Zankie, queerbaiting, and performative rhetorics of bisexuality

Xavia Andromeda Publius

University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta/Treaty 6, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—In 2014, two contestants on Big Brother (CBS), Frankie Grande and Zach Rance, began a showmance (ship name: Zankie). The presence of two men in a showmance, only one of whom was openly queer before filming, created ample conversation among fans and contestants about Rance's sexual orientation, as he seemed to be undergoing a personal bi-awakening narrative on live TV. The rhetorics of reality TV paint this both as a sincere struggle and as a joking game strategy, which occasions an overdetermined scrutiny of whether Rance is really bisexual or if he is queerbaiting the audience. Rance's performance of self on the show relies on queerbaiting, but he also deploys rhetoric surrounding bisexuality that allows him to participate in a same-sex showmance while still claiming heterosexuality outside the context of the show. His contradictory articulations of identity and desire reinforce stereotypes about bisexuals while also calling into question the heteronormative assumptions behind the showmance label.

[0.2] Keyword—Big Brother; Performance; Reality TV; Showmance

Publius, Xavia Andromeda. 2021. "Zankie, Queerbaiting, and Performative Rhetorics of Bisexuality." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 36.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In 2014, two contestants on Big Brother (CBS, 2000–), Frankie Grande and Zach Rance (note 1), began a showmance with the ship name "Zankie." While other showmances on Big Brother (BB) were almost entirely heterosexual, the presence of two men in a showmance, only one of whom was openly queer prior to filming, created ample conversation among fans. At the heart of the discussion was the sexual orientation of Rance, who seemed to be undergoing a personal bi-awakening narrative on live TV, or at the very least, the live 24/7 internet feeds. Traditional fan epistemologies such as close textual analysis of the feeds can interpret Zach's arc as a sincere struggle, but the equally controlling rhetoric of "it's just a game," as dictated by the reality TV genre, melds with this reading to create an overdetermined scrutiny of whether Rance is really bisexual. Because of fan concerns about queerbaiting—teasing queer content without intent of actual queer representation (Fathallah 2015)—especially as practiced by the showrunners, determining whether Rance was capitalizing on queer audiences as a game strategy or was sincere yet repressed in his affections became a point of contention in reception of his gameplay. However, both positions are founded on an expectation of access to the final authority of Rance's extra-textual sexuality, an expectation that is fostered by the structure of BB but that reentrenches biphobic policing of male sexuality in the name of preventing queerbaiting. That is, proving his gameplay is an example of queer representation instead of queerbaiting would require an invasive level of personal disclosure and outing. Moreover, such proof would assume identity labels are necessary conditions for unequivocal queerness and that questioning isn't itself a valid queer positionality. Furthermore, Rance's performance in the House destabilizes a firm division between queerbaiting and queer representation because Zach's showmance with Frankie performatively constructs Zach as queer in-game regardless of Rance's identification outside of the House. The baiting aspects of their relationship do not diminish the pairing's textual queerness but in fact are the precondition for it. They allow Rance to deploy rhetorics of bisexuality in several registers of performance simultaneously, and these performances help him navigate the discrepancies between his outside-the-House, live-feed, and broadcast self-presentations.

[1.2] A reality competition premised on watching a group of strangers live together, participate in challenges, and evict each other under the continuous eye of livestreaming cameras, BB is deservedly maligned in scholarship and early public debate for its contributions to normalizing the surveillance state and its voyeurism, as well as the inhumane conditions endured by the Houseguests (Bignell 2005; Biltereyst 2004; Roscoe 2001). Additionally, since the Houseguests are a (skewed but nominally representative) sample of the wide range of demographics present in the United States, both Houseguests and fans tend to replicate the tensions of US society, such as racism, queerphobia, sexism, and classism, which are played up and passively encouraged by both the show's producers and its structure (Fox 2018). This replication is compounded by the fact that many Houseguests in later seasons are themselves fans, creating a cyclical reentrenchment of cultural power dynamics. While voyeurism and objectification are integral parts of the televisual experience, these processes are highly intensified in BB by the panoptical access viewers have to the Houseguests' lives and the forced intimacy of living in a house together without contact with the outside world. As with all reality TV, the Houseguests develop on-screen personas through the careful curation of their self-presentations, yet unlike most other shows, the 24/7 access to the Houseguests via live internet feeds and the constant proximity to others make these personas totalizing for a significant period of time. BB in this manner could be considered a durational performance art piece because the Houseguests can never fully step out of their on-screen personas due to the omnipresent cameras. As a consequence, in the words of Gary Carter, a former executive of Endemol (the production company for BB), "in some ways, the winner of a series of Big Brother represents the embodiment of a national standard of performance" (2004, 254).

