Making Prime Time Perfectly Queer

Not since the two Ellens stepped out of the closet — Ellen DeGeneres and her TV alter ego, Ellen Morgan — has the media paid so much attention to anything as gay on television as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Since its premiere back in July on Bravo, you can’t open a newspaper or turn the channel without running into the gay quintet, better known as The Fab Five. When they are not hard at work making over some gay-friendly heterosexual male (and his house or apartment), grooming guru Kyan, food and wine connoisseur Ted, fashion savant Carson, culture vulture Jai, and design doctor Thom, are getting a makeover of their own compliments of Bravo’s parent network, NBC, and its publicity machine.

The numerous newspaper articles (including a page one story in the New York Times (29 July ’03), magazine covers (Entertainment Weekly, The Advocate), segments on Entertainment Tonight and Extra, as well as appearances on Today and The Tonight Show have turned Queer Eye into this summer’s Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? Like the British-imported game show that became a surprise hit back in 2000, Queer Eye is in danger of falling victim to the same hype and overexposure. Just as ABC made the mistake of turning airing Millionaire one too many times a week, NBC added reruns of Queer Eye to their summer “Must See” line-up after Will & Grace, which is probably the closest we will ever get to having a queer TV channel of our own.

Following on the high heels of Queer Eye is Boy Meets Boy, another so-called “reality” show in which 32-year-old James gets to choose his perfect mate out of a batch of 15 suitors, some of whom, unbeknown to him (and here’s the obligatory reality show twist), are actually straight (gasp!). Advertised as the first gay dating show, Boy Meets Boy is really the first gay game show. Using your “straightdar” to figure out which of the 15 guys are closet heteros is far more interesting than predicting which lucky guy will end up with James. The fact that both series have found an audience is raising questions among media critics and activists, who are trying to account for their appeal.

Perhaps it’s all a matter of timing. The fact that they are both reality shows, a genre that is managing to hang on to some degree of popularity, may have something to do with it. Then there’s the two landmark decisions that were issued earlier this summer by high courts in Canada and the United States that have been interpreted as signs we are living in gay-friendlier times. On June 10, a 3-0 decision handed down by an Ontario court declared the existing definition of marriage as “a voluntary union for life of one man and one woman” as discriminatory and unconstitutional. Less than three weeks later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that laws prohibiting sexual acts between consenting adults violated their right to privacy, thereby overturning existing sodomy laws in 13 states. So now all of America, its heterosexuals and homosexuals, can not only continue doing what comes naturally in the privacy of their bedrooms, but they now have the satisfaction of knowing they have the approval of two-thirds of the Supreme Court.

But before there was enough time to hoist your rainbow flag at this news, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll released on July 29th indicates the number of adults who favor the legalization of gay marriage fell from 60% in May of 2003 to 48%. Two days later, President Bush offered another one of those incomprehensible statements in which he — in a single breath — defined marriage as a heterosexual institution, preached tolerance by invoking the Bible (Matthew 7:3-5), and then assured the nation that lawyers are looking at the best way to codify marriage as the union between a man and a woman. I wonder where exactly they are looking? The Constitution? If only George W. can remember which drawer he stuck it in the day he took office. Amid all the controversy, a team of five, nicely coiffed gay guys arrive on the scene and, as the ads declare, they start making over the world “one straight guy at a time”.

There have been plenty of objections raised on both sides of the political aisle about the Fab Five. Of course, the religious right are not exactly happy America is tuning in. The Family Research Council accuses the show of “putting a clean gloss on what is certainly a heart-breaking and harmful lifestyle” (the same article describes Boy Meets Boy as “cable pornography” that promotes that “seedy reality of depravity and promiscuity” also known as the “homosexual lifestyle” (8 August ’03).

The charm and fashion sense of the Fab Five also eludes some members and/or advocates of the gay community. Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank (D) told the New York Observer that the “notion that gay men have superior fashion sense is not true, and it’s damaging. It’s a way to marginalize people — you can treat them as pets” (18 August ’03). Georgetown sociology professor Suzanna Danuta Walters, author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America, compared the Fab Five to Stepin Fetchit, as does Dallas/Fort-Worth’s Star-Telegram film critic Christopher Kelly, who calls Queer Eye “a gay minstrel show” that features “a catalog of homosexual stereotypes” (17 August ’03).

“From first scene to last, they trill and fuss, displaying their talents at traditionally effeminate tasks . . . ” Kelly writes, “. . . these gay themed shows do represent nothing more than a cardboard portrait of homosexuality — one that allows the majority (in this case, heterosexuals) to mock and feel superior to a minority group.”

The comparison being drawn between the Fab Five and African-American stereotypes like Stepin Fetchit or Amos ‘n’ Andy (Knight’s analogy) overlook (or, dare I say, deny?) one important point — the Fab Five are real people, not fictional characters. Stereotypes are certainly not limited to fiction (it all comes down to the choices made by those in power in terms of who, what, how and why something or someone is represented), but there’s a danger — and I’ll say the word, a homophobic reaction — about reducing these real people to stereotypes. All of the Fab Five are professionals in their respected fields (well, I’m not so sure about culture vulture Jai, but I suppose having the lead in an Off-Broadway musical qualifies him). They all also happen to be very good at what they do. Why should a network do a queer makeover show and deny the fact there are many gay men who are hairdressers and work in the interior design and fashion industries? For some outdated or new form of homo “positive” correctness?

Historically, gay men in film and on television have been portrayed in a stereotypical fashion. Since the silent era, the dominant image of a gay man on the big screen was an effeminate, flamboyant creature whose behavior would generate laughs. (If the film’s tone was more serious, the homosexual was then a psychopathic killer). The same can be said for gay men on television through the 1980s.

Stereotypes, particularly when they are negative, are dangerous because they are all about power. They are the means by which a dominant group maintains its control of a subordinate group. As British theorist Richard Dyer argues, it’s not stereotypes that are wrong, but who controls and defines them and what interests are served in their representation. Knight wants us to believe that in Queer Eye it’s the Fab Five who are being mocked and made to feel inferior (as well as an example of how gay people have become complicit in their own oppression).

But what Knight as well as the show’s other harshest critics fail to see about Queer Eye (and Boy Meets Boy, for that matter) is how both shows reflect the progress made in terms of gay-straight relations. The real issue here is not what designer label to wear, which hair gel to use, or how long to cook the torte. It’s about self-esteem. And isn’t ironic that in Queer Eye it’s five gay guys banding together to raise the self-confidence of members of that other team, the ones who for years had a reputation for stripping gay kids of their self-esteem in school yards across America? What’s unique, if not refreshing about Queer Eye is the absence of the gay vs. straight, “us vs. them” mentality. The fact that the Fab Five are gay is not an issue for them. Rather, the straight guy they’re making over, and the millions watching the makeover, is a positive sign that change for the better is indeed in the air.