“Each week their mission is to transform a style-deficient and culture-deprived straight man from drab to fab in each of their respective categories: fashion, food and wine, interior design, grooming and culture.”
—Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Bravo website blurb
The recent popularity of Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy has been heralded as evidence of increased tolerance of queerness and a model of friendly interactions between gay and straight men (Hart, 241). (The show has been so warmly received in some circles as a positive sign for gay rights that it won a GLAAD award in the reality TV category in 2004 (“GLAAD Honors Queer Eye”)). While the show’s popularity does, on some level, reflect a kind of cultural fusion that could potentially herald a more equitable and less violent form of interaction between gay and straight cultures, it also reproduces economic, racial, and sexual power inequalities at a time when gay rights and the rights of communities of color are under assault by the U.S. nation state. (As this article was being written, the Bush administration was advocating a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman, thus denying same sex marriages, at the same time that it was proposing heterosexual marriage as a way to get individuals off welfare, a policy that disproportionately affects poor women of color. Moreover, communities of color, both gay and straight, have been targeted by racial profiling and other assaults to civil liberties in the aftermath of the tragedy at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001). It is not accidental that this show in particular has come to represent gayness in dominant popular culture at this historical moment, when Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender communities are gaining more prominence in public issues and debates.
Queer Eye is the inheritor of a long list of specifically male depictions of queerness in the media, such asWill and Grace, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Sex in the City, that represent such men as the heterosexual woman’s best friend (Creekmur and Doty). This immaculate intimacy consists of being able to gossip, complain about their male lovers, and get advice on fashion. Queer Eye simply takes this concept to rarified levels, where the straight woman gets a five in one package to help “straighten out” her man, who will still be unthreateningly hers at the end of the process. Indeed, the show follows the standard makeover narrative that promises an individual’s ability to be transformed through the right advice and the right products.
The show features five gay men who enter the home of a straight man, detect, interrogate, and mock the faults of the home décor and the man’s style, and then proceed to revamp the space and the man into a more stylish metrosexual. The Fab 5 consist of Kyan, the “Grooming Guru,” Jai, the “Culture Vulture,” Ted, the “Food and Wine Connoisseur,” Thom, the “Design Doctor,” and Carson, the “Fashion Savant.” After throwing out much of the straight man’s unfashionable possessions, each member of the Fab 5 take him to the appropriate places to learn new techniques, labeled as culture and grooming, and pick out new furniture, clothes, and food. They then return him to his redesigned home, and turn him loose to cook a meal for his girlfriend, wife, or family, who gush at the successful makeover while the Fab 5 watch on a TV screen from afar.
The surprising success of the show’s concept begs attention. Queer Eye has enjoyed its extreme popularity precisely because it both commodifies gayness and reinscribes the heterosexual imperative, thus reinforcing hegemonic power dynamics while seeming to transgress them (Rogers). As the show becomes the “face of queerness” in mainstream popular culture, it raises critical questions about what form of queerness it represents and what parts of queer communities it renders invisible. Though the show reveals some potentially valuable contradictions, ultimately Queer Eye sets up a racialized and class-based binary that keeps lesbians off stage and invisible, heterosexual men dumbed down, heterosexual women present only in the context of their relationships with men, and people of color buying into a consumerist lifestyle that reifies white middle class normativity just touched up by appropriate color. The portrayals on the show contain numerous contradictions, some of which contribute to gay visibility. However, ultimately, the show contains gayness by reducing it to a commodity that services heteronormativity. Given the recent decision by the US Supreme Court overturning the Hardwick vs. Bowers case (Lawrence and Garner vs. Texas), and the growing international debate over same-sex marriage, these portrayals serve to depoliticize queerness.
Much work in feminist visual culture has explored the gendered power relations in the gaze that is constructed by filmic representation, while critical race theorists have analyzed the colonizing nature of that gaze and queer critics have discussed the commodification of the “gay” hip look. This article brings together these bodies of work in order to suggest that the cultural function ofQueer Eye does more than perpetuate problematic stereotypes. Specifically, this article analyzes the interrelated links between the commodification of gayness, the reinscription of the heterosexual imperative, and the problematic racial and class-based constructs of masculinity perpetuated by the show in order to argue that Queer Eyeultimately serves to dramatically limit radical queer resistance.
The surprising popularity of Queer Eye amongst a variety of audiences suggests that it is worth noting some of its contradictions. One of the most potentially progressive elements of the show is that it troubles false binaries of gay and straight space. The show brings queerness into mainstream television space and into the homes of both straight and queer viewers, creating a kind of contact zone that potentially disrupts heteronormative assumptions by revealing that gay and straight masculinities are deeply connected. They’re defined in relation to each other. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner define heteronormativity as the ways in which social institutions have prescribed heterosexuality as normative. The show creates creative and often humorous interventions into spatial divisions, as gay men literally enter the homes of select heterosexual men, including their kitchens, their bedrooms, and, yes, their closets. In a parallel process, gay men come into our homes via our television sets. The show thus reveals that heteronormative space is not impenetrable and in fact highlights the fact that queer communities have regularly shaped what is often assumed to be gay-free mainstream space. We know, for instance, that gay men had major influences on the Hollywood musical and that Madonna’s Vogueing came from drag clubs, to name just a few random examples. As the Fab 5 revamp their subjects’ styles, they frequent various public consumer spaces, such as stores, salons, museums, and restaurants (not to mention television). More importantly, they do so authoritatively: they know the terrain and they play the role of experts to explain it to the straight men on the show. They thus unsettle the heteronormative presumption that mainstream space is not inhabited or influenced by gay presence.