[1.3] There are actually at least two layers of performance involved in BB: the first is a more public, more consciously performed layer found in the two edited episodes and one live-studio-audience episode, which air weekly on broadcast TV and condense and comment on the feeds, including diary room (DR) sessions delivered by contestants in direct address to the audience. The second is the feeds themselves, available for a fee online, which are characterized by a more private performance mode. The Houseguests end up having to enact Richard Schechner's (2003) selective inattention, a strategy usually used by audiences of long performances, where "people [select] for themselves what parts…to pay attention to, and what parts to absent themselves from" (223), but that also applies to performers with no access to an off-stage or off-camera private space for the duration of the performance (227). By creating various levels of public and private performance of self, Houseguests are able not only to endure the length of the show's run but also to perform privacy in a way that "serves as a bridge between the audience and the performers," allowing the audience to practice less strenuous selective inattention as well (Schechner 2003, 229). This illusion of privacy is the allure enabling BB's scopophilic gaze. However, as Schechner notes, "the audience's ability to see" these publicly private moments on the live feeds "set[s] up a pressure for still another, really private space…that spectators [can't] see into" (2003, 228). The camera can never show us what the audience arguably desires most: what happens when the cameras are off?

[1.4] The question of what happens off camera is usually of relatively little consequence, but in the case of Zankie, this question became a central topic of discussion in the fandom, partly because of the desire to unmask a more real, hidden romantic or sexual intimacy that Grande and Rance could never show as Frankie and Zach. Neither Grande nor Rance have full editorial control over what content does and does not make it into an episode, and there is always an audience on the feeds. Accordingly, there are several moments where Frankie and Zach tell each other they'll talk about something off camera, usually meaning after they've both left the House (e.g., August 15, 2014, 3:16 a.m.) (note 2). This simultaneous revealing and concealing, so central to Foucault's (1990) repressive hypothesis, is treated by fans invested in categorizing Grande and Rance's relationship as indirect evidence that there's something of significance to discuss. In other words, "viewers…seek to identify the personal truths, the real core of the self, character and feeling, behind the performances and the tactics of 'seeming' which each contestant is variously obliged to practice. Such disclosure may follow from sheer objective pressure…or from a careless slip in performance, perhaps caused by the difficulty of sustaining performative coherence across a number of different contexts and developing relationships" (Corner 2004, xv). A great example of this occurs about halfway through the season, when Zach and Frankie are lying in bed together (August 13, 2014, 11:50 p.m.):

[1.5] ZACH. He's trying to slice me!
FRANKIE, whispers. But I love you.
ZACH. [But I want it?] [groans].
FRANKIE. What was that sound?
ZACH. I don't know…
ZACH. What'd you say?
FRANKIE, sotto voce. When there are no cameras around, I know how you feel.

[1.6] In traditional queer theory, this moment illustrates Eve Sedgwick's point that "'closetedness' itself is a performance initiated as such by the speech act of a silence—not a particular silence, but a silence that accrues particularity by fits and starts, in relation to the discourse that surrounds and differentially constitutes it" (1990, 3). But even as these whispered moments between Frankie and Zach are framed as private confessions of reality intruding on the public world of the House, they only give the appearance of privacy due to being performed not for the other Houseguests but only for the cameras. Thus, they do not necessarily function as an indication of Rance's interior queerness but rather perform interiority by implying Rance is having a bi crisis. These moments are not ruptures where the persona gives way to the person but are rather always already polysemic camp performances of such a rupture because of the camera's presence (Phelan 1993).

[1.7] I recognize the irony that in order to comment on this relationship, I too engage in voyeurism and objectification by watching (recordings of) the live feeds and projecting my own desires and constructions onto my interpretations of them. I wrestle with the fact that I am just as complicit in the impulse to tease apart peoples' lives and motivations through invasive access to otherwise semi-private moments for the completion of this project. Celebrity fandom in general tends to be derided in some fandom discourses as invasion of privacy and gossip (if not defamation) the more deeply it plumbs a persona. Because the subjects of the fandom are real people, the risk of "tinhatting"—being "fans who are so convinced that a relationship exists between the celebrities they write about that they construct all sorts of conspiracies about cover-ups and media management to explain why the stars cannot be open about their mutual attraction" (Thomas 2014, 174)—is high. That said, I am not concerned here with deciding the "real" sexuality of Rance; I am more concerned with the way bisexual rhetorics operate surrounding his sexuality and how they shape his gameplay in the House. Concerning massive invasive data pools like the BB live feed, I hesitantly follow J. J. Sylvia IV (2016): "Rather than focusing on privacy issues, big data can be better understood through the issue of power discrepancies created by the gap between those who have access to big data and those who do not[,]…seeking more emancipatory and affirmative uses of big data" (14). In this particular sense, the Houseguests are the data sources and we, the audience, have access to the data, i.e., the feeds, which puts us in a position of power, one we must exercise responsibly by understanding the very real ramifications of using this data in debates about queerbaiting in the show. Thus, emphasizing the performance elements—which is a common strategy in real person fandoms and also happens to be my field of study—allows for a layer of remove that resists attempts to biographize.

