Fifty years have passed since PBS warned Americans in an advertisement that a new, 12-episode show would shock them: “There has never been anything on television—or anywhere else—to prepare you.”
Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, in TV Guide, that the show “is, I believe, as new and significant as the invention of drama or the novel—a new way in which people can learn to look at life, by seeing the real life of others interpreted by the camera.”
How right she was. That new invention, the new show, was An American Family: 12 hours of television that established a new genre with episodic, dramatic television following real people.
Artificially constructed contexts, like The Real World’s loft of strangers and Survivor’s island game, would come later. But reality TV was born when a camera crew followed a family around and edited their lives into a show that was both entertaining and instructive.
I did not know of An American Family when I fell in love with reality TV, stumbling across an episode of The Real World as a teenager, but I am immensely grateful for it. I’m especially grateful for someone whose name I did not know until he died in 2001: Lance Loud. It was Lance, the 20-year-old son of Pat and Bill Loud, who accidentally kicked down a door and made it easier for gay people like me to be our authentic selves.
An American Family’s cold open is a sweeping shot of the Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Mountains, followed by producer Craig Gilbert speaking directly to the camera, ignoring the fourth wall to introduce the idea of this new production and the family it will follow.
By modern standards, the show is sedate, quiet. There are no sound effects or aggressive background music to tell us how to feel. The camera lingers and doesn’t cut away, which increases the intimacy. We’re right there with people in their home, as they live their lives: talking on the phone, in curlers; washing produce in the sink; changing from a colorful sweater with striped arms to a polo shirt before a mother’s visit.
That’s Lance who’s changing shirts in the second episode, and PBS’s advertising for it was quite sensational: “Next week Mrs. Loud visits her son in New York, and is confronted by his underground lifestyle,” the first ad said, while another said Lance “lives a lifestyle that might shock a lot of people back home in California.”
What was shocking was that Lance was unapologetically gay; add your own words to describe what that means, like flamboyant, ostentatious, feminine. Lance greets his mother in his room at the Hotel Chelsea, guiding her around the small space with his hand. When he walks her up to her room, introducing her to friends along the way, Pat says, “I hope somebody vacuumed and changed the sheets and the towels.”
“Oh no,” Lance says, “they just had someone—a heroin addict—that tore up the room. Now see, isn’t this just wonderful? Isn’t it just like home?”
That effortless humor, the camp was performance because that’s how Lance lived his life as a 20-year-old who’d fled to New York City.
It was certainly not how I lived my life at age 20, because even though The Real World had shown me several out gay men by then, reassuring me that I was not alone. But just as Lance Loud was a white, upper-middle-class, cisgender gay man whose experiences certainly didn’t mirror those of, say, a Black lesbian in Iowa, or a trans 20-year-old in Atlanta, The Real World’s early seasons were limited in their representation. They mostly cast one type of white cisgender gay man, and I did not see my own experience in them, because they were just one type of gay guy; we’re not all the same. Thus just seeing someone was not enough to pry me from the depths of the closet.
Lance Loud did not actually come out on An American Family; there was no grand speech or declaration. Much of the coverage then, and later, insisted he came out on national television. But he just was gay, and that was enough to stun the world. He just was the first openly gay person—not character, though he was a character!—on a television show.
In Lance’s final article in The Advocate, he said that, during filming, he was “still a teenager and more out of laziness than activism, I made no secret of my homosexuality, a ‘feat’ considered brave at the time[,] this recognition is coming to me completely by accident.”
His accidental approach was the opposite of Pedro Zamora, an activist who used his time on The Real World San Francisco to make sure the world saw the first gay man openly living with HIV as a fellow human being, not someone to be feared. Pedro continued his work to educate people about safe sex and HIV. Representation was a first, important step, but not the only one.
The Loud family was filmed for An American Family in the second half of 1971, two years after Stormé DeLarverie, a Black lesbian, fought back against police brutality when they raided the Stonewall Inn, and ignited a movement.
Although he was not literally fighting oppression the streets, Lance did help break down the walls that oppression creates. In the definitive history of the series, An American Family: A Televised Life, Jeffrey Ruoff writes that Lance “became a symbol for a generation of gay men discovering a more open lifestyle.”