This disruption of spatial and sexual boundaries is potentially productive, as is the suggestion of radical politics implicit in the titleQueer Eye for the Straight Guy. The choice of the word “queer” in the title could be read as a more radical statement then some of the other options (it could, for instance, have been called “Gay Eye for the Straight Guy,” which would be a more accurate name) (Meyer and Kelley). On some level, the show takes a word that has historically been used to do violence to members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender community and makes visible to the broader public the ways that LGBT communities have reclaimed the word. Queer, in its more radical political sense, refers to identity categories that are constantly shifting, hard to pin down, and which trouble normative categories of gender, race, and sexuality (though it can also erase racial differences in problematic ways) (Muñoz; Ferguson). Initially,Queer Eyeseems to fulfill that radical potential, since it is at times difficult to distinguish who is gay and who is straight on the show. One episode, for instance, cuts from a scene in a bar during a heavy metal concert in which a crowd of presumably straight men are cheering the singer, to a nearly indistinguishable performance of the Fab 5 shouting “girls, girls, girls” (Episode 117 “Radio Ralph”). This juxtaposition draws clear parallels between how the men on the show, whether gay or straight, perform masculinity. Queer Eyeoften features similar moments that blur common assumptions of what gay and straight performances look like. The show also troubles interpretations of both masculinity and sexuality as the Fab 5 make campy jokes or, in the episode just mentioned, are horrified by the sexually explicit heterosexual dancing occurring at the bar. In another episode, much is made of the straight man’s involvement in musicals as a question mark of his transgression of gay territory (Episode 119 “Compose Yourself”). These moments call viewers’ attention to how we are reading the links between masculinity and sexuality, revealing the inability to neatly interpret gender performance and sexual identity, and thus becoming potentially “queer.”
However, while the show “queers” certain stereotypes about sexuality, it nonetheless falls far short of “queering” gender or sexuality and ultimately reaffirms the gay/straight binary. The show never offers any options other then being gay or straight, nor does it fundamentally blur the boundaries of even those categories. Indeed, the entire purpose of the show is to uphold the heteronormative imperative, which is the primary way in which gayness is allowed to be embraced in hegemonic popular culture. Most of the heterosexual guests on the show are nominated by women in their lives—either their girlfriends, their wives, or their mothers who want to help their sons get girlfriends or wives. The Fab 5 then come on the scene and show the straight guests how to be more sensitive and stylish straight men. In doing so, they create the epitome of the metrosexual, the sensitive straight man who is confident enough to demonstrate some “gay elements” (whatever that means) and, not accidentally, coopt those “gay” elements to work in the service of heteronormativity. Critic Sasha Torres suggests that this constant need for gay men to help incompetent straight men perform “normal” domestic tasks reflects a “crisis in the reproduction of heterosexuality,” and that the show indicates that “heterosexuality constitutes its own undoing” (96). This potential crisis is yet another of the show’s contradictions: it troubles heteronormativity on one level while reinscribing it through the commodification of gayness on the other. The show ultimately contains queerness, robbing queer identity of any meaning other than aesthetics that work in the service of heteronormativity. Queer no longer means a sexual identity, an understanding of gender bending, or a history of oppression and resistance. Instead, as an article Queer Eye in The Advocate puts it:
Simply by being themselves—openly gay men who are commanding, funny, whip-smart, and disarmingly personable—they are shedding light on the subject of gayness for the nation to see (And what a flattering light it is too!) Just knowing them makes it that much more difficult to dismiss gay people as threatening the American way of life. After all, their entire mission is to make straight America feel better about itself when it looks in the mirror. (Vary, “Pride, Patriotism, Queer Eye”)
Thus, queer presence on the show shores up middle America heterosexual whiteness, rather than troubling the elements of that citizenship that render LGBT communities second-class citizens. It is notable, after all, that the issue of The Advocate in which that story appeared featured the Fab 5 on the cover in front of an American flag, and that Queer Eye debuted soon after the events at the World Trade Center while President George W. Bush was encouraging US citizens to show their patriotism by continuing to spend money. The makeover narrative has always played a role in constructing proper citizens of the US nation. Queer Eyesimply renders more visible the role of heteronormativity in the production of the proper subject. The ultimate measure of success on Queer Eye is often the degree to which the straight guest can pull off the Fab 5’s tips and the degree of pleasure the woman in question demonstrates at her new metrosexual man. The show, then, invites “nice” friendly gay men into the homes of straight men not because of any radical understanding of queerness, but because the gay men become the tools through which heteronormativity is reinforced.