2. Bromance, showmance

[2.1] The word "showmance" predates BB in theater parlance; it broadly refers to instances where actors in a show get together in real life, either due to character bleed or to maintaining a public persona. Because "it can be very difficult to separate reality from fantasy when you are playing passionate love scenes with someone to whom you are attracted," character bleed occurs when the performer cannot easily distinguish which affective states belong to them and which belong to their persona or character (Andrews 2008). Indeed, this already presupposes a neat split between performer and performed, between on-camera and off-camera existence, when "one is never sure how much of the 'star personality' is genuine, and how much is put on. The star is usually not sure either. A stereotyped mask thickens and freezes—this mask is worn publicly and privately throughout life" (Schechner 2003, 45). Straight showmances have also historically been strategic studio-led publicity stunts for closeted celebrities (Hunter and Muller 2005). However, the concept of a showmance is most closely associated with BB, especially the particular type of showmance I'm interested in. Season 2 winner Will Kirby is usually credited with popularizing the term, and from there other reality show contestants (and producers) adopted the model (Millado 2019). Since the beginning seasons, showmances have been a central—and effective—strategy in BB gameplay; in an informal 2013 analysis of showmance trends in the first fourteen seasons, Colin Harvey-Lewis (2013) found that "57% of the [B]ig [B]rother winners engaged in showmantic behavior during their season." Thus a showmance in a reality competition is not just an instance of character bleed or situational intimacy but is also a political strategy for surviving the game.

[2.2] Though the majority of showmances on BB are heterosexual in nature, there have been some notable (male) same-sex showmances; however, as bromances, they are inevitably embroiled in the complicated sexual and gender politics of the bromance and are the primary queerbaiting vehicle in the show. Nowhere is this more evident than with Zankie. Zach, an unemployed "frat bro" type from Florida, at first seemed an unlikely choice for a showmance with gay YouTube personality Frankie (brother of popstar Ariana Grande, which factors into the season). But as their friendship evolved into a bromance, the queerbaiting and queerplatonic aspects of bromance (note 3) collided due to the presence of an openly gay man in the relationship, and this collision (over)produced discourses of bisexuality both within the show and among fans. Most interactions cited by Zankie fans, such as casual hand holding, neck kissing, cuddling, and declarations of love, occur on the live feeds, whereas the most explicit moments often occur in the broadcast episodes, such as when Zach says in a DR session early in their relationship, "I'm not gay, but the bond that Frankie and I have is so genuine and sincere that I truly feel like he is my boyfriend" (July 6).

[2.3] Zankie follows in the footsteps of Ragan Fox and Matt Hoffman's bromance/showmance in season 12, but the idiosyncrasies of the season's Houseguests give Zankie a different valence than the mostly externally imposed Ragan/Matt. Fox, who also happens to be a performance studies scholar, characterizes his and Hoffman's friendship as inherently suspect to everyone else by virtue of his being gay and as thus more a casualty of tropes than a proper showmance:

[2.4] By the time Matt was evicted from the house, audience members had grown accustomed to laughing at suggestions that our friendship was more than platonic. Production sanitized the joke of our "showmance" by featuring clips of and repeated references to Matt's wife. The comedy of our friendship functions as "antirhetoric," or discourse that "simultaneously promotes and disavows itself—renouncing its intent even as it amuses audiences and advances agendas." (Fox 2018, 64)

[2.5] Zankie is similarly framed as an antirhetorical joke showmance according to some sources ( n.d.), but importantly, it is one started by the two show participants themselves and is intimate in a way that calls into question what counts as a real or joke showmance. In other words, determining whether or not same-sex showmances have occurred in US seasons of BB depends on a definition of showmance that either reproduces the foreclosure of such a possibility by the show's antirhetorical structure (Fox 2018) or that recognizes showmance itself as a framing rhetoric that is equally speculative, performative, and contingent when applied to male-female pairings. Certainly, Zankie is treated textually as a showmance; during host Julie Chen's live eviction interview with Zach, she earnestly characterizes Zankie as "probably the greatest showmance this show has ever seen" (August 21, 2014). Whereas Matt's queering is relatively brief and situational, Zach's is a longstanding arc characterized by themes of repression. These themes render Zach and Frankie's relationship legible only through the lens of showmance. If we consider their showmance in light of Judith Butler's understanding of gender performativity as "a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory framework that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance" (1999, 43–44), the more Zankie perform romantisexual interest, and the more it directly affects their gameplay, the more the personae and their performers emerge as queer(ed) subjects.

