The New Gay Minstrels
They're our latest superheroes, expertly coiffed and outfitted, ready to blaze a path of good hygiene and high fashion through the Animal Houses of America. Grooming guru Kyan Douglas, fashion maven Carson Kressley, food expert Ted Allen, interior designer Thom Filicia and "culture vulture" Jai Rodriguez are the gay miracle workers on Bravo TV's new series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Otherwise known as the "Fab 5," they barrel into a different straight guy's home each week to perform a brilliant, bitchily witty exorcism of their victims' pleated pants, prune butter, nose hair and nasty underpants, just in time for some special event like a wedding proposal. It's too bad that they can't clean up the god-awful mess that airs just one hour before, that dating-show monstrosity known as Boy Meets Boy.
Bravo TV debuted its two queer-themed shows within weeks of each other, with Queer Eye arriving first. Boy Meets Boy, the first gay dating show ever, was originally conceived as a Bachelor-esque trifle starring one eligible "leading man" who would choose a boyfriend from among 15 suitors. But the producers began worrying that a show featuring only gay people couldn't hold a wider audience, so they decided to add a twist: A number of the suitors would actually be straight, and if one straight man could fool the leading man into selecting him, the "gay-acting" straight man could win $25,000. No one else (the leading man, the other potential boy toys) -- except the audience, of course -- would know. After each contestant is booted, the producers tell us his sexual orientation.
The twist has angered many, including leading man James, a 32-year-old executive. He learned of the producers' deception only partway through the series. "They told me they put the twist in there because they wanted straight people to watch," he told MSNBC. "I said to them, 'Well, you've played gay people as entertainment for straight people. Of course they're going to watch.'"
Indeed, the presence of a straight man seems to offer an excuse for heterosexual viewers to test out their "gaydar," their ability to discern queer from straight. The producers flatter themselves in the show's intro by touting Boy as an edifying show that creates "a world where gay is the norm and straight men must stay in the closet. . . . Will boundaries be crossed? Can stereotypes be shattered?" As if the show's contrivances can undo power dynamics and norms in an instant, or become anything more than a crass guessing game -- one that "trivializes what gays and lesbians are forced to go through every day," one of my friends recently remarked. "In 36 states in this country," he added, "it's legal to fire someone based on his or her sexual orientation. On this show, role-playing is done for 'fun' or for a cash prize -- the opposite of what a community has to do to even survive, to avoid the risk of being fired or even gay bashed."
This dichotomy is heartbreakingly illustrated by suitor Jason, a shy, heavy-lidded young man who is also a combat systems instructor for the military. That's right: Don't ask, don't tell. And when Jason's sexual orientation is revealed at the end of the show, he's effectively told the whole damn world. What will become of him? Will the U.S. military drop-kick him right out of a job? None of the other suitors, or the mimbo that is James, seems to have noticed or cared that Jason might be committing career immolation right in front of them. His decision to come out is extraordinary -- especially in contrast to the rest of this deceptive show. Here we have a gaggle of straight men with everything to gain by lying through their gay minstrel act -- and a gay man who has everything to lose because of his astonishing, honest insistence on being exactly who he is. Well, maybe that's not exactly right. Perhaps some shame would come along with the prize money. And maybe Jason will lose his job, no small problem, but gain something priceless. As he said of a young man's limited prospects in his native Mississippi, "That was the only real way out for me, to join the military." Perhaps appearing on Boy is his way out -- in more ways than one -- of an escape hatch that led nowhere.
Some have argued that the Fab 5 of Queer Eye should break out as well -- from the stereotype of the hysterical, prissybritches, shopaholic gay man. The Fab 5 are indeed fabulous. But isn't it disturbing to have this stereotype, "positive" though it may be, stand in for a diverse population? Is the Fab 5 anything other than hilariously bitchy and culturally on point? I personally feel delivering cultural shrewdness with a soupçon of snark is a lofty and laudable goal, but concede the validity of the question. Are gay men just the comic relief, the zany, artistic freakshows straight people bring home to make their lives aesthetically pleasing -- and remove before the gay folks start doing something aesthetically displeasing, like talking about their rights or kissing one another? Is the Fab 5 the new queer help?
Queer Eye did seem to flirt with these problems at the beginning. The Fab 5's members were nearly indistinguishable at first, emitting nonstop shrieked quips and throwing around a mind-boggling array of "product." "Whoa, nelly!" critics cried. But as the series has developed, each expert is bringing his own knowledge and delightful personality to the show. The "Jack factor" (of Will and Grace's over-the-top Jack) is mostly confined to hilarious fashion expert Carson Kressley, for whom the world is a scratching post. "Do you get all your clothes at Home Depot?" he asks innocently. On seeing a girlfriend's trashy outfit, Kressley snaps, "There's a hooker in Trenton who wants her shoes back."
The others are more recognizably human (if exceptionally handsome). Kyan Douglas displays a warm compassion, urging one man to donate hair to a charity that makes wigs for sick children. As the interior designer, Thom Filicia gets a bit frazzled by his daunting work. Upon surveying one mountain man's house, he announces, "It's like a kitchen hell in here. . . . It looks, actually, like you're nuts." Then he turns it into a chic, livable space. Jai Rodriguez is sprightly if underused, assisting with the social niceties, and Ted Allen offers whole menus for the straight guy to make -- some of which are sadly out of touch with the less highfalutin' diners.