Interestingly enough, the longer the show remains on the air, the more the fissures in the relations between the straight men and the Fab 5 are revealed. While the heterosexual men on the show always express their profound thanks to the Fab 5 at the end of the show, often saying that their time spent with gay men “opened their eyes” to the “normalcy” of gay men, this response rings hollow in some episodes. For instance, in one episode, the straight guest resists cooking a meal for his party, saying it would be too time consuming, but Ted bluntly says he doesn’t have a choice (it is probably part of the contract the straight man agrees to when he comes on the show) (Episode 202, “Help a Soldier Begin Again”). In another episode with the Red Sox, one player runs onto the field during the fashion show doing a “girly” dance with his hands that in any other context would be read as a homophobic statement (Episode 204 “Championship Make-Better”). Given that this performance is in front of a stadium of baseball fans, arguably a bastion of masculinist heteronormativity, the Fab 5’s disruption of that space is mitigated by the player’s display.
This affirmation of hegemonic American masculinity and heteronormativity is evident in numerous ways throughout the show, particularly since the identities of the gay men are constructed exclusively through their service to the straight men. We know nothing about their histories, their communities, or their politics, and instead only know them through stereotypically gay realms of consumption. Their mission in every episode is to make the guest a better straight man, usually by assigning some task that ensures his success with his wife or girlfriend. For example, in more than one episode, the man proposes marriage and is accepted (such as John B, in Episode 107, “He’s a Little Bit Country,” or Kevin D. in Episode 118, “Stand up and Deliver”), in other episodes he introduces his parents to his fiancée’s parents (Alan C. in Episode 111, “Meet the Folks”). Sometimes, he helps with an engagement party, sometimes along with making a scrapbook for his girlfriend with images of the two of them in their relationship. In doing so, they perform what Anna McCarthy calls a queer pedagogy. According to McCarthy, by “[t]eaching domesticity and care of the self to facilitate heterosexual coupling,” the Fab 5 “‘construct templates for citizenship that compliment the privatization of public life, the collapse of the welfare state, and, most importantly, the discourse of individual choice and personal responsibility’” (qtd. in McCarthy 98). Thus, while Queer Eyeis not the first to feature gay men as connoisseurs who work in the service of heterosexual masculinity, this makeover narrative once again reproduces heternormativity and proper citizenship by suggesting that learning a few self-care tricks is all that’s needed. Indeed, like many contemporary reality makeover shows,Queer Eyepromotes a cultural citizenship in which individual self-care choices are constructed as “redemptive narratives that overcome social positioning” based on gender, racial, or class differences (Woods and Skeggs 206). For instance, the Fab 5 might help prepare the straight guests to do a sports broadcast or go on a corporate job interview. As always, the show is full of contradictions, so the Fab 5 also help the guests show their photography, prepare for a concert or informal musical performance, or an opening night for a musical (Warren L. in Episode 119, “Compose Yourself”), all activities that do not as clearly or inevitably conform to hegemonic masculinity. But the markers of heteronormativity are consistently and invariably upheld, particularly when the “truest” markers of the guest’s success are his wife or girlfriend’s approval and the Fab 5’s assessment of how successfully he performed his revised straight masculinity.
Even the spin off from Queer Eye, Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, applies the same makeover narrative to straight women in a way that embeds queerness neatly within heteronormativity. It’s telling that the “Gal Pals,” the show’s equivalent of the Fab 5, include one woman and four men, as though the help and advice of gay men is essential to a successful makeover. And while the lesbian on the show, Honey Labrador, makes visible the presence of feminine lesbians, her gender performance continues a long line of media portrayals of lesbians, including Queer as Folk and The L Word, that erase the presence of gender bending within the queer community. Honey is entitled “The Lady,” a generalist with a hand in the areas of each of the other three men who are specifically assigned, Life, Locale, and Look. Moreover, Honey spends an excessive amount of time helping the straight women with their makeup and giving them sex advice for how to please their men in bed (a level of advice that even the Fab 5 don’t engage in). In fact, the Gal Pals spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the breast size and other sexualized features of the straight women on the show. The heteronormative gender binary is thus squarely upheld. While the website touts Honey as “the first lesbian Queer Eye” her sexual orientation is oddly muted and she rarely engages in the flirtatious banter with the straight girl that the Fab Five engage in with the men they groom.
The Racialization of Gay Presence
The term queer refers to the inability of heteronormativity to fully establish stable definitions of sexuality because identities are often “overdetermined by other issues and conflicts…[such as] race or national identity” (Hennessey 1998). On Queer Eye, white gay masculinity is established through the exploitation of men of color, both gay and straight. The show privileges particular forms of both heterosexual and gay masculinities, so that it is often hard to tell which forms of masculinity are “gay” and which are “straight.” In doing so, it not only perpetuates forms of masculinity, it also constructsthem. That is, after all, the entire purpose of the show—to turn straight guys from “drab to fab” by teaching them how to perform masculinity “properly.” While producing more stylish and sensitive men may seem on the surface to be a desirable endeavor, the show establishes hierarchies of masculinity by invoking problematic long-standing racialized and class-based ideologies. The representational practices on the show, then, uphold patterns of racialization for both gay and straight men of color that have historically been used to enact violence on them.
