I have never been much of a reality television viewer, and any lingering desire I may have had to watch reality shows disappeared after I read Jennifer Pozner's Reality Bites Back earlier this year. But as soon as I heard about the new season of America's Next Top Model, I realized I had to give it a shot. That's because Cycle 18 of ANTM features not one, but TWO openly queer women. And one of them is bi-identified Laura LaFrate.
Laura describes herself as a "true bisexual." In particular, she mentions that she finds androgynous women very attractive, including AzMarie, Cycle 18's lesbian contestant. Laura's sexuality is one of the first things we learn about her, and in a way that's good, because it's clear that she's proud to stand up as who she is. My focus in this series is bisexual visibility, and having a contestant on a hugely popular reality show directly assert her bisexuality on Day One definitely counts.
My fear, though, is that by labeling her as The Bisexual right away, Laura's sexuality will be used as a sensationalistic pull. This is reality television, after all, and ANTM is all about sensationalism. (This season also featured ANTM's first Native American contestant, and needless to say, the show portrayed her incredibly problematically.) As a very infrequent viewer of ANTM, I don't know how the show has depicted queerness in the past. But I do know that the reality genre has big difficulties in addressing bisexuality.
Just take a look at MTV's A Shot at Love series. A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila ran for two seasons, and A Double Shot at Love, featuring the Ikki Twins, ran for a third. To my knowledge, these are the only reality dating shows that have focused specifically on bisexual women, and all three seasons featured straight men and lesbians for the bi bachelorettes to choose from. (Don't even get me started on how unhelpful reasserting that gender binary is for bisexuals.) Unfortunately, A Shot at Love is remembered for completely exploiting and scandalizing bisexuality. Moreover, each season reaffirmed the stereotype that bisexual women uniformly end up in heterosexual relationships; a male contestant "won" every season. (Tila Tequila did choose a woman, Kristy, at the end of A Shot at Love 2, but Kristy rejected her, stating that she wasn't ready to have a relationship with a woman.) Granted, A Shot at Love is only one show, but it is the most well-known reality show to address bisexuality, and it certainly makes the possibility of realistic portrayals of bisexuality in the genre look bleak.
But back to Laura and ANTM. Though the way reality shows are edited make it challenging to know what, precisely, is really going on, so far, the characterization of Laura seems to be fair. Of course, ANTM loves reminding us how sexually liberated she is (She goes skinny dipping with AzMarie and other girls during the first night! She dresses up as Madonna for the first photoshoot!), but that in itself isn't a bad thing. The show also makes it perfectly clear that she's a talented professional, and that she is serious competition for the rest of the contestants. She is well-liked by the other contestants; other than one moment in the first episode when fellow contestant Annaliese confesses that Laura's sexual openness is "making me slightly uncomfortable," none of the models appear to have problems with Laura, due to her sexuality or otherwise. Additionally, her photos always rank highly and receive praise, and the judges deem her easy to work with. ANTM has a habit of depicting women in terrible ways, so the characterization of Laura is actually really refreshing.
It is too early in the season (episode three aired last night) to judge whether Laura will ultimately be portrayed as a role model for young and impressionable bi viewers, or if she will fall victim to the negative bi stereotypes that fill the media in general and reality television specifically. But I'll stay tuned to find out. Here's hoping I'll be pleasantly surprised.