- They're Here, They're Queer, and Straight America Loves It
I have to admit that I enjoy watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, even more than other "regular" makeover shows. Knowing that these guys are queer—meaning openly gay men—makes it more fun. Carson as the flamboyant queen is hilarious, while Kyan as the hunky man is just delicious to lust after. Also important, I learn some practical things from the show, such as how to avoid cutting myself when shaving and how to open easily those irritating plastic wrappers on compact discs.
The show reminds me of the Dutch television show The Gay Team, which was broadcast on the commercial television channel Net 5 in 2002-3. In this show, four gay male stylists perform a makeover on a heterosexual woman who is going out on a blind date. As on Queer Eye, the date is filmed with hidden cameras so the gay men can provide bitchy commentary. Yet significantly different, the gay men of The Gay Team merely function in the conventional way of gay stylists making heterosexual women more beautiful—the traditional role of the fashion designer. What makes Queer Eye stand out, and what gives me so much pleasure, is that the "straight guy" is the object of the "queer" makeover, rather than the conventional heterosexual woman.
Most (though not all) of the heterosexual male participants seem at least a bit uncomfortable with the queerness they are subjected to. Ranging from comments like "Don't these clothes make me a bit too effeminate and gay?" to visible uneasiness about being too physically "open" in front of gay men, the straight men evidence the difficulty of trying to be comfortable around gay men while maintaining a safe distance. If there is anything queer about Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, it is this uneasiness, which demonstrates the instability of the allegedly rigid distinction between gay and straight.
When Queer Eye was introduced, there was a lot of discussion in the mainstream and queer media about whether or not it perpetuated negative stereotypes of gay men. Ironically, if the show can be accused of negative stereotyping at all, it is the stereotyping of straight men as badly dressed, culturally illiterate, unhygienic slobs. Only with a queer touch can these pathetic heterosexual men look [End Page 106] and smell good, take their girlfriends on a romantic picnic, and maintain a clean household.
This is not to say that Queer Eye is unproblematic. What is most problematic is how it appropriates the term queer, depoliticizing it by turning it into a commodity. While queer in itself denies any essentialist categorization, its juxtaposition with straight makes it the equivalent of the "(openly) gay male" category, reinforcing this essentialist binary opposition. Moreover, the way the program uses queer is nothing more than a fashionable accessory. Queer is hip, queer is fashionable, and thus queer is just another gay male sense of style, similar to what typified the urban post-Stonewall gay male culture of the 1970s. Back then, as Andrew Ross argues, "the gay male became a model consumer, in the vanguard of the business of shaping and defining taste, choice, and style for mainstream markets."1 Queer Eye takes this role a step further by showing the stores where this queerness can be bought. Like most lifestyle television programs, Queer Eye is heavily sponsored and should be considered as a major advertisement for the program's sponsors. Moreover, in this fashionable queer corporate world, there is no place for alternative lifestyles, sexualities, or critical politics.
Ironically, there is also no place for "conventional" gay male sexuality. As reported in New York Blade, the Bravo network pulled a commercial for the gay male dating Web site mygaydar.com.2 In September 2003 I saw the ad several times during the commercial breaks of Queer Eye. A hunky white man is sunbathing and ignoring the cruising gaze of a white female sunbather; another hunky white man joins him, and they happily share a drink. Although the commercial could hardly be considered pornographic, Bravo's parent company, NBC, decided that both the mygaydar...