Queer Eye treats the gay men of color on the show notably different then it portrays heterosexual men of color, revealing yet another contradiction embedded in the show. The show disproportionately eroticizes Jai Rodriguez, a member of the Fab 5 who identifies as Puerto Rican and Italian. Jai is frequently depicted in far more intimate positions with the heterosexual guests than are the white gay members of the Fab 5. For instance, in one episode, Jai is posed lying in bed with the heterosexual guest as they talk about romance (Episode 115 “Mr. Clean Comes Clean”). This scene does, on some level, trouble homophobic assumptions, since Jai is not hitting on the straight guest but is instead giving him advice about how to be more romantic with his wife. But Jai’s position on the bed is far more intimate then are most of the scenes that feature other members of the Fab 5, and it participates in a problematic pattern of portrayal. Probably the clearest example of the pattern involves the making of the Queer Eye video, in which Jai dances in a sexually suggestive member with another dancer, in what Jai describes as a “gay Justin Timberlake” routine. Given that Jai is a dancer and a performer, this number is on some level a rather normalized reflection of artistic expression. Jai’s portrayals can be seen as a performance of gay male femininity that reworks dominant white straight femininity in interesting ways, revealing that both gender constructions need to be understood in the plural: masculinities and femininities. Given the range of gender performance that exists in queer communities, this portrayal is politically useful. But its progressiveness is mitigated by the racial hierarchies the show upholds. It is notable that Jai is so regularly eroticized while the white members of the Fab 5 are not sexualized themselves, though they do make numerous sexual innuendos about the straight guests on the show. In other words, the white members of the Fab 5 sexualize the heterosexual guests, but they themselves are not eroticized in the way that Jai is. The difference in the portrayals, then, needs to be read in the context of feminizing gay men of color and, by extension, eroticizing them through racialized constructs (Meyers and Kelley). For instance, Carson and Kyan, the two most dominant of the Fab 5, and not coincidentally, as the couture and grooming experts, the ones who most physically transgress the straight guest’s boundaries, use a very dominant form of teasing with their guests. Jai, on the other hand, is often supplicant, affectionate, and depicted as sentimental. Moreover, this representation of Jai is not an anomaly. One of the Fab 5’s earlier members, Blair Boone, was a man of color who also played the “culture guy,” but was quickly discarded. Interestingly, visually he fit much the same physical model that Jai does of being small built and not physically assertive. He appeared in a few episodes and was quietly dropped. Given that the Fab 5 are supposed to be a team, the un-commented substitution of one man of color for another invites the notion that they are interchangeable.
It is also telling that Jai is in charge of “Culture” on the show. “Culture,” as presented as one of the five categories on the show, is a problematic and enigmatic construct. In this context, it appears to be a range from teaching the straight guy to say “I love you” in his girlfriend’s language even if he can say nothing else, picking up some HathaYoga to sweat out toxicities, visiting an art gallery, or learning to salsa. Culture therefore is a rarefied version of popular culture and is characterized by a global appropriation. The implication, then, is that “culture” is the purview of men of color, at the same time that the concept is robbed of any specific cultural context, heritage, or tradition. Even the term “Culture Vulture” that appears on screen and on the website to introduce Jai marks him as one who exploits culture; vultures, after all, circle dead prey. Jai performs what Judith Butler refers to as the “merely cultural” and José Esteban Muñoz refers to as “inane culture mavens,” in which racial difference is erased and queers of color become merely window dressing, while the white gay men perform the “real” makeover work (Butler qtd. in Muñoz 101-102). Culture on the show is gesture and packaging, but contains no substance. As the blurb on the successful Fab 5 book states, culture is “all the things to do on the date to impress your companion” (Allen et al.). In one episode, Jai tells a straight guy to think of making charming gestures such as warming a bath towel for his spouse by throwing it in the dryer. Once again, the way to a woman’s heart is through her comfort by upholding consumer culture. Moreover, while the Fab 5 supposedly train the straight man to help out around the house, it is still only an occasional thing, thus continuing the long-standing narrative that men’s domestic activity is an anomaly (Bordo; Miller). Queer Eye moves culture from a worldview, set of values, or living generational history of a people to an easily available set of do’s and don’ts that allow for smoother schmoozing. In another shift, the term culture-deprivation is used to mock the straight man’s lack of knowledge of these little tips, a twist given the original assignation of the term as one applied in the 1960’s Moynihan report to African American families (Moynihan).
This portrayal has serious implications for feminist, anti-racist, and queer politics, because as the show marginalizes and erases queer of color, it once again renders as white the “face of queerness,” whichQueer Eye has come to represent in hegemonic popular culture. Moreover, it achieves its supposed “tolerance” and “openness” about gayness at the expense of queers of color. It is long past time to heed the cautions of activists such as June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, and numerous others, that we cannot eradicate oppression and achieve liberation on the backs of other marginalized groups, nor can we afford to see racial, economic, gendered, or sexual oppression as unconnected systems. They are deeply interdependent and many people experience systems of oppression simultaneously. Queer Eyeis popularprecisely because it overlooks this complexity and pits one set of oppression—white gay middle class masculinity—against that experienced by other marginalized gay masculinities of color.
