What Queer Eye?

Are the Fab Five a Breakthrough or a Stereotype?

Let it be known that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which premiered on Bravo last week, was not the top cable program in its time slot. That honor belonged to The Osbournes, so perhaps there's still an audience for reality shows about slovenly straight guys (at least if they're satanic rock stars). Cable TV, with its seemingly infinite niches, can make a minyan seem like the masses. Still, something's up when more than 1.6 million people tune in to a makeover show with gay men as the makers and straight men as the made.

For those who missed all the feature stories in which a male reporter, taking pains to reveal his heterosexuality, is restyled by this dream team, I'll explain. They come to your house, belittle your wardrobe and decor, and proceed to turn both into a brighter reflection of the real you. Never mind that this renovation makes everyone look like a resident of West Hollywood. The agenda is about tempting guys who have managed to get by without facials and instant tans to become consumers of same. (There are more product placements in this show than on the Home Shopping Network). At the end of the hour, our subject's friends—especially his girlfriend—are happy with the result, and so is he. Here is the essence of an effective infomercial: It meets a need you didn't know you had.

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Keeping your eye on his fly
(photo: Staci Schwartz)

Queer Eye may mark the moment when straight men and gay men bond over haberdashery. (Ah, sweet victory!) But this compact could never have occurred without the newfound power of the female gaze. Now, it's not just women who dress to please; everyone is subject to objectification. This shift has sparked two different but ultimately related reactions: the rigidly defended masculinity of hip-hop and a more relaxed receptiveness to women's tastes and values. Both stances are eminently marketable. Whether you're a B-boy or a metrosexual, there's a line of products to help you achieve realness and a channel to hawk it in the name of entertainment. The Fab Five are your guides to the post-macho lifestyle, and who better to play that role than gay men who live for shopping and are willing to turn the Other chic.


There are things I could teach a straight guy, but grooming is not among them. My own queer eye is stuck somewhere between post-clone and pre-retiree. Most of my gay friends of the liberation generation are in the same scruffy boat. If anything, I owe what little fashion sense I have to hets of both sexes. If not for them, I might still be wearing Jerry Garcia ties.

I know they're out there: gay masters of the garment universe. But they don't have a patent on fashion statements that change the way guys look. Consider the hoodie, a sweatshirt that began as blue-collar casual wear, evolved into a gay-clone insignia, and has become a mark of the well-dressed dawg. This journey illustrates the dialectic of street style, in which gays and straights seize each other's signifiers and make them something new. I don't mean to disparage the Velvet Mafia, but right now your average felon has more to do with cutting-edge male attire than any gay designer does. And this is not to mention the (putatively) straight eyes of Ralph Lauren and Armani. What this show proves is that more worldly men can teach less worldly men how to look a little tonier. Duh!

But then, Queer Eyeisn't really about getting a sartorial education. The makeover is just the surface of this spectacle. Its deeper draw is the relationship between two seemingly antagonistic types. Here, straight guys let down their guard before a squad of swishies and welcome the results. I suppose it's a sign of progress that this interchange looks plausible, but it's a measure of how far we haven't come that the meeting must be staged on stereotypical ground.

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Doing something about his hair
(photo: Staci Schwartz)
The makeover show is a perfect setting for this hedged entente. It offers the illusion of a power exchange within very stylized confines. The queers fuss while the straight guy gets fussed over. Aside from a requisite hug when the work is done (and a playful slap when homo hands stray below the belt), the attended one never touches his attendants. Doesn't this resonate with the most primitive view of gay men? Haven't fags always been consigned to the role of body servant? Aren't they supposed to have a doting eye for the straight guy? And as faux women, aren't they expected to be obsessed with style?

If that's true for some (or even many) gay men, it's because their energy is focused on style—and this may be a social assignment rather than the expression of a "feminine" nature. For that matter, who says fashion savvy comes with X chromosomes? When the world really changes, there will be a show in which straight men style up a woman too powerful to worry about such things. But who would watch that today? The closest we can get is to serve up the old roles in new drag, and to pretend, as the producers of this show do, that queer means "exceptional." Right—and a bitch is just a sexy lady!


Still, the Fab Five aren't simply a stereotype. Whatever you think of the role they play, what counts most is the attitude they bring to it—and that's what has changed. These queers may be catty, but they're hardly bitter. Their Gaylord air is cut with affection and generosity; their ebullience is sprightly rather than hysterical. Unlike the old-school fruity fusspot, circa Franklin Pangborne, they seem genuinely comfortable in their skins. To be out and proud as a gay fashion victim, and to have straight men accept this persona, suggests that the other side of homophobia is delight in each other's company. Isn't that precisely what macho struggles to repress?

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Getting him to sit still for a facial
(photo: Staci Schwartz)
Of course, all reality TV is a fiction, and Queer Eye is no exception. Everything that looks spontaneous has been auditioned and edited. You can be sure any hissy fit or trace of disgust was grounds for dismissal. The idea is to keep a warm, zany, slightly utopian tonethe right environment for selling exfoliators. Still, if advertising evokes a world where desires are met, that's hardly an incidental power. In Queer Eye, the inchoate forces of social change are given a format. It allows straight and gay men to relate to each other with an ease that seems at once moving and strange, like a sci-fi film from the '50s. But this is not a forbidden planet; it's a world in the making.

Perhaps it's inevitable that divas and dudes will meet first on the pacified plane of product placements. After all, nothing changes in America unless it moves merch. But if Queer Eye succeeds, there will be gay zanies in every cranny of cable nation. It's auspicious, I guess, that NBC, which owns Bravo, will air the first episode of Queer Eyeon its flagship network right after Will & Grace. Gay nite at the nets? Not quite. But stay tuned for Boy Meets Boy, the dating show that asks the timeless questions: "Who's gay? Who's straight? Can you tell?" Welcome to pre-reality TV.

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