Lance once said, “I got a lot of letters from gay guys—gay suburban kids—who thanked me for being a voice of outrage in a bland fucking normal middle class world.”
He also mocked the bland fucking show he was on, perhaps becoming the first reality TV critic, from inside his own program and in writing and interviews later. On TV, “Lance consistently makes fun of the serious pretensions of the documentary, undermining the codes of observational cinema,” Ruoff writes, and thus would “encourage audience members to think about An American Family as a representation.”
Cinéma vérité television was still constructed, after all, with choices made in casting, filming, and editing that affected the final product, just as they do today for competitions and Housewives shows alike.
Of course, not everyone received the presence of an out gay man well. The novelist Anne Roiphe went on a blistering tear in her 1973 review in The New York Times, describing Lance’s mother, Pat, as a victim just by being exposed to gay culture: “[Pat] is confronted, brutally and without preparation, with the transvestite, perverse world of hustlers, drug addicts, pushers, etc., and watches her son prance through a society that can be barely comprehensible to a 45‐year‐old woman from Santa Barbara.”
Today I see that sentence as homophobic, expressing terror at the idea someone would dare “prance through a society.” But growing up deep in the closet in conservative, white southwest Florida, where any hint of transgression from masculinity was suspect, I didn’t dare prance, or whatever my version would have been. It was a possible giveaway that could lead to harassment or violence, and I still carry fragments of that with me, when I feel tendrils of fear take hold when my husband and I, say, briefly hold hands while talking a walk. That’s because I still don’t often see same-sex couples walking around holding hands, at least not as often as I see straight couples comfortably doing that.
The more we see people like ourselves, the more secure we can be in establishing our own identities. The more we see people who are different, the more we can appreciate their individuality while also noticing the humanity that connects us despite our differences.
An American Family isn’t available to watch, but Thirteen has clips from each episode, including the 10-minute segment of Pat’s arrival for her visit with Lance. I doubt that if the show was re-broadcast today it would change any minds; Lance’s expression of his gayness is far more normal now, thanks in part to his presence on television.
Yet reality TV continues to benefit from people who, to paraphrase Lance, make no secret of who they are. It’s even more critical now that bigotry is moving from the fringe to the mainstream, and as institutions become convinced to stop representation instead of embracing it.
Whether people are banning books, banning words, or denying health care to trans kids, they’re attempting to erase difference from public view, and their own agenda matters more than the lives of the people they’re hurting. After all, shoving LGBTQ people back into the closet can be deadly. Yet even the New York Times is joining in, again, using its opinion section “to platform non-LGBTQ voices speaking up inaccurately and harmfully about LGBTQ people and issues,” as GLAAD recently said. The answer is, as Parker Molloy wrote, is hiring people who can tell their own stories, to represent their lived experiences instead of leaving it to disingenuous queriers.
Representation is the very thing that the book banners and pandering politicians want to stop. They’re so terrified of any sort of difference even being seen that they’ve started labeling any expression they don’t like—i.e. is not reflecting a white, cisgender, Christian worldview—as “grooming.” That is not only utterly false, but phrasing that’s actively harmful. “Calling everything one dislikes grooming,” Psychology Today said, “is a base and callous exploitation and minimizes the very real experiences of child sexual abuse victims.”
Allowing kids, teenagers, and adults to see the full, marvelous range of human beings simply allows them to see the world as it is, which makes a lot of difference.
That’s why I continue to advocate for reality TV to better represent the diversity of the world, to make sure that people in front of the camera, and behind it, reflect who we are as a society. That doesn’t have to mean emulating Survivor’s well-intentioned but insufferable expository bio packages, but continuing to just see the lives of others.
Reality TV has come very far since 1973, and even 2000 when Survivor premiered, yet it has a long way to go, with some shows taking big leaps and others remaining stuck. While there’s a wider range of queer people and people of color on TV than when The Real World debuted, there are so many people who still aren’t a regular presence on television.
Also, selfishly, diversity and authenticity just makes better reality TV, as Lance Loud showed us 50 years ago on An American Family.