[2.6] Of course, Grande is performing Frankie just as much as Rance is performing Zach, but whereas Zach's declarations of affection are overly suspect because he identifies as straight, Frankie's are taken as fact because Grande is openly queer. Fox (2018) has written at length about the necessity of performing within the confines of gay stereotypes, whether purposefully or accidentally, when participating in BB because tokenization allowed for his and later Grande's participation in the show. It is certainly possible that Frankie's interest is just as performed and strategic as Zach's, only better hidden—a possibility that gets raised after Frankie reveals his identity to his alliance members Zach, Caleb, Cody, and Derrick following a fight with Zach. During Frankie's confession that he's actually a media personality and related to Ariana Grande, Caleb asks him, "Are you even gay?" After Frankie confirms he's "very gay," Derrick admits he'd thought Frankie was going to reveal he was straight (August 8, 2014, 10:15 p.m.). Even after Zach and Frankie make up, the reveal calls Frankie's affections into question; when Frankie is out of the House after a reward competition, Zach tells the girls, "You always gotta watch your back when Frankie's around, y'know? Like, he follows people everywhere. The fuck do you want, hugging me and kissing me and…it's so fake" (August 10, 2014, 7:36 p.m.). Given that Frankie is directly responsible for Zach's eventual eviction a week later, the showmance trope provides the political capital of queerbaiting to both of them, yet the stakes of that baiting fall unequally.

3. Baiting queerly

[3.1] All of the moments of intimacy between Frankie and Zach allude to a deferred consummation (in both senses) of their relationship and of one between Grande and Rance, and that allusion is the essence of queerbaiting. Queerbaiting is "a strategy by which writers and networks [etc.] attempt to gain the attention of queer viewers via hints, jokes, gestures, and symbolism suggesting a queer relationship between two characters, and then emphatically denying and laughing off the possibility" (Fathallah 2015, 491). As hinted by the subtitle of Emma Nordin's "From Queer Reading to Queerbaiting: The Battle over the Polysemic Text and the Power of Hermeneutics" (2015), queerbaiting producers and queer fans alike rely on the inevitable surplus of meaning (polysemy) to (dis)locate queerness in texts, yet paradoxically, both approaches—to adapt the words of Joseph Brennan and Michael McDermott—"[rest] on the notion of the 'true' meaning of the text, and the queer potential of that meaning" (2019, 123). In conversations about queerbaiting, "queerness is positioned as something 'in' the text—something that can be identified and read," which tends to then result in disagreements over whether a particular representation "counts" as queer (McDermott 2018, 134). While in fiction this debate can be fruitful, "within the context of celebrity queerbaiting,…the authentic meaning is centered around a person and that person's sexuality. Therefore, access to that 'truth,' while debated, lies solely with the celebrity in question, whose authoritative knowledge exacerbates notions of intentionality and exploitation" (Brennan and McDermott 2019, 123). Because of this, "accusations of queerbaiting might occlude disruptions of heteronormative paradigms unfolding in celebrity fandoms" (Southerton and McCann 2019, 161). That is, discourses of queerbaiting surrounding celebrities seem to demand disclosure of a distinct queer identity from content creators in order to prevent such an accusation, which undermines the fluidity "queer" implies and ignores a bi aesthetics of indeterminacy.

[3.2] Celebrities who avoid explicitly labeling their sexuality as queer tend to be called out for queerbaiting most when engaging queer fans (e.g., Brennan and McDermott 2019; Southerton and McCann 2019). Because of conscious and unconscious biphobia within queer spaces, "queer" often ends up replicating instead of critiquing a hetero/homo binary, even as "queer" purports to uphold fluidity (Gurevich, Bailey, and Bower 2012). Bisexuality as a discrete identity category is (often begrudgingly) recognized as queer, but the indeterminacy of "not using labels" isn't consistently recognized as a validly queer position. While not using labels could easily be analogized in this situation as parallel to a color-blind ideology of racism, such that claiming no labels obscures the power dynamics at play between straight and queer subjects, it is also a crucial bi and queer epistemology, where the focus on a discrete, essentialized identity as firmly straight or firmly queer (read gay) undermines and delegitimizes bi experiences (Gurevich, Bailey, and Bower 2012). As a euphemism for same-sex desire or potential desire, "not using labels" allows closeted and passing same-sex-attracted people plausible deniability in situations where owning a specifically queer subjectivity is untenable. Moreover, it emphasizes that het and queer positionalities are not as separate as one might think. Scholars of bisexuality such as Maria Pramaggiore (1999) propose an epistemology of fences and fence-sitting (a reference to the popular claim that bi people can't pick a side) as opposed to the on/off state of being in or out of the closet. By loudly sitting on the fence, Rance calls attention to an in-between space where the answer is not yet decided or perhaps even undecidable. The indeterminacy of the fence is a bi aesthetic in that it emphasizes how proof of one set of attractions does not inherently preclude another set. In other words, bi "refuses one-to-one correspondences between sex acts and identity, between erotic objects and sexualities, between identification and desire" (Pramaggiore 1999, 146). Importantly, while Zankie is a primary ship in the season, there are also plenty of erotic interactions between each of them and other Houseguests, including Zach/Victoria and Frankie/Caleb, and in general, Houseguests freely cuddle, kiss, and engage in other forms of physical affection, showcasing a more diffused eroticism in which intimate interactions with one person do not negate or prevent intimate interactions with another. Again, this is always filtered through logics of baiting, but a consequence is that there are plenty of heterobaiting moments as well as queerbaiting ones, creating a bierotic space.

