Tonight Oxygen will premiere their brand new program, The Prancing Elites, an intriguing reality show covering an all-black, gay and male dance troupe of the same name that became Internet famous for a technique called J-setting. It’s a promising and wholesome concept for a show following a group of determined, hard-working young men. You root for them because they’re pushing for their dreams as performers in the face of discrimination. But I question if people will come out to watch and support this show as widely and as fiercely as they have for TV franchises like Love & Hip Hop and Basketball Wives because of ignorance surrounding the vast world of gender identity and sexual orientation.
From what I can see in their YouTube clips, the Prancing Elites are fully deserving of the spotlight. But will the American public (especially people who are straight or may be discomforted by the LGBTQ community) loyally follow a reality show that’s completely centered on men with non-conforming gender, sexual and performative expressions? American TV viewers are a finicky and disappointingly close-minded group and I wonder if people will have the attention span and the open minds to invest in these characters. Aside from the initial shock/amusement of seeing scantily clad black men prance across their television screen, I wouldn’t be surprised if viewers cast them aside for being too foreign or worse—too gimmicky to relate to or care about.
That’s not to say that queer characters aren’t already carving themselves into the hearts and minds of contemporary TV viewers. Ironically, it seems gay characters are getting more visibility on popular television programs than ever before. People had in part been tuning in to Empire to watch Jamal Lyon (played by Jussie Smollet) on the show as the underdog once shunned for his sexual orientation whom later came out on top. Similarly, women throughout the cast of Orange is the New Black were warmly and enthusiastically embraced by viewers during Netflix’s early years as an original program provider. Mara Brock Akil and Shonda Rhimes certainly haven’t shied away from the practice, either. They’ve included gay people as main characters in their shows like Being Mary Jane, How to Get Away with Murder and Scandal. Finally, RuPaul’s Drag Race has triumphantly made it to its seventh season on the Logo network.
But what’s interesting about this trend is that with the obvious exception of the castmates on Drag Race and a character like Sophia Burset (played by Laverne Cox), almost all of these characters have been constructed as cisgender people. When referring to cisgender people, I’m referring to people who maintain feminine or masculine identities inline with their biological make-up. This trend suggests that despite the gay characters we’ve seen on television in recent years, people have only been willing to give certain kinds of people in the LGBTQ community visibility as complete and complex beings. Empire and Shondaland writers have been able to capitalize on gay sensuality and mesmerize audiences by featuring sex scenes of gay men who present as heterosexual men at face value. Will people find black gays bending gender performance through dance just as captivating? And is it easier to stomach depictions of queer people living full, sexually active lives on TV when they aren’t actually real—just figments of TV writers’ imaginations?
I hope I’m wrong about my doubts for The Prancing Elites because it’s time for people throughout the LGBTQ community to get their due visibility on major media platforms outside of limiting tropes as social outcasts and sassy, colorful sidekicks. Furthermore, the Prancing Elites are fascinatingly meta: they’re black gay youth performing to black female pop stars, who themselves perform in the style of black gay youth. There were plenty of people complaining about Beyoncé for being unoriginal and for stealing from young LGBTQ of color’s J-setting style when she put out “Single Ladies” and “Diva.” Will those critics will be checking for this show as hard as they were for Beyoncé’s appropriation habits?
Audience reception of The Prancing Elites remains to be seen given their placement in intersecting, oppressed social groups as young, black and gay males. Maybe their talent and humanity will shine through to audiences that need to see and learn from them the most.
Am I being overly bleak about this? Do you agree? Do you disagree? What are your expectations of Oxygen’s new show?