Questions for Queer Eye

Published in: March-April 2004 issue.


THERE IS a certain specific risk involved in writing this essay. The current mood in journalism and popular culture welcomes the lighthearted, the upbeat, the optimistic—especially where gay politics is concerned. This discussion of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy will seem quite dismal compared to the recent enthusiasm over the gayification of popular television programming. Viewers of David Letterman and Barbara Walters, readers of Entertainment Weekly magazine, and audiences of any television show business report have been told repeatedly that 2003 was a very good year to be gay.

In the middle of July, audiences were swept over by a wave of gay—or gay-ish—TV shows. First came the inexcusable Boy Meets Boy, a Bravo television production designed to bring gay life to the unsavory and popular world of reality dating. The hook in this program came in the form of the sadistic device of having some of the prospective love matches be straight men, a fact unknown to the star bachelor. The mean-spiritedness of Boy Meets Boy stood in sharp contrast to the immediately popular Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which debuted in mid-July. Queer Eye came on with such cheerfulness and good-natured bitchiness that audiences and critics were instantly disarmed. NBC, the parent company that owns Bravo, created an audible buzz when it scheduled a shortened version of the show in the coveted slot before Will & Grace. Not much to celebrate.

The improbable premise of the show is ingenious. A grooming- and refinement-challenged straight man is nominated (by a loved one or by himself) and selected through an application and screening process (the details of which are available on the official Queer Eye website) for treatment by a troop of five gay men, each a trained specialist in a specific area of personal style or cultural presentation. The goal is not a make-over but a “make better.” Even with a high degree of frisky and funny gay teasing—”We’re sending this bag back to Boca” or “There’s a hooker in Trenton who wants her shoes back”—both the show’s premise and its execution are sincere rather than ironic. In the first season, the “Carson factor”—named for Carson Kressley, the fashion savant—was higher than in the more smoothed-out recent episodes. The Carson factor (like the “Jack factor” on Will & Grace) describes the kind of hyper-gay, stereotypical performance that Kressley exhibits, and it was an aspect of the program that was subject to criticism early on. Carson Kressley’s wit is sharp and quick, though never wounding, delivered in a style that’s undoubtedly too flamboyant for many straight viewers and too stereotypical for many gay ones.

Antics aside, each of the Five has a job to do. Thom Filicia, owner of a large interior design firm, transforms ordinary and sometimes grungy living spaces into Pottery Barn catalogue pictures—not lavish, but elegant and impressively styled to match the lifestyle and personality of this week’s guy. Ted Allen, often described as the serious one or even the nerd, introduces the subject to the pleasures of refined food and drink, and the delights to be had in shopping and preparation. Kyan Douglas, impressive in his victory over a Marine in a push-up contest, is the hunky guru of personal style, and introduces the client to the importance of thoughtful (but not necessarily vain) grooming, including discourse on the perils of shaving against the grain and the virtues of exfoliating. Talented, earnest, thoughtful Jai Rodriguez, who’s somewhat underutilized in his role of culture vulture, teaches dance steps, offers suggestions on achieving powerful physical presence in a club or at a party, and supports the adventures of the client with tickets, music, and plans for special evenings.

So what’s not to love? These men are talented, sincere, and effective, and they clearly make a significant, even transformative, difference in the lives of the men they “make better.” A recent holiday special transcended the usual doldrums of such affairs by reuniting several success stories, each with his newly acquired female companion. The audience sees footage from the reunion contact (each of the Fab Five has a designated straight guy to contact), replays of the original episode, and scenes of a lavish party in which lessons learned are recited by the newly educated. The testimonials are sincere (“I hated my life, I hated my body before you guys”). The Fab Five’s words of approbation for their former clients are lavish, and their advice continues to be specific and constructive.

