By Hannah Ortiz
It may be surprising to learn that if I were to have 10,000 hours, I would like to spend most of them watching reality television. People commonly perceive reality television as stupid, vapid, and ba- nal. Some people don’t even see it as entertainment. As an English major, I’m more likely to be ques- tioned about what book I’m reading as opposed to what show I’m watching. But reality TV has been a way for me to turn off my mind, and if I had 10,000 hours, I’d like to turn it off for many of them. I was raised on Hell’s Kitchen and Kitch- en Nightmares—this explains some of my unsa- vory language choices—but the reality show that I remember the most is Big Brother. My favorite former HouseGuest is Zach Rance of Season 16, who was one of America’s “Favorites” that season. An 23-year-old unemployed college graduate from Palm Springs, Florida, Rance stated that if Big Brother made him famous, “I would donate some of my profits to charities and starving children. Then I would just go along for the ride.” The most interesting thing about Zach was not his joblessness or the fact that his 10-year-old brother was his best friend—it was that Zach entered the house believing he was heterosexual and exited the house doubting it. In a bizarre turn of events, he formed a relationship with HouseGuest Frankie Grande, Ariana Grande’s older brother who hid his identity until Week 7. Zach’s relationship with Frankie was Big Broth- er’s first same-sex “showmance,” complete with flirting, cuddling, and “I’m not gay, but if I were, Frankie would be my man for sure.” After the competition, Zach came out as bisex- ual. It still fascinates me that someone could enter a house straight and come out thinking they might not be. Did Zach struggle with this realization, or was it natural?
Was he disappointed in himself, or did he worry about what other people would think? We’ll never really know how he felt in those moments. And now the question is: What does Big Brother have to do with anything? Well, when Big Brother 16 aired, I was 14 years old, queer, and living in a homophobic household. I was not even a decade younger than Zach; I was someone who similarly cried and screamed and [sometimes] manipulated people just as much. But unlike Zach, I didn’t have a house to teach me anything about myself. I didn’t have anyone to tell me that everything would be okay. I just had what I was seeing on TV. Reality television teaches us what we are and what we are not. People can come into our lives and show us new things about ourselves, and reality tele- vision can accomplish something similar. In 2014, representation of LGBT+ people on television was less common than it is today. Queer characters were revered just because they were queer and people had never seen that on televi- sion before. Many queer-coded characters were predatory or evil, and many of them were dead. Popular shows like Supernatural and Sherlock featured queerbaiting in the form of gazing, innuendos, and the eternal game of will-they-won’t-they. (Hint: they never do.) But Zach wasn’t a character written to make a state- ment, provide representation, or compel audiences into watching a show. He was just a person who happened to fall in love with another person. At the end of the day, we’re all just people. Reality television is full of tropes and archetypes: the goth, the hippie, the flirt. But people are not examples of tropes or examples of other people. We are all ourselves, and some of us just happen to be queer.
I’ve been a writer ever since I was a kindergartner scribbling on the back of my worksheets. Maybe I should say that if I had 10,000 hours, I’d spend them writing. But what would I write about? I only know about myself. I can observe other people in class or on the street, but reality television, with its constant surveillance and talking heads, provides introspection as to people’s quirks, beliefs, and motivations. When a man on The Bachelor says, “I can’t have sex with a woman who’s had sex with other people,” or a woman on The Circle closets herself to get ahead in the game, we’re learning something about these people and about the world. Is it scripted? Yes, most of it. But when we answer questions in class, order at a restaurant, or ask someone on a date, isn’t that a script in itself? To write about people, you have to know about people. Your characters can face tremendous struggles—teenage pregnancy, drug addic- tion, parental abandonment—but they also exist outside of these worlds.