why big brother is top of the queer tv shows, still

As Chanel 4's Genderquake premieres, we look at how the representation of queer people on reality TV has changed over the years.

by Sophie Willkinson
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10 May 2018, 12:36pm

“It’s 11:12am and the housemates are all hanging out of their arseholes”. Big Brother is such a familiar staple of our past that when a housemate in Channel 4’s two-parter Genderquake references it, the whole room bursts into laughter. The comparison is apt -- 11 young and entertaining people live together while the cameras roll. Except this time, the documentary deliberately taps into the late 2010s zeitgeist for the young and the woke pushing for a redefinition of gender and its labelling.

"Through frank discussions about identity... the show had the makings of something incredible."

The housemates come from across the spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation, and rub together in both the salacious, sexy way, and the slightly more formal, debate-y way. Booze-addled rounds of truth or dare, a trip to a Brighton sex shop and a four-person hot-tub allow for boob shots, snogs and whoops and cheers. And through frank discussions about identity between trans girls at different stages of their journeys, an intersex woman, a femme-butch lesbian, non-binary people, a big straight lad who wears more make-up than everyone, and a camp gay guy who wears drag face-paint, glittery nails and the awfully traditional outlook that neither of these things make him anything but male, the show had the makings of something incredible.

"Genderquake could have harked back to the glory days of Big Brother, but it passed as a rejuvenated There’s Something About Miriam, Sky 1’s egregious 2004 series."

But Genderquake, which Channel 4 capped off with a live a debate between talking heads such as Germaine Greer and Caitlyn Jenner, still jarred. Seemingly put together to empower those across the gender spectrum, the focus was on Romario, who had forged the beginnings of a relationship with Filomena. He was outed as a trans man via a series of close-up shots of the scars from his breast removal, and Filomena was the last person to find out. As she put it, "I was made to be the enemy for my natural reaction," and Romario was similarly distressed. Finally, his family’s tears lubricated the cogs of the second episode.

Genderquake could have harked back to the glory days of Big Brother, but it passed as a rejuvenated There’s Something About Miriam. Sky 1’s egregious 2004 series was a Bachelor-style show where spiky-haired lads competed for the affections of a beautiful woman, named Miriam. All the way through, the audience knew Miriam was trans. But it was only at the end, when the winner was announced, that she was instructed to reveal her history to the contestants. The winner admitted to being “lost for words", but agreed to the prize -- Miriam, a boat and £10,000. Later, he and all the other contestants, who’d each kissed Miriam during the show, sued the producer, Endemol.

Sure, this was a rare drop of trans visibility in 2003, but at what cost? Was Miriam, aged just 21, helping teach the audience about what trans is and the ways trans people are maligned? Or was she simply being misrepresented and maligned? In the same way, was Romario in Genderquake there to illustrate how bigotry plays out, or were we watching it being enabled?

"Within the first five years of Big Brother (except the ultra-dull Big Brother 4), there was a lesbian ex-nun, a slew of bisexuals who actually were bisexual and not always doing it for the cameras, kink daddies, flamboyant hairdressers..."

Romario tells i-D he’s happy with the show: “It’s your pain being displayed on the screen for the world to see and that brings up a lot of emotions for me… but if I take me out of this, is it a good piece of media? I say yes, 100%.” Yet… is this as good as it gets? Perhaps the representation of LGBTQ+ people on reality TV was better in the good old days.

Reality TV existed before 1999 -- everything from Blind Date to Changing Rooms showed real-ish people doing real-ish things. But with the introduction of Big Brother’s fly-on-the-wall concept, British audiences were taught far more about the actual people, their identities, personalities and cultural habits. Picked from diverse places and situations then plonked together by producers, the contestants were watched 24-hours a day until conflicts arose, like tectonic plates suddenly buckling.

