Let the Queer Eye backlash begin.
Nobody I know who’s seen it can shut up about it (just yesterday, my buddy Bob called up and went on for at least ten minutes about how addicted he and his wife are to the show). Bravo already seems to be on the verge of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire–ing it to death (this week alone, it’s airing the show eleven times). And—gag—the QE boys are slated to give Jay Leno a makeover, to be aired on NBC on August 14. (When a phenomenon shows up on Jay’s radar, it’s so over.)
Most annoyingly, though, the discussion surrounding the show generally misses the point. Every media outlet from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly has characterized QE’s runaway success as some sort of landmark moment in the popular acceptance of gayness—and a timely reproach to all the recent eruptions of retrograde homophobia from George Bush, the pope, and certain Protestants.
To which I say, Bollocks!
Beyond the fact that Will & Grace has been doing the gays-are-just-like-straights-except-they’re-wittier-and-more-stylish shtick for five years, QE isn’t really about mutual understanding between homos and heteros. It’s about mutual understanding between Bravo/NBC and Diesel . . . and Roberto Cavalli and Ralph Lauren and Via Spiga and Persol and Baskit Underwear and etc. It’s about, duh, product placement.
It’s Queer Eye for the Straight Buy.
It’s an infomercial, people!
Okay, so it’s an infomercial with heart. An extremely well-cast infomercial with heart. An extremely entertaining infomercial that throws in just enough humor to offset the show’s often cloying sweetness. (See episode 4, wherein made-over “urban cowboy” John nervously proposes to his girlfriend. See also every episode, to a greater or lesser degree.) But it’s still a show that’s largely devoted to pushing product. So why has it attracted legions of fans? What makes this particular infomercial so riveting?
For starters, we’ve been needing a new Martha Stewart. Martha—who, for a lot of people, amounted to Straight Eye for the Queer Guy—continues to recede as a meaningful standard-bearer of mass taste as her legal troubles loom nightmarishly. We’ve been overdue for a stand-in. We got five.
Part of the pleasure of taking in any iconic expert, any Martha type, is in watching just how astutely she rides the fine line between authoritativeness and self-caricature. The viewer teeter-totters between attraction to and repulsion from the cult of stylistic self-improvement. It’s punishing to watch a Martha (I’ll never measure up), but it’s also great sport to punish a Martha (That insanely elaborate gazpacho recipe could only have been conceived by a therapy-starved obsessive-compulsive).
"For straights, the fun is in seeing how much gayness you can take in any one homo--just how 'mo you can go."
Queer Eye has that same push-pull. You watch it and you think, Wait a second, what is that guy wearing?—and it’s one of the gay style experts you’re concerned about, not the straight zhlub. Carson Kressley, the bitchy blond guy, seems particularly stylistically challenged. Does anybody want to look like him? Can these guys really pull off a worthy makeover? (Of course, they always do pull it off. They’re really good at their jobs!)
For gays—gay male viewers in particular—the fun is in picking at the range of stereotypes embodied by the cast (“He is so Chelsea!”). Seeing—or not seeing—yourself in one of the Queers.
For straights, the fun is in seeing how much gayness you can take in any one homo—just how ’mo you can go. In that sense, the show is a breakthrough. Plenty of sitcoms (Queer Eye is as much sitcom as reality-TV show) over the years have offered us token gays. Will & Grace pushed the envelope by offering a straight-acting homo (Will) and his funny, flamboyant sidekick (Jack). But QE fills in the spectrum between frat and flaming. It’s a one-stop barometer, of sorts, of gay tolerance.
It’s a bit like a white person watching a black TV show. Is Steve Harvey too “urban” for you? Is Bernie Mac? Yes? Well, now you know.
The oddest thing about Queer Eye is that it’s not only a national hit (though it’s worth noting that two southern NBC affiliates declined to air the show when the network offered a special half-hour prime-time edition) but a New York hit. In this city, gay style has been dominant for so long that it doesn’t even feel like gay style anymore—it just feels like New York style. It’s not like New Yorkers have much to learn from Queer Eye—we’re already living the show.
Queer Eye seems weirdly redundant in other ways, too. It echoes the recent hyper-annoying talk in the city about “metrosexuals”—narcissistic straight men who aren’t afraid to get pedicures and shop at Barneys, basicallywhich kicked off in June when the New York Times “Styles” section wrote about the phenomenon. (When the “Styles” section discovers a trend, it’s so over.)
Though the Times unselfconsciously acknowledged that the term metrosexual was first coined “in the mid-90s” (actually 1994, nearly a decade ago) by the brilliant British cultural critic Mark Simpson “to satirize what he saw as consumerism’s toll on traditional masculinity,” the newspaper of record treated Kiehl’s-moisturized fellows as a v. hot new thing. (Just about the only fun that came out of the whole lamely belated metrosexual discussion was the extended debate on Gawker.com’s message boards about whether terms like heterogay and fauxmosexual might be more apt.)