This narrow portrayal becomes particularly clear in the show’s use of camp humor. As a style of taste, aesthetics, and humor, camp is part of a long tradition of LGBT politics and resistance (Sontag). At times, the show’s campy humor comes close to parodying normative constructs of masculinity. The Fab 5 regularly crack jokes that reflect a knowledge of gay culture and that can, at times, serve as a form of insider recognition for its queer viewers. Carson, for instance, will look at an article of clothing that he thinks lacks style and ask the heterosexual male guest if he was “a lesbian in a former life.” (Presumably he is not referencing the Honey Labrador sort of lesbian but rather the stereotype of the man-hating lumberjack). Of course, the gendered and anti-lesbian stereotype in this comment needs to be noted, as it reflects the privileging of gay masculinity over other forms of queer identity. It also participates in the pattern of disparaging women—both gay and straight—that is all too common on the show. In another scene, Carson asks a heterosexual guest what “you people” do with fly fishing paraphernalia, commenting that “my people would use it to decorate shoes or perhaps as a festive tiara” (Episode 113 “Neither Rain Nor Sleet Nor Length of Hair”). The campy jokes and the subversion of “my people” and “your people” invoke campy humor to invert language often used to stereotype LGBT communities and instead reclaim it in a way that troubles the assumptions underlying those statements. The show’s use of camp humor is one key reference to a history of cultural resistance through the production of “insider” humor. But the limitations of this strategy become quickly clear when the comments become racialized. In the same fly fishing store, Carson tells the straight guest to pretend they are “hungry Indians hunting squirrels” (Episode 113 “Neither Rain Nor Sleet Nor Length of Hair”). Carson is also depicted in the Queer Eye book wearing a T-short that reads “Gay is the New Black.” These types of comments and portrayals—which are all too common on the show—turn this type of camp into racism, and reveal that problematic racial formations provide the foundation for the gay presence the show creates.
The frequent racialized comments also highlight the paucity of heterosexual men of color featured on the show. When heterosexual men of color do become guests on the show, the racialized hierarchies of representation become even more visible. For instance, one episode featured Rob M. (Episode 120, “Meeting Mildred”), a Black man who identified himself as part Jamaican. In this episode, “camp” quickly became racism, as virtually every comment out of Carson’s mouth is deeply racially problematic, including references to Rob’s “cocoa colored skin.” The other members of the Fab 5 also enact problematic racialized behaviors. In the opening scenes in which the Fab 5 usually tears apart the guest’s abode, Kyan draped himself in Rob’s shower curtain, which had a vibrant pattern on it. He then made a comment about how “unstylish” the look was, implying that Kyan considered the shower curtain on par with Rob’s wardrobe, which included many dashikis. Significantly, Rob resisted this construction by arguing that he doesn’t wear his shower curtain, while his body language indicated that he both recognized and was uncomfortable with the racism and ethnocentrism in Kyan’s behavior.
This episode is worth discussing at length because of its complexity. The show contains several levels of problematic racializations, some of which Rob resists and some of which he is complicit with. One of the most blatant elements to note in the episode is the hypersexualization of Rob in a way that echoes a long-standing pattern of doing violence to heterosexual Black men in U.S. culture. Whereas Jai is eroticized by representational practices that mark his “feminine” performances, which results from a combination of racializing Puerto Rican gay men and portraying them as effeminate, Rob is constructed as a hyper-masculine and highly sexualized Black man. This portrayal participates in a long history in the US of hypersexualizing black men and marking them as threats to white femininity through the myth of the Black male rapist (Davis). One scene in a fashion boutique, for instance, depicts Carson flirting with Rob and referring to him as “daddy.” In this scene, Rob is seated on a sofa while Kyan and Carson lie touching him on either side, but Carson is literally curling up next to him in a kind of lover pose that clearly makes Rob uncomfortable. Kyan assures Rob that he will protect him from Carson if Rob simply says the code word, “zucchini,” an all too obvious phallic reference.
We cannot underestimate the racial dynamics of the ways that Carson sexualizes Rob. In one of the next scenes, Carson follows Rob into the dressing room, and while the camera shoots Rob in a tank top and boxer shorts, Carson exclaims with admiration that Rob is “bursting out” of his shorts. These moments clearly hypersexualize Rob in a way that cannot be read as simply gay male camp, but must be read in a history of violence, sexuality, and race around Black men that includes the lynching of black men, the myth of the Black male rapist, racial profiling, and the fact that Black men in the U.S. are far more likely to be prosecuted for charges of rape then are white men as a result of institutionalized racism. In this context,Queer Eyecannot be read as evidence that gay and straight men can now “get along,” but instead must be read as a tool through which acceptance of white middle class gay presence is bought through constructs of violence around Black men and an erasure of queers of color.
