Voice Male - Fall 2003
Exterior Decorators: Gay-Straight Bonding
By Michael Kimmel
on TV's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
By far the most mesmerizing cultural event of the past summer wasn't the search for veracity in our president's now-famous 16 words, or Kobe Bryant's arrest, but the hit TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on the Bravo network.
In case you haven't seen it, the hour long show revolves around the "Fab Five"-five clever, campy, and culturally sophisticated gay men-who target a forlorn, disheveled, straight guy and give him (and his apartment) a total makeover. Each of the five has a specialty: food and wine, home décor, grooming, clothing, and interpersonal manners. And each works his transformative magic with wit and flair.
In the first episode, they took an aspiring artist named Brian and helped him actually look like his nickname, "Butch." When we first meet Brian he looks like he just returned from the Altamont concerts-in 1970! Dirty brown overalls, long stringy hair, unkempt beard, and an apartment just one slight move up from cantaloupe crates for records and concrete blocks and boards for books. One hour later (in TV time, of course), he looks, well, fabulous. His beard is now a goatee, his hair cut and shaped and stylish, his clothing elegant and dressed-down chic, and his apartment the home of a tony bachelor.
And what happens? Well, at his art opening, the women in attendance, especially his former friends, are so stunned by his transformation that their sexual interest oozes from every gaping stare. He's become a babe magnet-dashing, well mannered, utterly sexy, as well as eminently presentable to the Sex and the City crowd.
Why? Simple. Because gay men know what straight women want. We've been on to this since Rupert Everett started teaching straight men how to please women, how to be their friends, how to love and entertain. Think Julia Roberts in My Best Friend's Wedding or Jennifer Aniston in The Object of My Affection.
Will and Grace only underscored what we'd already come to suspect. Will is a model not for gay men, but for straight men-exactly the men who really want to know what will captivate beautiful, sexy, and interesting women like Grace.
And we've always known that if you want to find out where tomorrow's mainstream fashions and tastes originate, it's best to look at today's marginalized groups. If you want to know what white suburban teenage boys will be wearing in five years, watch inner city black kids now. And if you want to know how straight men will be dressing and decorating, ask a gay man. (It's not for nothing that black men and gay men have made up the lion's share of readers of the mainstream men's fashion magazines, like GQ, for years. The reason the "new" men's magazines are so relentlessly-and often idiotically-ultra-het is because they're selling men's perfume and high-end designer clothing.)
Of course, it's a bit distressing that the ground for all this male bonding and gay-straight rapprochement lies in unapologetic consumerism, for which gay men are now the spokespeople. Gay men, you see, not only know what women want, they know where to buy it. There's an unsettling reinforcement of stereotypes, to be sure-there are some gay men with bad taste and some well-dressed straight men, after all-but for once the stereotypes seem to work the other way. Here is a makeover show that is the antidote to all those gay conversion therapy infomercials. In this "reality" show, the straight guy is transformed into, well, a gay guy.
Queer Eye also sounds another, even more promising note. It's a show premised on the collapse of homophobia among straight men. And in that sense "Queer Eye" may be doing more for gay rights than Baker v. State or Lawrence v. Texas ever could.
Start with the title. Five years ago, most viewers would have thought a show with the title Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was about gay men hitting on straight men in a bar. The sequel would have been Black Eye for the Gay Guy.
The show opens with Brian letting these five queers into his home, allowing them to rifle through his closets and drawers (his dresser drawers!), all the while launching cutting campy barbs about his lifestyle. Before the first commercial, one is stroking his hair and deciding how to cut it, another grabs his old jockstrap with barbecue tongs and drops it into boiling water, and a third comments about the size of his boxer shorts. The men touch each other affectionately and make caustic remarks dripping with sexual innuendo.
And by the end, the straight guy does what? He hugs them! He thanks them! He realizes he needs them!
Ironically, it's the insecurity of heterosexuality that begins to erode homophobia. "We're here, we're queer, we're fabulous, and we know what women want" is the message of Queer Eye. And if you're going to make it with the Mirandas and the Carries of the modern world, the show seems to say, you'll need us to show you how.
Michael Kimmel teaches sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and is the author of many books on men and masculinity. An excerpt from his most recent book, Privilege (coedited with Abby Ferber), published earlier this year by Westview Press, appeared in the Spring issue of Voice Male.