I'd be lying if I said that when I heard about a reality TV casting call asking "Do you bend gender roles? Do you go against the norm?" I truly believed a show was going to focus on folks who reject prescribed ideas of gender and sexuality. But just in case there was a show that wanted to feature, to make visible, people who go against the grain when it comes to gender and sexuality (dare I say...gender outlaws?), I investigated.
Here's the description for Straight as a Board:
Just because you're a man who likes pedicures, or a female gym teacher, that doesn't mean you're gay, does it? If you're sick of your friends constantly trying to set you up with members of the same sex then it's time to set the record straight. A new reality series is casting people that are ready to put all the rumors to rest. Just because you're a guy and like show tunes or a girl and play softball that your not hiding your sexual preferences in the closet.
While this might look like a show that is interested in challenging gender roles, my next thought about the casting call (that is, after "What kind of friends set you up with people you're explicitly not into?") was that this show is about straight people. They're clearly not interested in, God forbid, actual gay people—femme lesbians, or non-effeminate gay men—who also do not fit what society expects in terms of gender presentation and sexual preference. Or, heaven help us, people attracted to...both men and women!
The show may push weakly on prescribed gender roles--but it firmly seeks to put people into their (hetero/homo)sexuality boxes, stopping short of exploring how people can travel along sexuality and gender spectrums fluidly, or reject conventional binary gender roles at all.
The point of the show, in fact, seems to be "You guys, I'm NOT GAY." What could be worse than people thinking you're gay? (You know, besides supporting them serving openly in the military?). Plus, they seem to subscribe to the thought that gender non-conforming people have to be on the defensive about their identity--that it's on their shoulders to prove their heterosexuality, and not society's responsibility to reshape their ideas about gender and sexuality. As one commenter on Jezebel put it,
[My boyfriend] has been getting called "gay" since he was a little kid. What sucks is that other people like to decide what he is and call him gay. Something that I respect about him is that he really doesn't care about "setting the record straight"...Only in a homophobic society does it matter what other people assume your sexuality to be.
But beyond having a less-than-radical show about gender, I had a more pessimistic hypothesis about the show. (I don't need to tell you, dear Bitch readers, that reality TV isn't exactly a harbinger of progressive ideas about gender, race, and sexuality.) "What if," my cynical, feminist mind conjectured, "rather than exploring how straight people can challenge gender norms, this show actual intends to out these people as gay?"
Unfortunately, I was proved correct—and it wasn't just the fact that Straight as a Board is truly too awful a title to be used as a television show.
Minimal web-browsing on the same casting-call site revealed the same production company (One Louder Production, the company behind MTV's Made, Pretty Smart, and Boiling Points) posted another call for "Straight Eye for your Friend's Queer Guy?" just one day after the "straight as a board" call:
Is your best friend's boyfriend gay and everyone knows it except for her? Does he only order drinks that come with tiny umbrellas? Does he worry more about his hair, nails, and outfits than she ever does? If your friend's man is way past metro and it's time she knew, we want to hear from you. Tell us why you're ready to confront your friend and let her in on her man's little secret. Be a good friend and let her in on the skeletons in her boyfriend's closet. Must be 18 years of age and older.
If this is for the same show, it's clear that they don't want to challenge ANY notions of gender—but reinforce them. This is about prescribing somebody's identity, about telling people who trespass gender norms who they should be in love with. It's dehumanizing and disgusting--especially when you consider that this specific casting call is for heterosexual people.
Not to mention! That it compares being gay to "having skeletons in your closet," reinforces tired—exhausted even—gender and sexuality stereotypes (tiny umbrellas in your drink? really?), and asks people to out someone else—a deeply personal action.
Ah, there's the reality TV I know.