Since its premiere, I have been trying to make cultural sense of Queer Eye. Even the name of the show is fraught with cultural meaning that requires greater consideration than it’s been given. Are we to believe the once provocative word “queer” has suddenly become a part of routine vocabulary? How many of us have heard this word now incorporated into the ordinary speech of non-gay persons, and not precisely with the meaning originally imagined by Queer Nation and other activists when the slur was reclaimed for political purposes?

Perhaps the most revealing commentary on Queer Eye was that of Barbara Walters on her annual People of the Year program: “These guys admit who they are … they’re not out to change the world.” Apparently the most appealing thing about this program is the fact that these gay men “admit” who they are—but without wanting to convert anyone or to promote a political cause. We have finally arrived. Yesterday’s revolution has become today’s confection. The media have finally discovered how gayness can be capitalized upon and incorporated into popular culture without presenting a significant challenge or posing meaningful change.

This is a new cultural phenomenon whose significance goes beyond the novelty of some gay guys on a summer replacement show. It seems to me that there are a number of problematical aspects to this phenomenon that need to be addressed. Here are several that came to mind as I watched the Queer Eye phenom unfold last summer and into a new successful season.

Issue One: “Oh, Mary, it takes a fairy to make something pretty.” This line from The Boys in the Band—spoken by Emory, the Thom Filicia of his day—holds more poignantly true than ever. For many decades, some otherwise marginalized gay men have found their way into the mainstream, into the seats and rooms of money and influence, as mascots, mostly for the amusement of straight women. Straight society seems able to tolerate a certain amount of gayness, but only in confined quarters. We need theatre, we need dance, we need hairdressers and florists, after all, to enhance the lives of heterosexual married women and their men. Traditionally, gay men serve, entertain, and please. But the accomplishments of gay men outside these domains have rarely been celebrated in the public forum of the mainstream media.

The hour-long show is dedicated to the goal of making a straight guy’s romantic life more successful and fulfilling. From the opening credits we understand the transformative powers of the gay superheroes. When each of the Fab Five receives, in turn, his emergency summons on his cell phone, armed with the instrument of his trade—a Burberry shopping bag, a blow dryer, or whatever—he responds to the cry for help. After sprucing up the straight guy’s body, house, and cuisine, the Fab Five return to their loft—a kind of queer superhero Bat Cave—to eavesdrop on the unfolding of a gaily enhanced straight romance. Now, as in earlier times, the powers and talents of gay men are being pressed into the service of heterosexual privilege. Remedial therapy in personal care, fashion savvy, and dating advice are all directed toward the ultimate goal of enhancing a straight guy’s romantic life.

At the end of 2003, coincident with their holiday special, Queer Eye released a music video, complete with dancing, singing, and dialogue. Reminiscent of REM’s “Everybody Hurts” video, the guys emerge from the Fabmobile in the midst of a terrible traffic jam on a bridge. As they work their way through the furious crowd, they transform the misery of the frantic moment into a club-style party, roaring through a rainbow coalition of classes, races, gender, and style. But they do not have romantic lives of their own. In the end we’re left with the image of gay people as cheerleaders for heterosexuality.

Issue Two: Gay is the new black. When Carson Kressley made this statement, he had fashion, not racial politics, in mind, but the temptation to see this in historical terms is irresistible. In my sociology and anthropology classes, I find that my students tend to regard the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s as a historical moment, a struggle to address a set of problems that were resolved. Perhaps gayness is—after the women’s struggle of the 70’s and 80’s—just the next stone on the path to social equality, destined to be surpassed before the quest for equality is complete. Kressley’s statement also lends itself to a more cynical interpretation. Perhaps gay people are next to be relegated to the status of an entertainment class, much as black performers have been throughout the 20th century and into the present. In this view, gay is the new black in the sense of setting the trend for style and entertainment. But what Kressley probably meant is something more dismal still, namely that “gay” is in fact the fashion industry’s color du jour, as black was last season, the implication being that all the attention is likely to be fleeting indeed.

