Playing It Straight

[22 March 2004]

By Michael Abernethy

The Gay Deceivers, Again

Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.
—George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, 20 January 2004

The President is worried that gay marriage will harm the “sanctity of marriage.” I hate to break it to him, but reality tv has been undermining marriage for some time. Television dating involves the voyeuristic manipulation of contestants, a group of young people who subject themselves to betrayals, heartaches, and surprises in the hope of being named “The One.” This even though, aside from The Bachelorette‘s Trista-and-Ryan, none of these shows has produced a long-term, monogamous relationship, although lots of “friendships” have been formed.

The latest hopeful is Jackie, a college student from Wisconsin. In FOX’s Playing It Straight, she is supposed to select a potential suitor from a field of 14 men assembled at Nevada’s Sizzling Saddle Ranch, a setting where they might show off their manly bravado. There is, of course, a twist: some of the men are gay. If a gay man fools Jackie all the way to the end and she chooses him, he wins a million dollars and Jackie gets nothing. If a straight man is the last one standing, he and Jackie split the million and, theoretically, start a life of love and happiness.

Last year, Bravo offered up a similar game in Boy Meets Boy, except that the first version had a gay man trying to weed out the straight guys so he could wind up with another gay man. That show’s twist was unusually cruel, as the gay bachelor, James, was unaware that some of his suitors were straight. On Playing it Straight, host Daphne Brogdon tells Jackie about the gay men and cash rewards shortly after she meets the contestants. But if Jackie knows the rules, the show manages to put the gay men through a familiar ritual: they are asked to perform straightness, that is, to be closeted.

Jackie is thus expected to be more of a detective than a fair maiden in search of romance. She spent much of the first episode analyzing every movement and word of the 14 men, blowing out of proportion the most innocent of acts (she was overly concerned that one had a blow-dryer). Forced to eliminate two men by the end of the first show, she asked three that looked “gay” on mini-dates, which she spent seeking information on their sexual preference. Though Brogdon insists that Jackie is looking for love, one of the contestants noted that all she could think about was “the money.” There is little hope that she will find love when she can’t trust any of the men who are (presumably) pursuing her.

Unfortunately for her, Jackie’s “gaydar” is not very accurate. The first two men she eliminated were both straight. That means the ratio of gay men to straight men has increased, and her odds of finding true love decreased. However, it’s difficult to feel compassion for her plight, as she relies on stereotypes to make her judgments (gay men will be short or “feminine”).

Comments by the supposedly straight men showed them to be equally ignorant, expressing concern that they would room with or be stared at by gay men. While it’s predictable that straight men would voice such homophobia, consider that some of the speakers might be gay, lying in their interviews and to other contestants about their unwillingness to live with homosexuals. Where the straight-to-gay deceivers on Boy Meets Boy maintained that they appeared on the show to understand the difficulty gays and lesbians experienced by living in the closet, on Playing it Straight, the gay men playing straight are only reinforcing a centuries-old norm. It’s like asking African Americans to appear on a “segregated” reality show or Japanese Americans to live in internment camps.

That gay men are participating in this discriminatory practice for some cash is appalling. But it’s not surprising. People will betray their families, live without basic necessities, and eat live squirmy things for money. On an ethical scale, how does pretending to be straight compare to pretending to be engaged to the titular asshole on My Big, Fat, Obnoxious Fiancé? I’ll tell you: it’s worse, because it deceives everyone watching. The young woman hurt her family, but the gay contestants of Playing It Straight hurt the cause of gay rights.

The truth is that all men come in all varieties: macho, effeminate, skinny, muscular, chubby, handsome, unattractive, eccentric, and so on. If you want your series to break existing stereotypes, then give me a show with that mix of men, gay and straight, and I’ll believe that you are serious. But that takes us back to money and stereotypes. If only attractive contestants will attract viewers and sponsors, and why bother with the ordinary looking when they will be weeded out so quickly (look at both Average Joe beauties; each chose the hunk over the average guy).

Perhaps Jackie, the contestants, and some viewers will be educated concerning the thin line between gay and straight. Most of those on the show have a long way to go in gaining understanding, and it’s quite possible that Jackie will be left with a room full of gay guys within a couple of weeks. If that happens, maybe she can use her remaining time on the show to get to know the men as individuals. Because, at this point, the odds are that she isn’t going to find love, no matter whom she selects.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/playing-it-straight/