At the same time that the show eroticizes and hypersexualizes men of color, it also renders diverse ethnic traditions as interchangeable. The few times that Queer Eye has featured men of color as guests on the show, it has treated ethnic traditions as another product and technique of style. During the show that featured Rob for instance, Thom’s interior design strategy was to advise Rob to “diversify” his ethnic decors so that he was not limited by any one tradition. To that end, Thom took Rob to a store that featured furniture from all over the world, encouraging him to choose a table from Africa, chairs and lights from the Philippines, and so on. Ethnic, then, becomes removed from the particular context of its meaning and personal significance, and instead becomes an interchangeable commodity. Having ethnic items in one’s home then reflects only where one shops rather than any deeply personal roots. A clear example of this erasure of substantive ethnic traditions involves Rob’s fashion segment, in which Carson, like Thom, suggests that he diversify his wardrobe to combine dashikis with more casual “everyday” clothing (again an ethnocentric assumption). Carson’s solution is to purchase Rob the Donna Karan collection and hot glue small segments of African cloth to a jacket or a belt buckle, so that it becomes an accessory to more “mainstream” fashion. Given the way that the show has framed the issue, there was no way that Carson could have more fully integrated the various styles, because to do so would require troubling the cultural context and racial formations that the show explicitly works to reinforce. Manthia Diawara’s observations about Black spectatorship in contemporary Hollywood film are instructive for understanding the implications of Rob’s portrayal. Diawara writes that:
dominant cinema situates Black characters primarily for the pleasure of white spectators (male or female). To illustrate this point, one may note how Black male characters in contemporary Hollywood films are made less threatening to Whites either by White domestication of Black customs and culture—a process of deracination and isolation—or by the stories in which Blacks are depicted by playing by the rules of White society and losing. (215)
Though Diawara is discussing film not television, the analysis of deracination is clearly relevant here.
In a subsequent show, Kyan encourages James M. (Episode 123, “Training Day”), one of the few Asian American men to be featured on the show, to learn how to do a Thai massage in order to better connect with his girlfriend. While the idea of a massage is certainly a potentially romantic one, the segment clearly participates in stereotypes around Asian American masculinity. It is also one of the only episodes where the girlfriend, Taebee, an Asian woman, is thoroughly criticized and portrayed as a spoilt princess who doesn’t deserve her man because she doesn’t appreciate the show the Fab Five facilitate from the meal to the massage. As the episode synopsis comments, “Would it have killed her to be a better sport about it?”(Queer Eye website). Thus, Queer Eye does more than participate in making ethnic “trendy,” a pattern that is evident as suburban whites purchase African masks or decorative Buddha statues without being fully aware of the meaning of those objects in various cultural contexts. More problematically, Queer Eye robs ethnic traditions of their cultural specificity and suggests that their only purpose is to look stylish, at the same time that it tends to “go ethnic” mostly when men of color are involved.
The racial formations that are perpetuated on the show are integral to the forms of masculinity that are constructed on the show. Let us return for a moment to the episode mentioned above which features Rob M. sandwiched between Carson and Kyan on the couch. This scene involves complex layers of masculinity that also pit Kyan’s more “metrosexual” gay masculinity with Carson’s more stereotypical display of gay masculinity by racializing and hypersexualizing Rob’s masculinity. The phallic symbol of the code word “zucchini” is obvious, of course, but even more significant are the complex layers of power and masculinity that are played out in the scene. Kyan is depicted as the one in control precisely because he performs a form of white middle class gay masculinity that is hard to distinguish from white middle class heterosexual masculinity. For instance, in a scene with Ross M., a former Marine (Episode 114, “Create an Officer and a Gentleman”), Kyan outperforms him in push-ups, asserting his fitness. Kyan then is the one who can “protect” Rob from Carson’s stereotypically gay performance of masculinity, though not before Rob has already been sexually objectified. Rob’s masculinity thus becomes the conduit through which the hierarchies of Kyan’s masculinity and Carson’s masculinity are established.
Indeed, the show sets up a clear power dynamic between Jai, the feminized gay man of color, Ted and Thom, who perform fairly nice and gentle meterosexual forms of masculinity, and Kyan and Carson, who, though they perform very different types of gay masculinity, nevertheless have the most visible power on the show. Interestingly, the opening promo of the show, depicts Kyan, Ted, and Thom holding tools of their trade that are clear phallic symbols (a hair dryer, a whisk, and a paintbrush, respectively), while Carson and Jai are shown holding objects that are not phallic: shopping bags and an art pad. However, the pattern on the show is to establish a rather different binary. While Thom, and Ted are much warmer, less controversial, and physically further away in many of the shots, it’s Carson and Kyan who hold the most prominent positions on the show. Though Carson’s performance of masculinity is most stereotypically “gay,” he holds disproportionate power in the show and in the media representation. He is the first of the pack, so to speak, in the opening credits, gazing directly into the camera—a powerful gaze that is not at all campy and that, not accidentally, suggests that he is the most definitive “Queer Eye” on the show. Along with Kyan, he transgresses the most and he tends to take the humor to its sharpest edge. This division between the forms of masculinity does not go unnoted as the show is received by popular audiences. The December 1, 2003 issue of Peoplemagazine, for instance, names Kyan Douglas as one of the sexiest men alive, and his photograph bears no significant difference from the images of all the other, presumably heterosexual “sexy” men in the issue. On one level, this blurring of the lines between gay and straight masculinity points out that it is not so easy to “read” different masculinities along the lines of sexuality, and it illustrates that not all members of the queer community enact stereotypical forms of gender performance. As such, this display has the potential to be radically productive as it troubles assumptions about sexuality, but its radical potential is drastically mitigated by the power hierarchies the show establishes between the different forms of masculinity.
