As mental illness reality TV goes, Animal Hoarders lies somewhere in the middle of the voyeurism spectrum–not on a par with the legitimate public service that is Intervention but also nowhere near the rank exploitiveness of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. In keeping with its genre, each installment is as formulaic and interchangeable as a sea chanty or episode of CSI. There is a brief prelude in which a happy couple expresses love for their pets followed by a reveal of just how many pets we’re talking about here–thirty dogs, a hundred cats, two hundred screeching budgies colonizing every square inch of ceiling space. The hoarder half of the couple insists to the camera that everything is fine, the depth of their denial underscored by shots of domestic chaos and animal filth. The non-hoarder half of the couple tries to talk tough about the need for change, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are enablers of this behavior. At the midpoint the producers intervene, negotiating the removal of at least some of the animals. The episode concludes with a follow-up some time later in which the animal level is generally still high but below where it was, and the couple expresses hope for the future.
About ninety percent of these couples are married people of the opposite sex. About ten percent are same-sex couples. This has absolutely no relevance for either the hoarding behavior or the clockwork manner in which it is depicted. The soft-butch spaniel enthusiast is precisely as crazy as the married cat lady, and in precisely the same way. Even if the producers believed the hoarders’ sexual orientation to be relevant, they would probably end up ignoring it anyway because these episodes have to hit a very specific sequence of marks in only twenty minutes. The result is that a TV show with no political agenda whatsoever ends up normalizing homosexuality in a particularly insidious way, by permitting us to gawk at unattractive queer couples who are messed up for reasons that have nothing to do with sex.
There are only so many hours in the day and so many words that can be spoken in an hour, and the narrowness of a communication channel naturally tilts it towards conservatism. It is easier to buttress a consensus than challenge it because the pat phrases are already out there, the groundwork has been laid. In the thirty-second news slot the spokesman for received wisdom always has the home field advantage. But contrary to the whingeing of pols and conspiracy theorists alike who feel like they can’t get a fair shake from the media, this is a purely structural phenomenon. It is ideologically neutral, and sometimes concision helps to undermine a consensus, or at least hustle a fading one out the door a little faster.
Twenty years ago a show like Animal Hoarders wouldn’t have been able to let the sexual orientation of its profilees pass without comment. It would have had to have been acknowledged and somehow minimized either for fear of offending homophobic viewers, or providing more ammunition for their prejudices, or both. The easiest thing would have been to quietly adopt a heterosexuals-only policy for the show, but from the producers’ standpoint that would have been a hassle because there probably aren’t that many non-camera-shy animal hoarders out there, and the less picky you can be the better. So the moment this delicacy is no longer absolutely required, the invisible hand of the reality TV marketplace pushes it to the curb. An outmoded sexual taboo is abandoned literally because no one has time for it.