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women worth knowing
how reality tv is finally getting there
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

I cringe a lot these days. I cringe when a highly visible female politician fails to complete a coherent sentence. I cringe when an article in the New York Times is shockingly rife with errors, and the byline starts with "Alessandra". I cringe when female characters in movies are props instead of people, although by now, you'd think I'd be resigned. I cringe because I'm afraid that we're going backward, not forward, on this whole equality thing.

And yet, I've found an odd corner of the world where female role models are taking a big step forward.

Reality TV.

Yes, I know, I know. Reality TV is generally a miserable place for the distaff. "The Amazing Race" just started its new season on Sunday, and though it is without question my favorite reality show, they've again chosen to cast all-female teams who are defined primarily by their perkiness. You know what I mean. The guys on these shows can be strong or shy or stupid, anywhere from decrepit to masterful. The women generally fall into one of two categories: The Flirt or The Bitch.

It's funny. The people on reality shows, as we've all learned by now, aren't people. They're characters, just the same as TV characters on sitcoms, or soaps, or dramas. Yet the variation in "real" characters has been far less interesting than the variation in fictional characters. You don't think somebody in the writers' room could have come up with a better wild-card team than Married Beekeepers? Or a couple that wasn't the 83,756th variation on People Who We Shouldn't Judge Because We Don't Know Them For Real But OMG How Did They Ever Get Together and Why Must They Berate Each Other Constantly and I Can't Decide Which One I Hate More They're Both Repulsive.

Oh. Right. I was supposed to talk about the good role models.

They're both on Bravo, which isn't too surprising, both because a) Bravo seems to put out 18 new reality shows per month, and b) maybe this is wildly inappropriate, but I for one would expect a network with a large gay audience to be more interested than the average network in busting up stereotypes. And sure, Bravo has introduced us to a number of reality TV characters who anger and annoy and infuriate us, both male and female, but they've also given us two women who give me hope.

I'm talking about Leanne from "Project Runway" and Stephanie from "Top Chef".

Stephanie first. She's a talented, creative winner, and for a change, as a character she was defined first and foremost by her talent. She wasn't a sexy pastry chef with her own calendar, or a self-professed "kitchen bitch" with interpersonal problems. Or half of a stunt-casting lesbian couple. Or shrill. Or bitter. Or clearly out of her league. None of those. She, like first season winner Harold, was "just a cook". Sure, as a person, maybe she was all about trash talk or sabotage or a secret coke habit. But as a character she was refreshingly... normal. A great chef, who happened to be a woman. And that's how it should be, shouldn't it?

Similarly, Leanne has been defined by her talent. Consistently (okay, almost consistently) putting out good, interesting garments, keeping her cool, focusing on the task at hand. She can be a bit snarky, but again, as a character, that hasn't defined her. She's kind of a quiet, nerdy girl. Which gives hope to the rest of us who were, or are, quiet nerdy girls. Which is the definition of a role model. For all Kenley's sobbing about how she's been struggling through her painful ordeal of a life, I don't know anyone who would say to her daughter, sister, or cousin, "If you work hard enough you could grow up to be like her." Apparently you can emerge victorious over many obstacles and still be held back by a poisonously bad attitude.

(I don't want to talk about Kenley because she's everything I'm trying to praise Bravo for moving beyond, but, SERIOUSLY. The girl lips off to TIM GUNN. I cannot HANDLE it.)

Is this the dawning of a new age in reality TV? Sadly, probably not. There's still a desire to put the characters in easy boxes. The mom should cry to the camera about how she misses her kids. The twentysomething with the longterm boyfriend should whine about how she has to drag him kicking and screaming toward marriage. The pretty young thing should look at the camera and say "If I have to use my looks to get ahead, I'm okay with that." And the bitch should snarl, as she always snarls, "I'm not here to make friends." That's how casting agents seem to think, and the editors are right there behind them. They think we want boxes.

We don't want boxes. And we know we can't get people, real people, in all their glorious messy complication. But can we at least get characters -- women and men -- who are defined by the interesting and new things they bring to the table? Not the same damn negative things that everyone has already heaped up on the table before them.

I'm hopeful.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


like it's your job
why tv gets the workplace wrong
by jael mchenry
topic: television
published: 4.5.10

must-see, but not on tv
should tv lovers switch off the set?
by jael mchenry
topic: television
published: 8.4.10


alex b
10.3.08 @ 3:53a

Aside from the examples you cite, there aren't many chicks on reality TV that are worth watching. Like you, I'm a big fan of Top Chef season 4's Stephanie, as well as Leann Wong from season 1. No fussiness with either of them; they were there to cook. Stephanie won, and Leann is culinary producer and just about everywhere.

As far as Project Runway's Leanne, she's the one I can't stand the least. The majority of the show's candidates are all ready to snark by the time they get on camera. And Lord, Kenley's attitude is Que Mucho Terrible. How on earth is anyone rude to Tim Gunn? Eeek.

jael mchenry
10.9.08 @ 10:41a

You know, if I didn't already love Leanne, I would have after last night, after she got Tim Gunn to ride a tandem bike. A-dorable.

Also I should give props to Korto, who is also primarily defined by her talent. She does fall a little into the reality TV trope of "I'm doing this to show my kid she can accomplish anything" but all in all I think she's been a great, talented designer first and foremost.

alex b
10.9.08 @ 4:47p

I have to admit, I was cynical about Leanne's nerd girl personality because this is Project Runway. Everyone here seems to play themselves up in some way. But after watching her with Tim Gunn and the tandem bike, I changed my mind. I want her to win. Her wedding dress was also 5 kinds of gorgeous.

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