The constructions of masculinity that are represented on the show, then, are deeply racialized, but they are also deeply class-based. In the end, Queer Eye reifies a commodified masculinity: being a sensitive and stylish man means consuming products. As the website states, “With help from family and friends, the Fab Five treat each new guy as a head-to-toe project. Soon, the straight man is educated on everything from hair products to Prada and Feng Shui to foreign films. At the end of every fashion-packed, fun-filled lifestyle makeover, a freshly scrubbed, newly enlightened guy emerges — complete with that ‘new man’ smell!” (Queer Eye).
In essence, the straight man himself becomes a commodity, constructed through the judicious application of the right products. And should viewers miss the actual names of the products used on each show, the Queer Eye website gives detailed accounting of brand names and product availability. When the straight male guest knows how to dress more fashionably, has a well-decorated house, applies lots of hair and skin care products, knows a few tidbits about “high” culture, cooks food in a trendy way and serves it on the right dishes and with the right wine, he is deemed a “success.” This commodified masculinity reflects an important shift, as it involves daily maintenance rituals. Feminist scholars such as Susan Bordo and Sandra Lee Bartky have long pointed out the constant maintenance required to produce “proper” femininity, a routine that also regulates women’s behaviors in conformity with power structures. According to Queer Eye, masculinity now requires similar expenditures of time and energy in order to produce docile bodies. Men on the show spend a great deal of time in front of mirrors, and in salons, malls, and kitchens. Being a “successful” or “attractive” man, in other words, means policing one’s body through daily rituals that require participating in conspicuous consumption, so that one has the right accessories and accoutrements to “produce” and maintain this sensitive masculinity. The show highlights this maintenance with regular shots of men in front of mirrors applying skin care products and in stores trying on clothes. So the show does indeed tell us that “proper men” must exert labor to produce the image they want (something women have always known about femininity). It is presented as “you owe it to yourself,” a message that smacks of self-pampering, and which transfers to men the makeover narrative so often applied to women (such as in the Loreal “I’m worth it” campaign). Thus, whereas the personal transformation narrative has historically always informed the production of gendered subjects in the US nation through the “land of opportunity” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideologies, this new version has men enacting the kinds of labor that are often attached to femininity. So while Queer Eye continues the long-standing production of the bourgeois heterosexual masculine subject as the sophisticated connoisseur, it now requires additional daily rituals of self-care (Breazeale). This shift thus helps produce the metrosexual while linking that production to the stereotypical “gay” realms of fashion, cuisine, grooming, interior design, and certain elements of culture.
But, significantly, the show conveniently obscures other forms of labor. Queer Eye predicates gay visibility on the condition of a participation in the consumer logic of late capitalism, constructing both gay and heterosexual masculinity as dependent upon consumer spending and the erasure of class differences as well as on the exploitative division of labor that makes possible the makeovers on the show. This form of masculinity, then, perpetuates international divisions of labor while simultaneously rendering them invisible.
The show obscures the labor that makes possible the “makeovers”—the crews that redecorate the houses and the often exploited labor that produce the goods that the men purchase. The interior design segments are probably the best example of this. Though Thom is arguably the member of the Fab 5 who does the most “work” on Queer Eye–he revamps entire rooms and apartments, while other members make one dinner–the show usually doesn’t film the labor required to do so (Gallagher). We don’t see the crews paint whole houses, move furniture in and out, polish wood floors and install wood paneling. Instead, we see the before shots, we see the Fab 5 harshly critiquing the place, often with humor, and we see them make a few small decorating changes. The fiction presented is that Thom does it all between lunch and the main event. Queer Eye obscures the hours of labor that obviously go into redesigning some of the spaces, much of which is not done by the Fab 5. Like Martha Stewart, they have a staff. This portrayal has serious implications for the image of queerness created on the show. As Rosemary Hennessey suggests about queer visibility,
Redressing gay invisibility by promoting images of a seamlessly middle-class gay consumer or by inviting us to see queer identities only in terms of style, textuality, or performative play helps produce imaginary gay/queer subjects that keep invisible the divisions of wealth and labor that these images and knowledges depend on.(148)
The makeovers on the show, then, render invisible the economic privileges and inequalities that make them possible. For instance, we also don’t see other important labor. The show often goes to stores like Crate and Barrel, Ralph Lauren, and other upscale places to buy their products, some of which are produced overseas by exploited labor through the globalization of capitalism.