[3.3] What's intriguing to me is that Zankie cannot simply be dismissed as marketing or pandering because we already know that Frankie is openly gay, and regardless of Grande's feelings, Frankie is canonically interested in Zach. It is also imperative to point out that Zach is perceived as queer by the other Houseguests (e.g., August 22, 2014, 10:56 p.m.). To require an explicit declaration of queerness to resolve whether a representation is queerbaiting or true representation would imply that these two processes are mutually exclusive when they can be simultaneously true: Zankie is both a queerbaiting tactic and a representation of bisexuality/queerness. The nature of BB's broadcast episodes, which distill and frame the live feeds, means that any interactions between Houseguests can and will be (mis)used to further the agenda of producers, and the perpetual awareness of the camera reinforces for Houseguests that all interactions in the House will be filtered through capitalist logics of commodification regardless of player intention. Moreover, queerbaiting is always itself a representation of queer rhetorics, because in order for queerbaiting to be effective, it needs to engage the methods of analysis queers use to decode queer messaging. Admittedly, this representation is usually one of absence, of queer as the constitutive outside. Conversely, in a show like BB, where queerness can only be rendered through a filter of baiting, Zach's arc cannot be simply reduced to queerbaiting or repression because both discourses are necessary for his performance to be legible.

4. Predatory gay chicken

[4.1] As contestants on a game show who also have to live together, Houseguests need to strike a careful, diplomatic balance between cutthroat plotting and domestic harmony. There is added pressure on marginalized communities to strike this balance, because our identities are often politicized by virtue of our difference (Fox 2018). Faced with the need to mitigate difference in order to survive in the House, Frankie and Zach navigate masculinities and sexualities in problematic ways. As a gay man among mostly straight people, Grande must negotiate a presentation of his queerness and masculinity that is simultaneously nonthreatening and authoritative in order to ally himself with the other men in the House. The method he chose for this negotiation is the predatory gay trope. His oversexualized innuendos are written off as simply "gay Frankie" (August 8, 2014, 10:15 p.m.), and by occupying the familiar territory of the nonthreatening, flaming gay, Frankie can counterintuitively assimilate into the masculine sphere of influence in the House. However, he must also establish himself as a competitive player, and to do this, he often shores up his masculinity, such as by joining an all-male alliance after winning Head of Household (immunity and the ability to nominate others for eviction) the first week or adopting his straight persona, "Frank" (e.g., July 22, 2014). At the center of this negotiation is his relationship with Zach. By forming a showmance with hypermasculine Zach, Frankie associates himself with straight hegemonic masculinity, even as he presents as the stereotypical "mostly harmless" gay. However, the "mostly" harmless nature of his flirting is important, because paradoxically, the predatory gay is rendered harmless due to his openness about the threat he poses to straight masculinity and the men who occupy it; this threat is, of course, sexual assault. Such a synecdochical collapse of sexual assault into the foundational understanding of homosexuality has long been a reviled aspect of queer representation in media, but here it operates slightly differently (Tyson 2006).

[4.2] I am not necessarily suggesting that anything that occurred in the House constitutes sexual assault (although some acts are certainly sexual harassment). As a viewer, I have limited access to Zach and Rance's understanding and navigation of consent. However, many of Frankie's physical interactions with him reference sexual assault via the predatory gay trope. By being sexually aggressive with Zach—through insistent hugging, kissing, groping, cuddling, or humping that is often resisted by Zach—Frankie fulfills the expectations laid out for him by the trope. Precisely because he continues to openly and flagrantly violate Zach (e.g., August 1, 2014, 3:48 a.m.), his over-the-top performance contextualizes the event as a joke, albeit a rape joke (note 4). Zach's not taking these moments seriously tentatively banishes the specter of sexual assault, and their physical interactions are constructed as playfully intimate. This both gives Frankie a showmantic partner in which to (somewhat) confide and also firmly establishes his role in House dynamics, from which position he can control aspects of the game for as long as he did.

