Is Reality TV Ready To Embrace Gay Black Men?
There's potential to break down stereotypes -- but also reinforce them.
On Sept. 7, the popular reality series "Love & Hip-Hop: Hollywood" introduced its first gay couple. In a "shocking" reveal, model and producer Milan Christopher and rapper Miles Brock entered the series as music collaborators who also happen to be madly-in-love. There was only one hitch: Brock's unwillingness to be fully "out" with Christopher, fearing repercussions from his family, the hip-hop industry, and his longtime girlfriend Amber.
The couple's rocky, complicated relationship is, in many ways, like any other in the franchise, which follows hip-hop artists and hangers-on in cities including Atlanta and New York. Produced by rap entrepreneur Mona Scott Young for VH1, the franchise has set record-making ratings for the network with its stories of love and betrayal -- usually accented with lots of shouting matches, fights, and drink throwing. It's also been criticized for being too "ratchet" and perpetuating negative representations of black relationships that focus on dysfunction.
And yet, when the inclusion of Christopher and Brock was announced last month, it seemed like it could mark an exciting turning point for the franchise, and for black reality television at large. Could the inclusion of these new cast members mean a chance at redefining depictions of black love on screen? Could reality television, particularly shows that focus on black people, finally be ready to embrace the LGBT community?
Yes. But also, no. During the episode, viewers expressed reactions to the Milan/Miles storyline on social media that varied from confusion, to disgust, to pride. Many were shocked at the reveal that the two men were a couple (earlier in the episode Milan only refers to his secret lover as "bae"), others uncomfortable with watching two men kiss each other on screen.
The reactions, in a way, echo the feelings of the straight male cast members on the show -- artists like Ray J, Omarion, Fizz, and Rich Dollaz, have allegedly refused to film "scenes" with the couple or even be spotted at the same events with them. When asked about the addition of Miles and Milan back in August, singer Omarion told TMZ: "Nah, hell nah, all that shit ain't in my storyline. Keep that shit out my motherf***king storyline. Don't bring that shit nowhere near me."
At the other end of the spectrum, some tweeters have recognized that the couple reflects the reality of a changing, more accepting cultural landscape.
There have been same-sex romances on the franchise before -- but only between women. Last year, on "Love & Hip-Hop: New York," model and singer Erica Mena had a torrid love affair with fellow model Cyn Santana.
(Several scenes of the femme couple were clearly presented to titillate, featuring them naked in a bubble bath or rolling around in sexy lingerie.) In smaller storylines, cast members like Ariane Davis, Margeaux Simms, and Joseline Hernandez on "Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta" have revealed that they are either lesbian or bisexual. These revelations haven't been met with nearly as much vitriol as the new season's "It" couple.
The disparity in how these relationships are received by viewers and cast mates alike highlights how much there is to unpack in the kinds of black men viewers are comfortable seeing. When the Oxygen network premiered its show "The Prancing Elites" earlier this year, it was an example of reality television taking a step to better represent members of the black LGBT community. The show follows a dance troupe with gay and gender-nonconforming dancers who defiantly perform in femme dance attire. While the show itself was met with positive reviews, it was also hit with a petition from viewers who claimed it was degrading to black men.
Historically, black gay men on reality shows like "Love & Hip-Hop" and "Real Housewives" have been relegated to B or C casts -- they come in to make sassy jokes and play the best friend, but rarely are they ever given their own storylines that don't revolve around the straight main cast members.
In the case of Milan and Miles, it seems that the storyline that they get may simply be perpetuating more stereotypes. A super trailer for this season of "Love & Hip-Hop: Hollywood" hints at Miles Brock's girlfriend angrily learning that her boyfriend is "on the DL." Obviously, the ultimate goal of this storyline is juicy drama. But the drama takes away from celebrating Miles and Milan's relationship by reinforcing the myth of the so-called illicit "down low" lifestyle (and the false narrative that black people are inherently more homophobic than other races).
Last month it was announced that the upcoming eighth season of Bravo's wildly popular "Real Housewives of Atlanta" will introduce its first transgender housewife, model Amiyah Scott. The fact that people like Milan Christopher and Amiyah Scott are being integrated into these popular reality shows is a sign of progress. On his Instagram page, Christopher has proudly shared articles written about the history-making nature of his arrival on "Love & Hip-Hop." In spite of whatever negative comments he's been received, he clearly views his precense on the show as proof that #LoveWins.
Yes, reality television, as a genre, is known for being "trashy." In many ways, it's the antithesis of reality, so who cares how the black LGBT community is portrayed, right? Wrong. Shows like "Love & Hip-Hop" are all about heightened emotions and crazy drama, which is fine. But if networks don't make an effort to educate rather than sensationalize what it means to be black and gay, these storylines could possibly do more harm than good.
What's made the reality television genre so enduring and entertaining for so long is that, at its core, it lays bare the most basic and visceral elements of human interaction. It's lowbrow, but its potential to educate and change the way people think about and see the world can't be underestimated. For now, the presence of these cast members is a shift in the right direction.
One can only hope that in the midst of all the drama, the reality that LGBT people in the black community exist and love just like anybody else doesn't get overshadowed.
By Zeba Blay
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