- Why Can't Johnny Shave?
Why can't straight guys shave? In episode after episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the Fab Five, and "grooming" expert Kyan in particular, are treated to the videotaped spectacle of their current student failing to shave properly. Why [End Page 95] can't these men, sometimes after explicit instruction, shave? For that matter, why can't they transfer food from a pan to a serving dish without dropping it on the floor, prevent their bathtubs from serving as laboratories in which to grow exotic bacteria, keep their porn decorously concealed, or wash their own underwear?
For many observers, the most troubling thing about Queer Eye for the Straight Guy has been the relentlessness with which it puts its queer protagonists in the service of heterosexual coupling, but I would argue that the show tells a more complex story. Surely the profound inability of the straight guys to perform the simplest domestic tasks, their abject incompetence in the care of the self, indicates, week after week, a crisis in the reproduction of heterosexuality so enormous that the Fab Five's interventions constitute at best a drop in the bucket. In other words, even as the show positions the queers as just the thing to ease the straight guys' transition from unkempt bachelorhood to happy coupledness, it suggests, sotto voce, the inadequacy of such coupling, and of the heterosexual families such coupling initiates, to teach heterosexual men how to live.
After all, the most basic premise of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is that heterosexuality constitutes its own undoing. It is "straightness"—as incompetence in housekeeping, grooming, and relating to others—that constitutes the obstacle to the putatively desired heterosexual outcome: getting the girlfriend to understand that she is appreciated, to move in, to agree to marry. A similarly fundamental premise of the show is that women cannot teach straight guys the things they need to know in order to be with women. When the guys' mothers are interviewed about their sons' bad domestic habits, they roll their eyes, indicating that they gave up on this project years ago. We are given the sense, in episode after episode, that the long-suffering wife or girlfriend has already tried, without success, to get the straight guy to clean the bathtub. It follows, then, that only men can impart these lessons; that it is as crucial that the Fab Five are gay men as that they are gay men. Hence the show's obsession with shaving.
It has been suggested that the real lesson of the show is that fathers are failing to teach their sons anything useful. There's something to this observation, insofar as it suggests that the program implicitly chronicles the incapacity of the heterosexual families that spawned the straight guys to prepare them to sustain even a minimal quality of life. Mothers are no use, and fathers are failing. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy implies that its incompletely rehabilitated and emphatically coupled straight guys who still can't shave can only go forth and multiply, making more straight guys who won't be able to shave, either. Thus the show imagines both its own perpetual necessity and the perpetual incompetence of the heterosexual family. [End Page 96]