The show privileges an upscale model of masculinity that requires consumption and is therefore unattainable for working class and even lower-middle class men. The Fab 5 rarely take their guests to Wal Mart or JCPenney (both of which would also perpetuate international divisions of labor), and rarely do they shop at local farmer’s markets or community-based stores. Instead, they take them to upscale salons, furniture stores such as Pottery Barn, and to couture fashion boutiques. In fact, Queer Eye has arguably done for men’s fashion what Sex and the City did for women’s fashion. The latter has been credited with bringing high couture fashion, such as Prada and Dolce and Gabana, into the homes of mainstream America (or, more precisely into the living rooms of those who can afford cable). Sex and the City is also credited with popularizing eclectic fashion combinations, so that women no longer have to wear an entire expensive outfit but can instead pair one high-end piece with other lower-priced clothing (which of course makes the style more accessible to middle class women) (Sasvari). Similarly, Carson,Queer Eye’s fashion expert, regularly uses the word couture and takes the guests to Ralph Lauren, where, not accidentally, Carson worked at one time. In one show, he even tells viewers—with a clear disdain—that the proper pronunciation is Ralph Lauren, not Ralph Lauren.
Of course, other shows, such as Seinfeld and Friends, have also popularized high-end fashion names for their predominantly white middle class audiences. But what’s important about Queer Eye’s use of upscale products is the way it suggests that the regular use of these products is precisely how one becomes an attractive and successful heterosexual man and, by extension, a proper subject of the US nation. Indeed, the Fab 5 regularly scoff at the guests who lack this upscale sense. Carson shrieks at fake Mohair and jean shorts, Kyan is put out by disposable razors, Ted is deeply offended by paper cups and frozen hamburgers, and Thom groans at 70s style mass-produced furniture. Their “tasteful tips” make it clear that this form of masculinity can only be properly achieved by middle to upper class men—it is unavailable to people who cannot afford it.
This consumerism runs rampant through the show, starting with the General Motors logo on the SUV the Fab 5 drive all over (though they never fill up with gas). Virtually every other scene involves a close-up on a storefront, a label, or a smartly designed tube of styling gel. Apparently, companies are lining up to have similar product placement in the show, a move welcomed by the show’s producers since it generates additional revenue. It is ironic, given that the Fab 5 are supposed to be making recommendations based on their own stylistic expertise rather than brand name, that their recommendations are frequently brand names. Paradoxically, on the Queer EyeWebsite where biographies of the Fab Five give more information about them for the chronically curious, two of the Fab Five respond that the worst faux pas a person could commit was “trying too hard to be something they are not” (Jai) or “not being yourself” (Carson).
Each of the products works in the service of the Fab 5’s areas of specialty: grooming, interior design, food, fashion, and culture. The show therefore commodifies gayness, reducing it to a series of products and outer accoutrements rather than an identity, community, or politics. In effect, it reduces identity to a product that can be bought and constructed. Since no one on the Fab 5 is a plastic surgeon, we are perhaps lucky that the makeovers do not involve the straight guests going under the knife as is increasingly done to women in shows such as The Swan or Extreme Makeover. Nevertheless, aside from Queer Eye’scampy humor (which, as we have noted, is also problematic at times), gayness gets constructed in terms of stereotypical elements of fashion and grooming, while other elements of queer culture, such as social issues, relationships, or queer resistance, remain absent. Indeed, the Fab 5 have themselves become celebrities, and the show’s websites even assigns UPC labels to the photos of each member of the Fab 5. However, they are neatly removed from any real discussion of queer sexuality, as they contain their queerness and shore up heterosexual coupling. This is just the latest version of Hennessey’s point that gayness can only be tolerated in public visibility when it can be commodified and marketed to heteronormative audiences. The result is a “safe” reduction of gayness, a way to contain it at a time when gay rights are once again under assault by the state, (and the debate over gay marriage is just the most recent of many assaults). And yet this reduction is only “safe” for those few members of LGBT communities who are made visible by the show.
Indeed, if we follow Foucault’s notion that resistance is ever-present but will always be coopted by dominant power structures, we can see Queer Eye as a way to limit more progressive advances made by LGBT communities. That is, as LGBT communities make political progress, we need to be contained by reductive portrayals. As we become more public, we are allowed to be visible in mainstream media only as long as the representations reproduce stereotypes and work in the service of conspicuous consumption and racialized hierarchies. Indeed, one of the most disturbing implications of the show is the way it is being touted as the bastion of gay tolerance even as it buys that acceptance at the expense of queers of color, heterosexual men of color, and the working class (categories which are not mutually exclusive). Racism, ethnocentrism, and classism thus become the tools through which public gay visibility of certain groups are bought, giving a surface nod toward “tolerance” while merely shoring up the hierarchies already deeply entrenched in the US nation.
When Queer Eye gets marked as a progressive representation of queerness, it not only reduces queerness to a narrow and class-based subset, it also puts a public face on some forms of gayness at the expense of other marginalized groups, particularly queers of color. Feminist, anti-racist, and queer cultural critics and activists need to take careful note of this strategy, not only for its import for cultural studies scholarship, but also because we should be cautious of any strategy that on the surface benefits one marginalized group while further scapegoating others. This form of gay visibility, while generating a few laughs, ultimately serves as a decoy to obscure the way gayness is used here to maintain constructs of the white heteronormative US nation state.
An earlier version of this paper, entitled, “Performing Masculinity,” was presented by Beth Berila at The First Annual Conference of the College Male, St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN, February 20-22, 2004. A subsequent version, entitled “Commodifying Masculinity: Labour, Race, and Sexuality in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” was presented by Beth Berila at the American Studies Association Conference in Atlanta, GA, November 11-14 2004.
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