Within the first five years of Big Brother (except the ultra-dull Big Brother 4), there was a lesbian ex-nun, a slew of bisexuals who actually were bisexual and not always doing it for the cameras, kink daddies, flamboyant hairdressers, men who weren’t annoying because they were gay but because they said things like: “I will not let you diminish my character” while sobbing, a gay “trolley dolly” who wanted nothing more than a husband and kids, a public-schooled lesbian anarchist called Kitten and the great Nadia Almada, a trans woman who emerged from the toxic -- and occasionally violent -- machismo of series 5, to win. The moment is still lauded a landmark for trans visibility.

"It’s easy to romanticise diversity of the TV so many of us watched as wide-eyed teenagers, but when in a lifetime is it more important to see queer people edging out of the moulds set by light entertainment?"

LGBTQ+ fallibility couldn’t be so easily shown by music competitions in the mould of Popstars: The Rivals and The X Factor, where cameras were trained on, and part of, the process of making popstars. Sure, Will Young came out not too long after his X Factor win, lesbian Alex Parks won a series of Fame Academy, and post-Rylan The X Factor seems to come with a legal stipulation requiring at least one campy act destined to headline provincial pride events. However, unlike Big Brother, music shows placed LGBTQ+ people within long-held stereotypes: lesbians crooned warbly folk songs and gay men were either cute boybanders or camp queens.

Big Brother met its biggest match around 2009-2010, when the Kardashians’ ten-year reign atop the reality TV pile began, and scripted reality, snowballed from Laguna Beach: The Real OC, leapt over the pond. The magic of The Only Way Is Essex, Made In Chelsea and Geordie Shore is that the cast has time enough away from the cameras to play out real romance highs and lows. This laser-sharp focus on Big Brother’s most successful thematic export to the tabloid press -- romance -- has its downsides. Despite the inclusion of queer characters like Bobby Norris and Ollie Locke (who never had a queer relationship on screen) these shows are effectively rom-coms, and straight romance is an easier route to ratings than a queer pairing. In a rush to keep up with these more efficient and successful upstarts, Big Brother -- now on Channel 5 -- forgot about its legacy of representing diverse queer lives. Which means young people are left to find LGBTQ+ people on social media. That might allow for a 24/7 coverage of a self-curated cast of international celebrities and the Insta-famous, but this enjoyment is isolated, rather than universally discussed, as Big Brother was and momentarily returned to being during its celebrity incarnation in 2018, when Courtney Act, a gender-fluid drag queen, won.

"The characters are instantly relatable for their flaws, rather than aspirational, and refreshingly, only two fit the rigid, shiny gender norms set by most scripted reality shows or the heterosexual propaganda of Love Island."

It’s easy to romanticise diversity of the TV so many of us watched as wide-eyed teenagers, but when in a lifetime is it more important to see queer people edging out of the moulds set by light entertainment? It’s far easier to find your way when there’s a well-trodden path ahead, and to continue on that muddy path metaphor, isn’t it great I had a way of discovering, in my adolescence and early adulthood, that lesbians really are more than just dyke-hikes and practical footwear? There’s no certain way to measure Big Brother’s impact on today’s young and not-so-young, but you only have to note how often Nikki Grahame’s “Who is she?” tirade is quoted in queer circles to recognise how the show nudged queer British culture.

Genderquake is a welcome return to seeing queer British lives played out on screen, in a way Big Brother can’t quite muster anymore. The characters are instantly relatable for their flaws, rather than aspirational, and refreshingly, only two fit the rigid, shiny gender norms set by most scripted reality shows or the heterosexual propaganda of Love Island. The question remains: which much-talked about reality series of yore is Genderquake most like? The pioneering Big Brother, which, setting aside ethics of training cameras on people as they wee, gave queer people an individual and nuanced voice they never previously had? Or There’s Something About Miriam, a show which used a trans woman’s body as a drawn-out stunt? As that Geordie bloke once bellowed… you decide.

Tagged:
LGBTQ
reality tv
Big Brother
genderquake