unequivocally, “Opera is gay.”
Challenges—or “dates,” in the show’s parlance—are specifically designed to expose gayness. Jenner takes Mike for salsa lessons, and gets the instructor to demonstrate moves using Mike in the female position, to see how comfortable his is in close contact with other men. In the second episode, single girl Jilina has all three boys sketch from a live nude male portrait model and then opines on whether it’s gay or not how much attention they paid to looking at and drawing the model’s penis. Each episode is like an unending fag joke told by your least favorite uncle.
Despite GST?‘s trafficking in such stereotypes, and despite its insistence that in order to succeed in the high-powered world of heterosexual romance, women must be able to tell gay from straight, the contrived settings (salsa dancing, nude portraiture, etc.) and equally contrived contestants (they’re such “characters,” they must be trying to get their SAG cards) fail to gauge accurately male gayness. Neither Jenner nor Jilina correctly identifies her available straight boy. These failures might unsettle the show’s logic that sexuality is visible and quantifiable. But the rest of GST? insists that reading correctly is both possible and the key to heterosexual women’s happiness. And so the reaading process begins again every week.