"They hate my foie gras," Allen moans, as guests choke down their canapés.
Allen blew $150 on the liver alone, which raises another issue: the innumerable product placements, the insane spending sprees required to transform the frog princes and the seeming conflation of good (gay) taste with rampant consumerism.
"Hmm," said my straight male viewing companion, rubbing his improperly shaved face. "I'll do it. I would love to have all that nice stuff, but I don't have enough money. They pay for everything, right?
Although the money the makeover artists seem to spend is indeed rather shocking, they take care to enhance whatever sartorial, culinary or cultural strengths their hapless straight victims might have. "It's not a makeover show," Douglas has said. "It's a make better show." This is no gay My Fair Lady, with a brutal takeover of someone's identity. No, there's not enough time for that. Instead, the Fab 5 weaves its members' techniques in with each straight subject's lifestyle. "In keeping with his basic look and his basic attitude," marvels Douglas at one transformation. "But it's, again, with style."
Perhaps that's where Queer Eye finds some substance. The Fab 5's main goal isn't a tit-for-tat subjection of straight men to an oppressive, anonymous male gaze -- one with which gay men and straight women alike are too often familiar. No, the experts are trying to improve a man's relationship to his family and, more often than not, to his wife or serious girlfriend. "Where's Lisa going to fit in?" asks Douglas, reminding straight guy Tom that he has to think of his girlfriend's needs if he's going to ask her to move in. Kressley adds, "Make a space for Lisa, not just in your heart but in your home." The scene then cuts to designer Filicia, who's hurling an atrocious piece of furniture out the door.
It's a little wrenching to watch gay men -- so often maligned by conservatives as immoral, commitment-phobic, sex-crazed affronts to nature and marriage -- act as raunchy, hilarious fairy godmothers and relationship counselors to commitment-seeking straight people, and with such genuine warmth. Family values, indeed. In the last episode, the team's members threw themselves into their most ambitious project: helping a young man craft a marriage proposal, down to every perfect candle, orchid and jaw-dropping dessert. Straight guy John, sitting with his benefactors in the lush, Moroccan-themed tent where he would propose, was overcome. Adam's apple bobbing, he ducked his head as the team patted him comfortingly. "Oh my God, it's all right, don't cry, we're glad you like it," the experts soothed. John raised his head and his wineglass and said, "To all you all." It was a lovely moment, a recognition of the gay men's efforts and emotional investment, a realization that the Fab 5 had become inextricably intertwined with -- indeed, had made possible -- one of the most significant events in his life.
As for the actual proposal, the experts watched it unfold on a TV in their chic "loft." The men were breathless, fanning themselves, holding hands. And when girlfriend Tina struggled out a "yes," they screamed and jumped up in delight. The moment would prove cruelly ironic not 12 hours later, when President Bush declared his opposition to gay marriage with the announcement that his lawyers were drafting legislation strictly defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This came after news of a growing backlash against gay rights, perhaps prompted by the recent Supreme Court ruling against a Texas anti-sodomy law, or, conservatives speculated, the increased visibility of queer people in culture and entertainment.
So the five men who had wholeheartedly orchestrated this elaborate marriage proposal would face the possible banning of their own potential unions, just a day after their show aired. Perhaps they wouldn't want to get married, perhaps they would reject it. But social conservatives want to make sure that they, and every other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered person, won't even have the chance to choose.
In the end, the show has situated its dream team somewhere between servants and superheroes. The team watches the success of its efforts from another room, not privy to reaping the benefits firsthand. The Fab 5 lives in a gay world, coming to straights' rescue when summoned. The opening sequence has each of the men, living on Gay Street, snapping open his cell phone to reveal the glowing Queer Eye insignia. It's a straight-guy emergency! As the team struts down Straight Street, the men are magically transformed. "You came into my life / and my world never looked so bright," goes the techno song on the soundtrack. And it's true: The Fab 5 players work with a scathing yet warm professionalism that is a joy to behold. But at the end of the day, must they return to their Batcave, their chic servants' quarters? Perhaps they want each protégé to shine on his own. Perhaps they prefer the "gay world" of the loft, with its tasteful decor and brightly colored cocktail drinks. This is all fine and good. But deliberately boxing them out of full access to all the rooms in the "straight" house is not. After their work banishing the horrors from straight men's closets, it seems especially wrong to ask the dream teamers to adjourn to theirs.
After all, though Queer Eye has its historical "adversaries" meeting in a safe, product-swaddled world, there's no mistaking the goodwill, camaraderie and respect that the show's participants feel toward one another by the end. The men bond over the intimacies that only fast friends share -- handling skanky undergarments, hugging enthusiastically, forcing one another to try on hideous outfits. (Yes, it cuts both ways. Straight guy Tom made Kressley put on an embarrassing swimsuit.) There's a "we are family" vibe, a feeling of interconnection that is only heightened at moments like John's tearful toast and the Fab 5's joy over his proposal. Sure, the show presents a cartoony little utopia -- but it's a half-subversive one. Underneath the makeover veneer and the celebration of straight families is the suggestion of something else: the possibility of new friendships and the realization that with freedom, family can take many forms. As Kyan Douglas might say, it's our world, only better.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect contributing editor. She saw Kyan Douglas walking down the street in New York two weekends ago but was so starstruck that she froze like a bunny in the headlights.