[4.3] Whereas Frankie embodies the predatory gay in his interactions with Zach, Zach responds by playing gay chicken with Frankie: a prank-like game in which, as a show of masculinity, two guys will do increasingly homoerotic things with each other to see who will get uncomfortable first. It should not escape notice that queerbaiting drives the tension of this game. In an early example from the broadcast episode that introduced the pairing (July 6, 2014), Zach jumps into Frankie's arms with a loud groan, then Frankie koala-carries him out into the hallway while Zach calls out, "Make way for [Zankie,] first showmance of Big Brother," extending the final "r" of "brother" in vocal fry (a speech pattern stereotypically associated with women and gay men). Other times, one of them will lean in suggestively for a kiss only for Zach to pull away or offer a cheek at the last second. For Zach, gay chicken is a useful strategy for neutralizing Frankie's predatory gay persona while still building intimacy and allegiance with Frankie and, at the same time, creating a memorable persona for himself. Jane Ward (2015, 5) argues that same-sex sexual contact is a "constitutive element" of developing and maintaining cishet white masculinity. Thus, Rance is adapting a culturally straight same-sex relationship structure, one that positions Frankie as the predatory gay in order to fulfill the relationship structure's requirements that the straight man "make a show of enduring [same-sex contact], imposing it, and repudiating it" (Ward 2015, 5).

[4.4] Rance is also referencing the porn category "gay for pay" (note 5). John Mercer discusses the genre, arguing that the "alibis" used to justify gay imagery in the twentieth century shift in the twenty-first century: "what is most striking is that the contemporary alibis that are called upon, rather than functioning to provide legitimacy to the act of looking and gay desire per se, seem designed to justify and legitimize the heterosexual credentials of the 'straight' men that present themselves for consumption as homoerotic objects" (2012, 540). Part of the allure of gay-for-pay guys is their purported unobtainability (Mercer 2012): no matter how much sex they have with men, they will never "turn" queer because their sexual expression has nothing to do with how they conceptualize their attractions and orientations (Ward 2015). Obviously, sexuality is more complicated than that, and the idea someone can be converted to another sexuality is a well-worn stereotype, but the fantasy animated by gay-for-pay porn is the fetishization of obtaining the unobtainable, as well as the fantasy that one is so attractive and pleasing as to turn straight men gay. Zankie as a narrative fits this fetish scenario seamlessly. The suspense created by their relationship stems from the uncertainty about whether Frankie will be successful in converting the straight guy, Zach. At one point, Zach remarks, "You try to turn me gay every day" (August 3, 2014, 9:05 p.m.). Whether this was intentional strategy on Zach and Frankie's part, an accident, or both, they end up having to interact within this framework, and this narrative queers Zach in contentious ways. There are several moments when Zach will joke that he's turned gay and worry about what his family and friends will say (August 6, 2014, 2:52 a.m.).

[4.5] The glaring issue with playing gay chicken with an actual gay man is that either the gay man will win, making the straight man so uncomfortable that he backs out, or the straight man will find himself further and further removed from the bounds of conventional heterosexuality in his search for victory. Zankie's relationship is both littered with isolated instances of this type of exchange and structured overall by an adherence to the principles of gay chicken. Because of these interlocking dynamics, each iteration of Zach and Frankie playing gay chicken without resolution builds up a repertoire of behaviors and histories that performatively construct Zach as a suitable showmance option for Frankie—and vice versa. Unfortunately, due to the rampant homophobia and aversion to men touching each other even platonically that exists in US culture, any physical intimacy between Rance and another man is made suspicious; this is doubly so since the other man is himself gay (Greene 2018). This cultural suspicion engages yet another destabilization of Zach/Rance such that he cannot come away from his relationship with Frankie unqueered. Because of the shift in the modern era to a minoritizing view of sexuality (Sedgwick 1990), where queerness is a marker of a distinct identity instead of a potentiality in all subjects, any example of queerness in his history renders Rance's heterosexuality forever suspect.

5. Almost gay: Rhetorics of bisexuality

[5.1] The stakes of Zach's queering are relatively low in-game because everyone in the House accepts the fact that Frankie and Zach are in a showmance, but the external stakes are unbalanced. Grande is a social media personality, and as someone whose job is the maintenance of such a split between persona and person, Grande is much better prepared for these types of negotiations than Rance. This is a central factor in their later fight, before Zach's eviction. Furthermore, whereas Grande is openly gay, the ramifications of queerness for Rance are an issue. If it was all just an act, then Rance is the all-time champion of gay chicken and had an unconventional yet memorable run on BB. But if Rance's feelings for Grande are even slightly romantisexual in nature, the real-life consequences of that affection exceed the bounds of its conception. Thus, the panoptical surveillance provided in the House temporarily shielded him from the real-life consequences of same-sex intimacy, yet it prevented him from controlling what those consequences are (note 6).

