Brian “Butch” Schepel has an image problem. Set designer by day, artist by night, the New Yorker hasn’t gone to the barber in nine years, wobbles when he runs, and has an apartment that, in the words of one observer, “looks like a crack den.”
A day later (actually four days later, but that’s the magic of television), after a haircut, shopping trip, interior design and an all-over fake tan, the hapless heterosexual has been transformed by five gay fairy-godfathers and is ready for his first art show.
Welcome to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Bravo cable television network’s break-out hit, which draws roughly 1.7 million viewers each week, and a great deal of attention to the gay community. On the show, a panel of experts performs emergency transformations on straight men in need of serious help, one in each 60-minute episode. The cast of the show is the self-titled Fab Five, described on Bravo’s website as “an elite team of gay men who have dedicated their lives to extolling the simple virtues of style, taste and class.” In a slick animated opening, the Fab Five assemble like a postmodern queer superhero team. The ensuing evaluation and transformation are funny, sarcastic, and decisive, often filled with homosexual humor and innuendo.
Although it’s premise is superficial, Queer Eye is changing more than just grooming habits. It, along with other out-of-the-closet programming, is also changing America’s perspective on homosexuality. It manages to spark conversation, make viewers contemplate their own sexuality, break down stereotypes, and give great lifestyle advice, all in one perfectly coifed hour of television. Queer Eye is a show that is gay and proud of it; a show that has effortlessly crossed over into heterosexual living rooms; a show that portrays straight people and gay people as one happy community, creating ties over foie gras, haute couture, and the virtues of eyebrow waxing.
Granted, the new bond between gay and straight culture is made with extra hold hair gel, but it’s a start. Queer Eye’s producers do their best to approach their audience on multiple levels. They put on a noisy big-top show while engaging the pathos of both sides of what has long been a broad cultural divide.
Some critics, namely conservatives, are slow to acknowledge the show’s diverse appeal. “It’s stereotypical to think of only gay men as top-notch connoisseurs of food, wine, culture, design and grooming,” right-wing writer Brent Bozell argued in a recent column for Townhall.com. “How heterophobic. It’s the Gay Supremacy Hour. I’m sure I’m not the only one who reads Bravo’s ad copy and wonders if we’re talking hate crimes here. Ever seen a show more dedicated to a “straight-bashing” proposition?” Bozell’s case, however, is a weak one. Queer Eye’s hosts are experts first, homosexual second; their criticism of straight men is from the standpoint of a cultured professional, not a potential bedmate. And it’s hardly fair to label the show the “Gay Supremacy Hour.” Each episode celebrates the success of both sexualities, judging accomplishment by society’s values, not just the gay community’s. (A clean bathroom and tidy closet are achievements in any household.)
That’s not to say Queer Eye lacks character. The show’s quick wit and sexual tension only add to its ubiquitous charm. Such an unapologetic presentation of gay people couldn’t have come at a better time. Queer Eye’s willingness to explore homosexuality and American culture has brought the gay-rights movement much positive publicity. As a result, homosexuality in our society has shifted from a taboo to a daily topic of conversation. And with conversation comes acceptance. Since the show’s well-dressed debut in July 2003, the Supreme Court decided to strike down Texas’ anti-sodomy laws, Howard Dean (the governor of Vermont who legalized gay marriages there) gained support as a presidential candidate, an openly gay priest was promoted to bishop in the Episcopalian church, and Wal-Mart, America’s largest employer, extended its anti-discrimination policy to cover gay workers. Whether water cooler small talk, scholarly debate, or dialogue among Supreme Court justices, the arguments Queer Eye is introducing are much deeper than the choice between boxers and briefs. Queer Eye, like all quality television, has had and will continue to have tremendous influence because it gets people talking.
One of the show’s biggest draws is its credibility; each of the program’s five gay style experts is an authority in his own field. Wine and food specialist Ted Allen, for example, is an editor of “Esquire” magazine and a published restaurant critic. Kyan Douglas, the show’s ‘grooming guru,’ earned his cosmetology certification from the Aveda Institute in New York and has worked as a colorist at an upscale salon in Soho. And although stylist Carson Kressley and culture expert Jai Rodriguez’ credentials are not as strong as their colleagues’, the results of their work are always impeccable. In fact, the show could be called “Expert Eye for the Dumb Guy” and still be a critical success. They wouldn’t garner nearly as much attention, but the hosts would still have a great sense of humor, give solid advice, and make darn good television if they were straight.
The biggest message Queer Eye sends is one of empowerment. Take, for example, the title of the show, which includes the gay slur “queer.” At first glance, audiences and critics might interpret the word as a flippant jab at homosexual culture. Upon deeper inspection, though, one finds that that the word “queer” has recently been appropriated by the gay political movement as a term of prideful self-identification. (Blasius 120) The show’s title then takes on a new connation, in which the ideas of “queer” and “straight” are juxtaposed and given equal credence. Like the show itself, the title works on many levels. By exposing stereotypes and poking a little fun at human sexuality, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy helps create a common bond between homosexual and heterosexual cultures.
In the process, Queer Eye runs the risk of perpetuating stereotypes: specifically, that all gay men are lisping and limp-wristed. It’s true that some of the hosts embody the flaming sitcom stereotype of raging queens, but they at least bring depth to the role by being funnier and more self-aware. In an interview with Rob Owen for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Queer Eye’s Carson Kressley laughed off any concerns about furthering gay stereotypes. “We don’t have a florist,” he joked. “If someone says we look great or we have great hair or we’re really good dancers, we’re all for it. When you see the show, and you watch it, you see the real heart of the show; you realize that we’re just six guys hanging out. We just wind up being friends. Those stereotypes kind of fall by the wayside.”
Television critic Terry Sawyer disagrees. “Stock representations are a mixed bag at best,” he said when he reviewed Queer Eye for PopMatters. “On the one hand, gays become lauded for their alleged virtues: aesthetic superiority and brassy wit. On the other hand, those illusory victories simply reify and subtly reinforce the incoherent category of oppression that corralled everyone together in an ill-fitting noose in the first place.” Critics like Sawyer who decry the show’s value because of its sometimes flamboyant, caricaturist tendencies are selling the gay community short. Collectively, the boys of Queer Eye don’t represent gay men as a whole any more than the Cosby family represents all black Americans or the cast of “Saved by the Bell” represents America’s entire population of high school students. No one TV program can demonstrate the breadth of a culture-or, in the case of gay men, a culture within a culture.
Thankfully, Queer Eye doesn’t even try. Instead, it sticks to what it knows best, improving the lives of its ‘victims’ and its viewers one makeover at a time. The show’s motto is “We’re not out to change to world, just make it better.” And that’s the whole key to its success. It’s highly charged, cheeky representation of gay and straight culture has stimulated the most superficial layers of American society. However, its most important — and most lasting– effect will be the more tolerant, emotionally stylish generation of viewers it creates.
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