The Times article, helpfully, was as product-crazed (name-dropping Bruno Magli, Diesel, and Clinique for Men, among others) as Queer Eye. Or American Psycho, for that matter.
And it didn’t take too close a reading to realize that it was prompted by the “news” of a focus group of metrosexual men that had just been convened in Manhattan by advertising conglomerate Euro RSCG Worldwide. The archetypal 30-year-old metrosexual man (“He uses a $40 face cream . . . ”) featured in the lead of the story was a member of that group, which was set up by Euro RSCG’s chief strategy officer, Marian Salzman, a tireless self-promoter who likes to think of herself as the ad world’s ultimate cool hunter.
The mention of a hack like Salzman is always (or should be) a red flag to hacks like me. Salzman’s fingerprints are all over the fake revival of the metrosexual “trend,” and I’m holding her personally responsible for the fact that Times house comedienne Maureen Dowd just called Donald Rumsfeld a metrosexual in her column. (Make it stop!) Look, I see similarities between him and the Ur-metrosexual, American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, but it has little to do with moisturizers.
At any rate, when advertising agencies convene focus groups of trend-setters in New York to study their product-consumption habits, the concern is not so much with New Yorkness but with how to export that New Yorkness to the heartland. Euro RSCG, of course, is interested in guys nationwide who are willing to overpay for clothing and grooming products. Queer Eye pushes that marketing imperative along in baby steps—but with steamroller-like momentum, because it’s a hit TV show. (If Euro RSCG and its clients had their way, every man in the country would be using $40 face cream. The country would be crawling with Baby Batemans, minus chain saws.) QE does it with a certain ratcheted-down, mass-market practicality (a bit like Martha being willing to stoop to poly-blend percale in her Kmart bed-linen line). Queer Eye is user-friendly that way. Carson, for instance, let country bumpkin John keep his cowboy hat—he just insisted he trade up to a better brand.
In the same way that Seinfeld brought Jewish wit to the hinterlands, Queer Eye brings gay style—and wit—to the hinterlands. The show makes homosexuality and shopping nonthreatening for straight men (the latter may be the bigger achievement). But exports, of course, tend to sell well at home too.
“For straights, the fun is in seeing how much Gayness you can take in any one homo—just how ’mo you can go.”
Which is why New Yorkers can’t get enough of Queer Eye. It’s validating to see New Yorkness so charmingly and familiarly presented (even when a particular episode isn’t held in New York proper). Most Jews aren’t as funny as Seinfeld, and most gays aren’t as brilliant at doing makeovers as the QE boys, but we can flatter ourselves—and allow ourselves to be flattered—by accepting TV’s make-believe vision of our city.
The Queer Eye phenomenon, finally, comes at a rather spectacular moment in the history of the gay political discourse. New Yorkers, gay and straight, have spent the past couple of weeks debating the appropriateness of the Department of Education’s decision to expand its Harvey Milk gay-kids program to a full-fledged gay-only high school. (The debate seems to boil down to “Just how distracting is getting fag-bashed when you’re trying to learn algebra? Should teen drag queens just suck it up and finish their damn homework?”) Canada has basically legalized gay marriage, prompting some New York gay couples (including that adorably dorky middle-aged duo who made the cover of the New York Post) to exchange vows up north. The Supreme Court’s legalized sodomy. The Episcopalians have approved the first openly gay bishop.
Of course, you need only read the Vatican’s hateful anti-gay encyclical (which is easy enough to dismiss, coming as it does from an institution that coddles child molesters) or Antonin Scalia’s written dissent from the pro-sodomy ruling to realize gays still have a long way to go.
“The court has taken sides in the culture war,” Justice Scalia wrote, adding that he had “nothing against homosexuals.” That last bit is a tip-off that he’s been watching some TV (he’s internalized the Seinfeldian “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”), but probably not Bravo.
Somebody should buy this man a TiVo preprogrammed to season-pass Queer Eye. Not only because his black robe getup is so tired (and his eyebrows look a bit woolly) but because he really still seems to think there’s an actual Gay Agenda.
The real agenda at play these days is, of course, the Buysexual Agenda. As in: You are what you buy (not who you sleep with). It’s a uniquely American idea that the nation that shops together stays together. Our collective hope for the future of race relations in this country, for instance, has a lot to do with the fact that white kids like rap, black kids can get down to Justin and Christina, and Madonna and Missy Elliott have just done a Gap commercial together. (As for international relations, we still kind of think that if foreigners want to eat at McDonald’s and watch our movies, they must sort of like us, right?)
Likewise, if homos and heteros like the same moisturizers and the same jeans, why can’t we all get along? In that sense, Queer Eye transcends mere comedy, mere reality television. It’s a phenomenon because it wholeheartedly embraces the American religion of salvation and unity through shopping—and cuts it with charm, wit, and even a bit of enlightenment about the universality of human nature.
So in that sense, yeah: Score one for gay-straight relations.
Meanwhile, if every straight guy can be trained to internalize and repeat the names of Queer Eye’s favored home-furnishing and fashion and hair-product brands—and you know they can be—Salzman and her metrosexual marketing pals will have won, too. As Mark Simpson has written of metrosexual icon and $43 million soccer star David Beckham, “He sucks corporate cock with no gag reflex.” The real Queer Eye endgame is creating a consumer, regardless of sexual orientation, who does just that.