[5.2] Given the power dynamics of Rance's position and the inability or unwillingness to articulate a clear and stable sexuality, his deployment of language and sexuality is strategic and affected, operating in the slippage between sign systems. Zach, finding himself caught between the queer culture of his relationship with Frankie and the straight culture whence he came, needs to be fluent in both social systems and be able to code-switch. Code-switching requires a rapid oscillation between different, often contradictory sign systems. The most iconic symbol of these competing sign systems is Zach's signature pink hat that he "borrowed" early on from frenemy Houseguest Victoria (who later destroyed it at his eviction); he consistently wears it as both a quintessentially masculine 2010s fashion accessory and as a queerbaiting reference to feminine and queer associations with the color pink. By the end of his time in the House, Zach passes in both spheres, though most of his deployment of queer culture is mirrored from Frankie's mannerisms and speech patterns, such as using the name "Rose" as a generic vocative (e.g., August 20, 2014, 12:08 a.m.). By code-switching, Zach can cash in on the limited cultural capital and much more lucrative showmantic capital of being a closeted bi man in an experimentation/exploration narrative, while simultaneously ensuring his heterosexuality through the campy, antirhetorical excess of its representation (which is itself a queer strategy, but one that has been appropriated by straight culture). Yet he also engages in more subtle codes that a queer audience is much more likely to pick up on than a straight audience, such as the silences mentioned earlier and avoidance of gendered pronouns. His oscillation between code systems is a form of "sexuality-based passing, where bisexuals opt (or feel forced) to alternate between gay, straight, and (where available) bisexual communities," because of bi erasure in both straight and queer spaces (Lingel 2012, 194). But even so, the constant awareness of the camera complicates meaning. If we read Zach's queer-coding as sincere, then it is in direct opposition to the panoptical gaze and thus performs an antirhetorically queer heterosexuality as a mask for an interior closeted queerness. If we read these moments as queerbaiting, that means these ostensibly authentic ruptures can only be references to queer tropes of closeting and silence and betray a savviness on Rance's part of how to pass not just as queer but as closeted. If instead we return to a fence metaphor, neither his performances of hyper-heterosexuality (which sometimes follow his interactions with Frankie) nor his performances of queerness can lay claim to the full truth, because thematically, Zach's presence calls into question the idea that these are mutually exclusive positions.

[5.3] The delicate navigation of Zach's feelings for Frankie on the one hand and Rance's social location on the other is best illustrated by an oft-noted moment on the live feed. The night before Frankie nominates Zach for eviction, he and Zach are playing pool in the backyard. When Frankie wins, Zach says "werk" multiple times, a phrase originating in African American Vernacular English in drag ball culture and often used among queer people as a gesture of approval. Increasingly this word has been (mis)appropriated by white and cishet people, but its presence in this context relies on its queer origins to initiate a round of gay chicken. Zach hugs Frankie tightly, then a few moments later says, "Mom, Dad, he just beat me again. Mom, Dad, I'm gay. I'm almost gay" (August 17, 2014, 4:30 a.m.). About five minutes later, Zach comes to the kitchen table and has the following exchange with Victoria (August 17, 2014, 4:35 a.m.):

[5.4] ZACH, looks at Victoria, sighs, and nods.
VICTORIA. I knew it!
ZACH. Don't tell.
VICTORIA. America, you heard that? Zachary is bi.
ZACH. Don't tell anyone.
VICTORIA. Go have sex with Frankie. Just do it.
ZACH. Because I don't wanna put it in an ass, and I don't want it in my ass.
VICTORIA. But you're bi?
ZACH. I mean, I'd make out with guys.
VICTORIA. America, you heard that?
ZACH, laughs. I'm not bi.
VICTORIA. America.
ZACH. I'm not bisexual, do you think I'm—do you actually think I'm bisexual?
VICTORIA. America, Zachary is bi!
ZACH. I'm just…I'm bisexual, all you guys out there. No, I'm kidding…I'm straight, though, are you?
ZACH. You wouldn't date me?
ZACH. Do you think it's gonna be hard for me to get a girlfriend, or like easy?
VICTORIA, raises her eyebrows.
ZACH. What do you think? I mean…
VICTORIA, does not answer.
ZACH. The only thing I care about is getting out of here and finding a girlfriend that likes me. That's all I care about…Do you think I'll ever get married?
ZACH. I don't think so.

[5.5] As the boundaries between Rance's on-show and real-life identities start to be called into question, there is a considerable amount of anxiety generated that must be released. Victoria's immediate reaction to Zach's confession is to police the boundaries between persona and self through her insistence on outing Zach as bi to "America" and, later, brief or non-verbal responses to his questions about life outside the House. By escalating the game of chicken for him, she pushes him either to double-down on converging his lives by declaring himself bi or to defend his heterosexuality. In choosing the latter option, Rance has significant work to do in this conversation to ensure that his queering does not spread to his life outside the show. He frames it as a joke, reaffirms that he's straight (note 7), then asks several questions about his chances with women. There is a sense of loss to these questions, as if he is wondering if his relationship with Frankie and his maybe-coming-out have jeopardized his relationship to markers of heterosexuality.

