- Queer Guy for the Straight "I"
I am interested in the success of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as a contemporary instance of an Anglo-American tradition of cultural homophilia. Within the last 130 years or so of ambient homophobia and homosexual panic, it is possible also to see a recurrent, pluralistic embrace of white, male, financially solvent queers that has bridged the Arnoldian notion of a cultural arbiter and the more specifically psychological maintenance of the bourgeois self. Oscar Wilde, George Cukor, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote: all qualify as exemplary figures of queer visibility whose taste and wit have been seen to offer audiences relief from a deficient, stagnant, unfulfilling relationship to culture—a relationship seen as a burden of modern convention and, notably, sexual repression. My sense is that the fascination with such figures constructs a highly stylized, embodied relationship to culture as a promise to disburden audiences, at least for a time, of this more widely conceived repression.
Here is how we might see this at work in Queer Eye: In each episode, the Fab Five enter a space that heterosexuality has made abject; indeed, the core of the show's setup is to link physical, psychic, cultural, and sexual abjection. Experts in their subfields of this overall technology of the self, our heroes clean things up; filter through the apathy, self-denigration, and dirty laundry (in all contemporary senses of the phrase); and get their "guy" going at life with the vigor to which he is entitled. Their ministrations encourage a familiar, seemingly unquestionably wholesome, enthusiastic, healthy emotional attitude. Their queer presence is what jolts the guy into realizing his own straight sexuality in its fullest, most socially supported form. Because of the labor performed by ten queer eyes, he gets to come out as a straight man. [End Page 109]
What I am describing here is not so far from what Susan Sontag wrote in her notorious "Notes on 'Camp'" (1965), particularly her argument that "[male] homosexuals"—and Wilde specifically, to whom she dedicated the piece—"have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense," and that these efforts qualify them as a "pioneering force" of modernity. Sontag does not directly discuss this innovative impulse as offering therapeutic resources; psychoanalysis is the obvious reference of her claim that "Jewish moral seriousness" is a contribution to the "sensibility" of the twentieth century comparable to that made by male gays. Nonetheless, there is a trace of what I am referring to when she "notes" that "what [camp] does is to find the success in certain passionate failures."1
Surely many critics have noticed the importance of this therapeutic function of the gay guys we see on TV—in Sex and the City, in Will and Grace, and elsewhere. A male queer is, in particular, a straight girl's best friend—the smart, good-humored noncompetitor to call up after getting home from a bad date or hanging up on the cheating boyfriend. Such characters speak to a lot of straight women in the TV audience who have had such friends, as well as to straight women (single, married, divorced, and so on) who largely encounter gay men as trainers, yoga and dance instructors, or guides in other hybridized psychological-physical forms of therapy that constitute some of the greatest, most reliably available pleasure of their everyday lives.
And as marriage has come to define the public shape of gay rights discourse, there has been a growing tendency among well-off, well-educated straight liberals to attribute therapeutic value to gay intimacy—especially, of course, to "committed," monogamous relationships. A significant number of lefty straights assume that male queers are not only funnier, smarter, and more stylish than heterosexuals (of both sexes) but, like lesbians, more adept at handling emotions, interpersonal intimacy, and relationship issues—that they are not weighted with all the accrued burdens of heterosexuality. As couples, they talk to each other. When someone fools around, they deal with it. Phantasmatically liberated from legal interference, outdated moralism, parents, and children, they know how to find the success in passionate failures.
I stopped watching the show after maybe six episodes, and...