The prince isn’t that charming, but the contestants are.
by Danny McCarthy
There’s a pained, lobotomized look in the crystalline blue eyes of Human Ken Doll, Robert Sepulveda, Jr. It’s a look full of knowing, and yet not knowing, just how boring the audience finds him to be.
Finding Prince Charming is among the first crop of original programming produced by Logo, the network most known for RuPaul’s Drag Race. Charming, gay Bachelor-style dating show, was under an undue pressure from the get-go. The Bachelor benefitted from the fact that it is one of many reality dating shows—Millionaire Matchmaker, Married at First Sight, and Flavor of Love just a few. The Bachelor is not even the only reality dating show under its umbrella; it is joined by sister shows, The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise. With all these shows, there’s the room to make mistakes.
They’re allowed to have bad Bachelors—Juan Pablo Galavis from The Bachelor is literally misogyny manifested—or crazy—Tiffany “New York” Pollard from Flavor of Love has made a career off it. But Charming is the first same-sex dating show on a prominent network. They have to somehow appeal and represent something that cannot be appealing to or representative of the entire LGBTQ community. But in an attempt to play it safe, Charming decided to go the route of the traditionally attractive, palatably bland “Prince Charming” for curb appeal.
Beyond a cartoonishly sculpted body, manicured facial hair, and the windswept curls of a Nicholas Sparks hero, Robert is unquestionably dull. In an attempt to make him universally liked, the producers have airbrushed his personality into oblivion. So it’s a shock that the contestants, each surprisingly dynamic and complex, are immediately infatuated with him.
If Charming has done one thing right, it has brought to screen some extraordinarily cool gays. Their interpersonal relationships are much more intricate and enticing than the ones they form with Robert.
Because the show centers around Robert’s quest for love, it constricts romance into something entirely one-sided. The contestants must maintain Robert’s interests, must change their ways for Robert, must be better for Robert. All shows do this, but it seems like a particular injustice when the contestants are so cool. They have to sacrifice their personalities and quirks for Robert. A peak example was in the episode of the Masquerade Ball, where Robert asked the contestants to reveal a secret.
Robert chose not to bare any secrets. However, as the world found out when he was announced as the show’s Prince Charming, Robert was previously a sex worker on Rentboy.com. Beneath the airbrushed, white picket fence-loving, sculpted exterior, Robert had a past as turbulent and nuanced as any of the other contestants. He forced his suitors to confess their secrets, but didn’t reciprocate that vulnerability.
But the most important moment of that episode wasn’t Robert’s interactions with any of the guys. One of the contestants, Eric, disclosed to another housemate prior to the party that he was HIV-positive. Rather than offer false platitudes or recoil, the housemate, Justin, extended a hand to Eric. The moment could feel staged, but the emotion was so real and evocative that it didn’t come across as artificial. So often gay men are portrayed as catty, shallow he-demons, incapable of forming bonds either romantic or platonic. It showed something that is rarely explored, both on screen and off: a healthy, non-exploitive gay friendship, unaffected by sexual chemistry.
Justin was visibly moved by Eric’s bravery when he tells everyone, but was later admonished by Robert who asked the question, “Are you here for me, or are you here for Eric?” In the paradigm of Charming, those are the options: friends or love. Me or them.
At the end of the masquerade episode, Robby, the most effeminate contestant, was eliminated. With him leaving, the contestants had been whittled down to the masculine, six-packed few. Femme-shaming is a rampant issue in the gay community, coming from years of internalized homophobia and Stockholm Syndrome-style ideal of heteronormativity.
However, Robby’s elimination came with a neat double edge. After being asked to give back his “Black Tie”—a symbol of staying in the house—Robby, instead of walking down the artificially dusky driveway, turned away from Robert and went back to the other contestants. He brought them into a hug, while Robert and host Lance Bass looked on awkwardly.
Robby, the comic relief of the show, was constantly and subtly berated by Robert for having a sense of humor. In Robert’s eyes, a sense of humor meant a cover-up. And try as he might, Robby couldn’t help being funny. Because Robby just is funny. And as much as Robert wasn’t interested in Robby, Robby wasn’t interested in him.
Robby choosing to save his last words for his friends rather than Robert meant that the show failed in its fundamental task for the audience. Charming failed to make Robert the hook of the show. Basically, it failed to make him charming. Not entirely their fault, because there have been Toddlers & Tiaras contestants with more depth with which to work.
Logo created what it thought its audience wanted to see: a bunch of hot dudes gallivanting around and finding love. But rather than make the focus on how incredibly complex and funny and multifaceted its contestants are, Logo chose to indulge one of the basest stereotypes associated with gay men: vanity. They bolstered the notion that sexual attraction is the primary motivating factor for gay men.
They chose someone beautiful but wholly empty, and surrounded him with a coterie of masculine, straight-acting men. And for a network whose other flagship programming involves men strapping on stilettos and lip-syncing to a parodic version of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, that’s remarkably short-sighted. Given that this is first show centered around gay men, it should have shown the breadth of what the community is, rather than reinforcing the negative stereotypes for which we are already known. But it didn’t, and we have to suffer through Finding Prince Charming for a season.