If you haven’t been watching Bravo’s newest reality series, Make Me a Supermodel, you’re missing a whole lot of gratuitous on-air nudity and — now that we have your attention — one of the most provocative relationships on television. Ronnie, a gay 24-year-old student from Chicago, is enamored with his roommate, Ben, a straight (and recently married) 22-year-old prison guard from Nashville. Here’s the kicker: Ben not only welcomes the attention but seems to have genuine affection for Ronnie. This unconsummated ”bromance” has become the show’s buzziest story line — and it’s igniting plenty of will-they-or-won’t-they speculation. Right now, it’s nearly impossible to find a blog that doesn’t refer to the duo as ”adorable.”
If the culture war is indeed over, then it’s safe to say that reality TV played a major role in helping to end it. Had a show like Supermodel existed 20 years ago, a guy like Ben would have been far more likely to refuse to bunk with a gay man than to flirt with him. But reality TV — despite all the ways in which it inspires the worst in human nature — is a remarkably effective weapon in the fight for gay acceptance. Ever since MTV launched The Real World in 1992, guys like Ben have grown up watching young gay people grapple with the same dramas and traumas as their straight peers. In its third year, The Real World featured Pedro Zamora, a charismatic young gay man who was HIV-positive. His death, soon after the season ended, touched millions and shaped their views on homosexuality.
According to a recent poll, the majority of college freshmen now approve of gay marriage, and it’s worth noting — as compared with 2004 — that the topic has rarely come up during the presidential primaries. It all makes a certain kind of sense: Gen-Y’ers have seen lesbian Jackie Warner run a successful business on Work Out. They watched a gay male couple win The Amazing Race 4 and two loving lesbian ministers lose it last season. Even MTV’s execrable teen ”dating” show, Next, has routinely featured same-sex-themed episodes. Gay characters show up on Top Chef and Survivor with little comment. The judges on that bastion of tolerance, American Idol, went out of their way to praise — not ostracize — a gay male auditioner this year. America’s Next Top Model has had bisexual and lesbian contestants; Project Runway, on occasion, enlists a straight male one. And when a record-setting 6.2 million people tune in to the finale of the MTV reality series A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila to see whether the bisexual vixen picks a guy or a girl for a showmantic relationship, it’s clear the world has changed.
Of course, none of this resolves the most pressing moral dilemma still facing us today: Should we actually be rooting for Ronnie and Ben to hook up? Probably not. But it’s hard to avoid. They’re pretty adorable together.