It’s no secret that there isn’t a lot of “gay” media out there. It’s why, if you’ve ever hung around lesbians or bisexual women, you’ll hear a lot about The L Word and Orange Is the New Black. Or you’ll hear us talk about shows that aren’t gay per se, but that made us feel better about being weird or different back before we knew why we were weird or different. In other words, we cobble together our own media history as best we can, looking for something – anything – that looks like us.
And that’s why I was surprised to find myself in tears over my own reflection on a show that by all accounts is the most straight.
Last week I was looking for a new show to watch at the gym, and the writers on my favorite tv site, previously.tv, had been talking up a show called Unreal on – of all things – the Lifetime Network. Unreal is a scripted, fictional show about two women who produce a reality program called Everlasting – a not-very-covert stand-in for The Bachelor. If you’re familiar at all with old reality staple The Bachelor, you’ll know the rumors that the program is heavily produced, that the women on the show are sometimes manipulated into saying and doing things they might not otherwise do at will. You know that they’re pumped full of alcohol at every opportunity. You’ll know that one is always picked to be “the villain” and another “the wife”. In short, if you’re familiar at all with the program, you’ll know that it might be hard to work as a producer while maintaining any semblance of self-respect.
That’s the battle that the two lead characters, Quinn and Rachel, fight each episode. Rachel in particular has a feminist past; she mentions all her friends from school who work for public television; she sometimes wears a shirt that says “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like”. A portion of her wants to believe that she’s painting the women on the show in a positive light. But she is constantly undermining her own dreams of purity by putting the ladies in situations she knows, deep down, are manipulative or unfair.
I knew the basic plot of the show when I began watching. I expected to see women portrayed in a way that was complex and interesting. I craved the complexity offered by a show where women could be strong, but not always right. I wanted to see Quinn and Rachel struggle with real, complex life decisions. I wanted to see them make mistakes. And I was not disappointed. the show contained all that and more. What I didn’t expect, though, was for the show to gift me with a gay woman whose story felt just enough like home to make me cry and punch me in the stomach.
Just as on The Bachelor, on the fictional Everlasting, a group of women compete for the affections of a single, conventionally attractive man. On this particular season, the man they are striving to impress is Adam Cromwell, a Brit from a wealthy family. On one episode of the show, Adam picks a handful of the women to take him to their home towns and meet their families. One of the women he chooses to take him home is Faith, a tall, gangly, redhead who has been the object of the other women’s scorn from day one. She is awkward and goofy – the opposite of the traditional dating show contestant. And she often interacts with Adam more like a brother than a lover. In one amazing episode, they are asked to go to a spa together and soak in a mud bath. Faith ends up slinging the mud at Adam instead, and they roll around laughing, wrestling, like two young kids in their backyard. Add to this Faith’s deeply Southern accent and her espoused virginity, and you have the one woman no one expects fancy handsome Adam to choose.
Initially, Adam keeps Faith in the competition because Rachel tells him it will make Quinn (the lead producer) angry. But as the show goes on, Adam and Faith become genuine friends. By the hometown episode, though, Rachel is worried that the audience is bored with Faith. She thinks she needs to breathe new life into the story by convincing Faith to lose her virginity to Adam.
Throughout the series, we have been led to assume that Faith’s virginity is a product of her religious, Southern upbringing. But when she arrives at home and greets her best friend, Amy, we begin to realize that maybe there’s something else to Faith’s refusal to have sex with a man. Rachel pulls her aside and suggests that maybe, just maybe, she’s in love with Amy.
When the show reached this moment, I jumped off the treadmill and gave it my full attention. Because a lot of Faith’s story read a lot like mine.
At first, I was pissed that the story required Rachel’s interference to allow Faith to come out. Shouldn’t Faith, a grown woman, have already come to terms with her sexuality? But then I remembered that my own come-to-Jesus moment (as my Granny would say) came because of a friend who had observed me from the outside. “Do you think maybe you’re just gay, Sher?” she asked me when I would talk about how deeply unhappy the boys I dated made me. “Like, just super super gay. Did you ever consider that?”
And I had. Deep inside my head, but never out loud. Not until the moment someone who knew me – who had been watching my life from the outside – made the observation. Her words gave me permission to consider it.
When I talk to people a generation younger than me, I have to work hard to explain how few lesbian role models existed in my young life. “Even if I’d realized I was gay,” I say, “Who was I going to date? I didn’t KNOW any lesbians. No one around me was out. I lived in a Southern town and went to the Baptist church. What did I know about gay?” And so Faith’s realizations ring true to me. She’s lived a life where gay is not a presumed option. You don’t think about it because it isn’t around anywhere. It takes her involvement with a group of people who think of gay as an obvious and equal option for her to consider a new model for her love for her friend. She has hidden her affections in daily acts of friendship.
“Do you ever think you’re a little too close to your friends?” My mom used to ask me.
And so it reads as true to me that Faith, trapped in her small, sleepy, Conservative Southern town, has been content to love Amy the way a friend might – and to avoid attachments to men by maintaining her virginity pledge to God. I know women like that. I grew up with women like that. And had I been more religious, I very well could have been one too.
After talking to Rachel (and eventually Adam), Faith decides that she wants to come out on television – wants to announce her love for Amy publicly, at an all-town dance the show has set up as part of the hometown episode. She will reject Adam and proclaim her love for her friend.
But Amy isn’t necessarily ready. She loves Faith too, she says, but she hasn’t had time to come to terms with what that means, or with how the town will react when two of its most religious, most precious daughters announce that they’re gay in front of a crowd – and some television cameras. Still, Faith plows ahead. It’s going to be fine, she insists… Until she’s standing in front of the town, ready to speak, and looks at Amy. In that moment, she realizes she has to respect Amy’s wishes, and she freezes up.
Watching, I was on the edge of my seat. I wanted her to come out publicly. Burn that shit to the ground!! I thought. Do it, Faith! But at the same time, I didn’t want her to forsake Amy’s wishes. Maybe don’t do it! I don’t know! I was suddenly young and closeted all over again, trying to decide how to be true to myself, but also true to the people I loved. I was Faith, in that moment.
Standing with the microphone in front of her, Faith looks at Amy and freezes. And Adam steps in. He realizes she is not ready yet, and uses the moment to ask her to stay on the show with him for another week. She accepts, and hugs him tight.
He helped her! I thought to myself as I watched. He cares about her like a friend! He kept her from hurting the woman she loves! I was a blubbery mess. In her moment of difficulty, Faith had found an actual friend – someone who had listened to her, and understood that she wasn’t quite ready – that she needed to make her announcements in her own time. And he had stepped in to help her. On a show that’s supposed to be about manipulation and maneuvering, these two had found a genuine moment of caring about one another completely outside the constructs of the show. And, strangely, I felt that just as deeply as I felt Faith’s struggles over coming out.
Because I’ve had those men in my life – the friends who looked after me, who helped me when I needed it, who stepped in when I had difficulty speaking for myself. When I get married this September, two of those men will be in my wedding party – my bridesmen. As if Faith’s realizations about her sexuality hadn’t been enough to send me over the edge, her friendship with Adam had me blubbering tears of joy.
Sometimes, when you’re a queer woman, it’s hard to find yourself in the media. I’m thankful to Unreal for creating women who look like humans – but especially for creating Faith, whose path to understanding her own sexuality looked not unlike the path that I and many of my friends followed – a slow, unglamorous path that stretches on for miles.