[5.6] The definitions of "bisexual" in play in this exchange are complex. Ten minutes earlier, Zach described his sexuality using the percentage model: "I'm at like a, literally like a 39% homosexuality; once I get to 51[% ], then I'm bi." While this conforms to the biphobic notion that bisexuality is a diluted form of homosexuality—here more-than-half-gay—it also embraces fluidity by demonstrating that the actual amount of queer energy he has fluctuates, implying that his sexuality is neither a static nor an essential component but a malleable potentiality. When he facetiously says, "I'm bisexual all you guys out there," then follows it up with, "No, I'm kidding…I'm straight, though," male bisexuality collapses into gayness, but straightness is not to be assumed by denying bisexuality—the "though" in this sentence implies straightness isn't a default setting but a positive identity that needs to be explicitly stated, and that isn't necessarily incompatible with being bi. Often in Zach's usage, "bi" means "gay" means "attracted to men," while "straight" means "attracted to women." This framework seems to miss the core concept of bisexuality, which allows for both forms of attraction simultaneously. Because "bi" is synonymous with "gay" for Zach, in order to articulate his liminal position, he has to talk around it with a description similar to what most people would recognize as a definition of bisexuality. Crucially, at the beginning of his conversation with Victoria, she insists on using the word bi, while he doesn't actually seem to put forth a label, instead only describing concrete actions such as an implied interest in Frankie specifically, an aversion to anal sex, and the desire to make out with guys. Stuck at an impasse of contradictory cultural understandings of bisexuality, Zach is constantly in the position of having to defend and explain how his feelings for Frankie and his orientation can coexist.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] In an interview with Rachel Reilly and Andy Carrillo directly after the finale, when confronted with Zankie's billing as "the very first guy-guy showmance ever," Rance quipped, "It feels great to be a straight gay icon, and I love every second of it" (Reality Channel 2014). For at least a few years after their season, he and Grande were still friends outside the House. As a strategy of gameplay and obtaining a large fanbase, the Zankie showmance was a very successful instance of queerbaiting for Rance and also helped Grande's game tremendously. But the queerbaiting elements of Zankie coexist with the complicated discourses surrounding bisexuality and straight same-sex desire that the relationship occasions on the show. These queerbaiting elements also coexist with the relationship's quotidian maintenance in a public domestic space, such that regardless of Rance's identity outside of the House, his performance persona on BB is performatively constructed as queer. Rance's gameplay can only be fully understood through exploring the internal contradictions within "showmance" as a label. By queering showmance literally and metaphorically, Rance is able to establish a nebulous border identity in the House unintelligible as gay, bi, or straight, and because of this, Rance is able to engage in the showmance and still maintain his heterosexuality.

7. Notes

1. For clarity's sake and to avoid implying biographical claims, I will use first names to refer to the players' BB personas and last names to refer to the players themselves, with the understanding that such a distinction is inescapably blurry. I'm also specifically talking about the US version of BB, which departs significantly from most other iterations of the international franchise.

2. For this show, I have adopted the citation convention of treating date and time like time codes in traditional TV or film texts. These date and time codes are taken from the titles of the clips with which I'm working. I have not included these clips in the references to protect my source from legal action. As I was not present for the live feeds themselves, I cannot guarantee the precision or accuracy of these codes. The comments section of these clips, though publicly available, are posted on videos at risk of DMCA removal; as such, I will refer to their contents generally without specific examples or quotes.

3. I explain queerbaiting below. Space prohibits a full teasing-out of my understanding of bromance, but for the sake of brevity, I consider a bromance to be a culturally specific form of queerplatonic relationship that emerged in North American cishet male culture to fill the void of emotional and physical intimacy that the rampant homophobia of toxic masculinity has left. "Queerplatonic" is a term stemming from aromantic activism. It describes a relationship structure combining elements of close friendship and romance, but which fully encompasses neither. See Quartic, KK, and luvtheheaven (2019).

4. At this point, it behooves me to mention a different rape joke controversy surrounding Grande and disturbing comments he made about Victoria being intoxicated (Van der Woodsen 2014). Not only does gay male misogyny once again rear its head, but taken together, these incidents set up a pattern of trivializing consent that simultaneously solidifies his predatory gay role and has ramifications outside the House for Grande.

5. As viewers have to pay extra to view the "uncensored" live feeds, which on rare occasions feature sex acts, the resemblance to porn is not superficial (and at least one BB alum has since gone on to do gay porn [Woody 2010]).

6. For starters, bisexual people are much less likely to be out to friends, family, and coworkers due to the biphobia of both queer and straight people. Furthermore, bisexual people are at higher risk for suicide, depression, anxiety, domestic violence, sexual assault, and drug abuse compared to their gay and straight counterparts (Allen 2017). This is in addition to the generally understood difficulties of being queer in the US, such as housing and employment discrimination, hate crimes, and differential access to services. Even if Rance is indeed bisexual, it is certainly understandable that he wouldn't want to come out on live television, especially for the first time.

7. By claiming she's not straight, Victoria shifts the queerness of the moment away from Zach onto herself, although whether this is a serious or sarcastic answer is uncertain (and irrelevant).

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