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"Fire Island" Is Not As Shallow As It Looks

A conversation about body image reveals the Logo series' emotional truth — and reminds us that even trash TV can be meaningful representation.

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To paraphrase Clueless, looking for depth in a Logo reality series about Fire Island is as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie.

Sure, it would be easy to dismiss Fire Island as trash. Logo's latest entry into reality territory collects a gaggle of gays — hunky dancer Khasan, his clingy bestie Jorge, Instagram model Cheyenne, baby gay Brandon, kindhearted Justin, and Southern-twanged wild card Patrick — and shoves them into a shared beachfront house in the titular New York getaway destination. If the early episodes are any indication (Logo sent the first three to press), drama ensues, as does platonic bonding, naked bonding, and repeated discussions of a certain penis that allegedly resembles a third arm.

So no, "trash" is not an incorrect assessment. But hopefully, the show’s queer, pop-culture-savvy audience has come to realize that that doesn’t mean it’s disposable. There’s no question that you can tell a lot about Fire Island just by looking at it. In The Advocate’s op-ed “Logo’s Fire Island Contributes to Gay America’s Moral Decline,” Jason Wimberly derides the series for its damaging portrayal of gay men. (Jezebel’s Rich Juzwiak points out the irony of Wimberly’s job as a personal trainer in his post, “We Get It Already: You’re All Much Better Gays Than the Guys on That Fire Island Reality Show.”) But Fire Island has layers, a surprising complexity that was lacking from Logo’s last reality series, the mind-numbing dating competition Finding Prince Charming.

The show's earliest exploration into the emotional lives of its subjects comes in the first episode when Justin, whose physique is more bearish and less toned than those of his housemates, admits to feeling insecure in a sea of abs. Preempting the criticisms of shallowness that will surely haunt the series, Fire Island wastes no time wading into the messy territory of gay male body image.

It may sound silly that a show populated with impossible physical ideals wants to get real about gay men hating their bodies, but Justin’s earnest admission of self-consciousness is one of the most compelling things about the early episodes of Fire Island. Shortly after arriving at the house, he confesses to Cheyenne and Brandon that he’s anxious being there. “I used to be super chunky and closeted, and there’s a certain body type and mindset that I think come with Fire Island Pines,” he says. “Tomorrow it’s gonna be a party on the beach, and I’ll be wearing short shorts, and being out here, that anxiety exists.”

What makes the moment even more interesting is Cheyenne’s response. “I get it,” he says. “But I mean, I go to the gym twice a day and I work my ass off and diet like crazy to have an amazing body, but still, inside my head, it’s not good enough.” Brandon immediately dismisses Cheyenne’s remark — “Cheyenne definitely knows his body’s good, we all do” — but it speaks to the impossible physical ideal that dominates these men’s thoughts. That is, it’s literally impossible to achieve.

Most gay men will recognize that perspective, whether it’s something they’ve dealt with personally or not. Body image in the gay male community is a complicated and multifaceted issue, one that Fire Island isn’t equipped to fully explore. But even in its brief glance at Justin’s anxiety and Cheyenne's self-doubt, it goes further than most depictions of gay life on television have.

Having more representations of LGBT life means a more vast spectrum of identities — not only queer people of color, who are still woefully underrepresented, but also diverse body types, gender identities, and placement on the masc-femme spectrum. Fire Island is not correcting that dearth of variety, but it’s adding to the pool queer audience members have to choose from. And, in this particular case, it’s providing some insight into gay men — both fit and not — who struggle with self-image.

Of course, Fire Island is still a show populated mostly by conventionally attractive, painfully ripped men, which makes it something of a double-edged sword when it comes to body image: Some viewers might be moved by Justin’s (and Cheyenne’s) insecurity, while others might feel woefully inadequate watching Khasan and Jorge on the dance floor. Both reactions are valid. Ultimately, it’s a series in which gay guys talk about their lives, both the mundanity and the trauma, with admirable openness. That’s more than we’ve seen on Modern Family, Will & Grace, or any number of shows with prominent gay characters.

The cast members of Fire Island may not resemble you or even anyone you know, but that’s not reason enough to dismiss them out of hand. In their frank chats and talking-head confessions, they might even have something to offer to a larger cultural conversation about gay identity. And if they happen to throw some drinks or slam some doors along the way, that’s just good TV.