Issue Three: Style, politics, and the magic of consumption. Then there’s the underlying premise of the show, that all it takes to lead a happier romantic life and have greater personal fulfillment is an improved ability to consume goods. The first tip-off here is that the show itself is funded largely by “product placement,” ranging from hair care products to designer clothes, paint, and furniture. What this means is that the actors in the show are directly involved with the products that are so instrumental in the lifestyle wonders they achieve: There they are, buying such great stuff and using it to such great advantage. The growing link between gayness and consumer capitalism is disconcerting. The gay movement of the 1970’s and 80’s found gay people acting as a potentially disruptive force, challenging the straightjacket of compulsory heterosexuality and fixed gender roles. If, in contrast, our energies are focused on finding the perfect sofa or optimizing our highlights, can we still be acting as a progressive force for necessary social change?

Issue Four: “It’s great for these guys and us to realize that we have more in common than not.” I am an anthropologist by training and therefore sensitive to certain issues. Over the history of my field, as in all disciplines, there are shifts in topical interest and theoretical explanations. A major preoccupation in anthropology has been the historical vacillation between regarding cultural variation as merely local iterations of universal human properties, on the one hand, and understanding cultural variation as a function of cultural distinctiveness and particularism, on the other. Needless to say, these shifts represent parallel waves of political and social conditions in the societies that produce science. With this in mind, I have been struck by the underlying message of Queer Eye, the ultimate moral of the story.

Implied by its very existence, and stated explicitly in interviews on the holiday special, is the idea that underneath it all, guys are all just guys. This is a new form of identity politics in which gay men are understood, first and foremost, to be just men. In each episode there’s a flirtation and a sexually provocative scene, usually launched by Carson and understood to be playful and harmless when taken in context. The idea seems to be that men are men—randy, given to cruising and making sexual jokes—so that comments about a straight guy’s body are nothing more than masculine sexuality being played out. These are instances of boys being boys, not to be construed as disruptive or threatening.

Perhaps even more to the point is a reframing of the notion that it takes a man to make a man. Somewhere between the anthropologist Gilbert Herdt’s research on the Sambia and the “Iron John” movement, guys on both sides of the divide became men whose sexual orientation was decidedly secondary. It would be wrong to call what the show does a “queer make-over,” since the transformation does not make these men gay; it makes them “better men.” Gone are the fears of yesteryear that gayness was contagious, that somehow exposure to—much less being dressed and accessorized by—gay men might compromise a straight man’s heterosexuality. Instead, the upshot of each episode of Queer Eye is to confirm the straight guy’s straightness. How far we’ve come from the days of the early gay rights movement, which understood gayness as something radically different from heterosexuality, and the state of being gay—for gay men and lesbians alike—as a card that trumped one’s race, class, and even gender as a component of one’s identity!

To be sure, some gains may yet be realized through this shift. We tried cultural pluralism, which took us only so far (and tended to produce a backlash), so we moved to a strategy of social assimilation. But if assimilation hasn’t panned out fully, perhaps there’s some strategic purchase in taking the logical next step, a kind of assimilation that gets to the fundamental definition of men and women: an argument about gender in which gay men are understood as men primarily, and lesbians as women, before they’re understood to have any particular sexual orientation. The appeal to a universalist idea about gender as expressed in Queer Eye coincides with, and is perhaps inspired by, a recent return to the biological underpinnings of human behavior at the expense of learning and cultural experience. Scientists continue to turn up more evidence that male and female brains are hard-wired differently, and in very specific ways, while the quest for the biological foundations of homosexuality remain elusive. So while the divide between the sexes appears to be widening, those on either side of the divide are being pushed closer together.

In the final analysis, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy presents us with a preparation in which gayness has become domesticated, unthreatening, and constructive to the interests of heterosexual fulfillment. This seems on its face to be a step toward greater tolerance, empathy, and human understanding, but it may well be that there’s more going on here than initially meets the eye, queer or otherwise.


Melinda Kanner is a visiting associate professor in sociology at the University of Houston–Downtown.


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