The Buysexual Agenda

Aesthetic Ambassadors: Just as Seinfeld exported Jewish wit, Queer Eye is taking New York gay style (well, of sorts) to the hinterlands.Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/Bravo

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, basically—which 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’s message boards about whether terms like heterogay and fauxmosexual might be more apt.)

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.

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The Buysexual Agenda