Queer Eye for the Straight Guy

I suppose that minstrelsy is the sincerest form of insult. If television can be reliably held to reflect the evolution of a minority’s status in culture, then gay people appear to be at the What’s Happenin’? stage.

Cashing in on the success of shows like Changing Rooms and other reality shows, Bravo has created Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, in which tyrannical gay fashionistas remodel some poor straight man in their coke-mirrored image. Echoing the vacuous brain decay of Jack from Will & Grace, Bravo seeks to show gay men as materialistic vamps, style clowns with cock-centered worldviews who see conversation as an opportunity for Three’s Company-level double entendres. When these men open their mouths, distant stars collapse. Whereas Jack can be relished as at least part parody, his real-life Bravo counterparts murder any possible redeeming irony.

Stock representations are a mixed bag at best. On the one hand, gays become lauded for their alleged virtues: aesthetic superiority and brassy wit. On the other hand, those illusory victories simply reify and subtly reinforce the incoherent category of oppression that corralled everyone together in an ill-fitting noose in the first place. If you doubt this is the case, scan the periphery of the dialogue about pederast priests. Why did gay people even have to defend their collective sexual impulses because of a few ugly strays? Stereotyping cuts twice as much as it mends.

Worse, caving into the logic of stereotype inaugurates division and ludicrous debates about authenticity. “Gay” magazines join in on the vast pink-wing conspiracy, offering their consumers month after month of body image sadism wrapped in the promise of salvation through consuming. What are the countless people outside this box to think? Since I’m a slob who hates clubbing, loves philosophy, and couldn’t tell you the difference between Estee Lauder and Crisco, am I no longer authentically gay? After a show like this, should I care?

The premise of Queer Eye is not much different than Are You Hot?, where, in service to the masochistic altar of minor fame, participants subject themselves to grueling degradation. It’s the sort of show that convinces me our entertainment industry makes us all victims of a sort of battered wife syndrome. We expect our television to debase us, empty us, and condescend to us. And, for the most part, we’ll all be back for more.

In the premiere episode of Queer Eye, the victim (their term, not mine), Butch Schepel, gets shredded in the manicured claws of his image benefactors. Carson, whose area of expertise is fashion, picks up his underwear and says, “I think there was a car accident, because I see skid marks.” He then asks him if he alphabetizes his clothes by “ugly, ugly, and uglier.” Only Kyan, the personal hygiene “expert,” seems to have brief moments of ensoulment; he convinces Butch to donate his ponytail to a charity for kids with cancer. In contrast to the slashy bitchpit of the rest of the crew, Kyan’s furrowed empathy seems comically out of step.

The makeover candidates weather the hissy onslaught with steel-plated patience and courtesy. Whereas I would have made the preening interlopers dodge knives, both Adam and Butch were case studies in magnanimity. Yet for every ounce of sympathy I am tempted to extend any reality show participant, I have in the back of my mind three pounds of scorn. Why people sacrifice their intimacies and dignity for a peripheral stab at minor, fleeting recognition is absolutely beyond me. It’s almost as if television has become the supreme existential validation and no one can be said to have lived if they haven’t at some point nationalized their groping wants.

More interesting, what would motivate two straight men to be verbally and literally Barbie-dolled by a flock of gay men? They truly seem to believe that what plods out of their mouths is something akin to the style gospel. Pathetically, their families and friends act as if Santa’s Makeover Elves have given them the precious gift of someone less hideous to love. This is a most unfortunate expansion in the influence of “gay culture.” Women have suffered for decades under a norm that coerces them to see themselves as beautiful only if they spend most of their disposable income dieting, buying beauty products, and constantly reinventing their wardrobe. Gay men have become the new arbiters of the beauty myth, which they can now successfully inflict on men — of all persuasions. I suppose there is some sort of twisted progress in suffering more evenly dispersed.

Truth be told, the “Fab 5” do a good job of transforming Butch from looking like a survivalist abortion terrorist to a “cleaner” type. And Adam, the man in the second episode, certainly seemed happier to have a few extra sets of handsomely cut clothes. At first, I was afraid that the show would simply be circuit queens convincing some hapless sucker that a tight half-shirt and a glow stick in his tongue would make him “hot.” But even as I am vaguely charmed by the catty Capra warmth that seemed to envelop the finished product, I still find the existence of this program a million shades of useless.

Speaking of finished products, Queer Eye is the single most shameless corporate tramp on television. Even the helpful hints, along the lines of the lessons at the end of the G.I. Joe cartoon, shill for high-end purveyors. Every scene involves a close-up on a store front, a label, or a smartly designed tube of styling gel. I hope that most gay people are rich as well as peerless aesthetic fascists, because Queer Eye consistently equates good taste with ridiculous expense.

Even more to the point, what these guys consider tasteful is East Coast, urban, and shamelessly expensive. Ted, the Foodie, is absolutely put upon by the fact that the guests at a party they designed aren’t in love with foie gras (“That’s $150 worth of foie gras!” he exclaims). One of the things that Ted fails to realize (most certainly a list of encyclopedic length) is that his definition of taste is linked to status rather than pleasure.

Many of the salvos of praise launched at the series have missed their mark. Heather Havrilesky argues in Salon.com that “Queer Eye will unveil the originality and flair of gay culture for bland heterosexuals across the globe!” That’s an exceedingly naïve and optimistic prediction. Her comparison of this show to Arnold from Diff’rent Strokes and other shows with a “wisecracking little black boy” is much more instructive. That is, part of the sassy black youth tradition involves a more sinister corollary. Blacks are lauded for their earthy honesty in contrast to the more intellectual and excessively rational whiteys. It’s not hard to see how ephemeral and situated such a compliment would be.

The same is true for anything remotely positive that could be drawn from Queer Eye. How exactly could this representation “improve” the position of gays in mainstream culture? It would be better to broaden the representations and deny that being gay has any consistent content at all than to write a show that portrays gays as moral savages who live their entire lives in pagan adoration of high-end hair product.

Harvilesky does have a point, though, when she says Queer Eye is “destined to have you cackling with evil glee.” Even I laughed a couple of times, between shudders. But I like my fun a tad smarter. Though Carson tells the besieged Butch, “We’re not here to change you, we’re here to make you better,” the show will, most definitely, not make you a better person.