Published: Aug. 1, 2006 By

[1]The public rehearsal of making over goes back to 1979, the moment when post-war housing began to fall apart and when This Old House, the WGBH home restoration program, was first aired.  Making over was never simply the humble process of rescuing, repairing, updating, and revivifying shabby structures or tasteless decors.  It has always been at least ostensibly about a spectacularized metamorphosis from one status or condition to another, as the temporal ellipses intrinsic to television documentary focus the series towards results.  In a segment’s few short weeks, the old barn was transformed into a lovely country retreat, or the 1750 colonial with a rotted foundation and sloping floors was returned to its enlightenment grandeur with a fine door detail and its original mustard hue.  Intermediary stages, selected often as opportunistic platforms for instruction or unsubtle product endorsements, mark the key frame moments of the metamorphosis, providing discretionary stages from which progress can be gauged and before-and-after can be appreciated.[2]The marvelous effect of metamorphic spectacle would seem to have been somewhat mitigated by the imaging of all of that work, the mess, the tools, the planning, the informative presentations of innovative building materials, the reminders of fiscal responsibility, and the down-to-earth flannel-shirt tool-belt competence of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and home improvement entrepreneurs. Although metamorphosis is the governing paradigm of the makeover and rapid change its magic, the real spectacle of home improvement–and for that matter any other documentary of transformation such as cooking shows, redecoration attempts, motorcycle and car building dramas, The Joy of Painting, and even close-ups of the mortuary–is the spectacle of work itself.  The promise of metamorphosis is an alluring pretext for the pageant of how things go together, the spectacle of making, the predictability of structure, and the calming hypnosis of competence. This recent, mediatized, commodified spectacle of work is different from more traditional ideas of the relation between citizens and labor in which subjects are identified in relation to their occupations as well as the class and social stratum associated with labor itself.  This spectacle of work produces an illusion of mastery hand-in-hand with an illusion of subjective mobility.  With work, we can be anything we want.

[3] The satisfying pay-off of this spectacle of makeover work is the way things fit together, the performance of an expertise and skill that irons out all of the misfittings of life, adjusts and fine-tunes the gaps, creases, and traces of incommensurability, undoes shoddiness and bad workmanship.  This extravaganza of reassuring predictability is the rehearsal of good sex, a fort-da repetition of the relation between work and flawless product, of a mastery that can be ours, reflected in the shininess of the new choppers, rebuilt cars, extensive tile jobs, and the chocolate ganache of endless expense accounts and armies of invisible workers.

[4] But the makeover is even more than this. In rehearsing the relation between part and whole, in partially anatomizing the mechanisms and processes that produce and maintain structure–the girders, frames, wiring, custom parts, mise-en-place, organized and generously-equipped work spaces–the spectacle of work is ultimately about a continuous ritual reaffirmation of structure and category. Makeovers rediscover (and re-produce) a very familiar version of order located as the inevitable effect of virtuous process.  Makeovers, thus, are pleasurable in their provision of closure; and they are compensatory, comforting us with the possibility of clarity at the moment in history when categorical certainties and stable taxonomies become more obviously precarious–and when the subject’s utter powerlessness and lack of choice becomes occasionally and insidiously visible.

[5] The proliferation of cable channels has spawned multiple versions of this makeover magic, beginning with more staid and respectable home restorations and cooking shows and spreading to the surprisingly pervasive “garage” genre of custom vehicles and the how-to mania of instructional, product-hawking, do-it-yourself, home improvement and “designer” redecorator shows, culminating at this point in mixed genre game show surprise!-we’ve-redone-your-living-room-in-the-style-of-a-Celtic-cemetery shows. This American penchant for makeovers follows their appearance on British television, as Rachel Mosely has shown   Many makeover shows consist only in the process of making over, but some have spliced a game show frame on the process.  The proliferation of these shows and their gradual slide into the “reality” game gimmick (While You Were Out) points to the way these shows, no matter what their instructional virtue, are finally all about a consumerized subject.  They not only endlessly reiterate the reassuring spectre of the heteronarrative link between part and whole, work and product, investment and pay-off that shores up notions of structure and ghosts the patriarchal familial narrative, they also situate products as correlatives for their creators and owners, reflecting tastes, constituting a part of the de rigeurcommodity identity thrust upon the consuming public. This analogy between the parts that come together to make a whole and the elements of a narrative (antagonist, protagonist, boy, girl) that come together to produce narrative meaning and coherence tends to make the illusion of subjective identity itself a kind of narrative closure rendered through the successful joining of parts–a joining, of course, like the imaginary spectre of heterosexual sex, which can also shuffle through such equivalent joinders as successful commodity acquisition, accession to proper style, a confirmed and certain identity, and happy closure.

[6] In addition, by securing the connections between structure, process, product, and subjects, makeover shows appear to entangle viewers with the virtues and processes of work rather than with consumption itself, producing the illusion of identity premised on a fascination and alignment with creativity, skill, and process. The consumer, then, appears to assume a subject position in relation to the metamorphic–to the forces that make things change and transform, to a subject position and gender dynamic that is mobile and inevitably shifting through time–wielded by proficient shamans, and punctuated by flares of rejuvenated hope.

[7] The morphing of the home and of the product (especially motor vehicles) is the commodity displacement of an impetus to morph the owner.  In a massive fit of accessorizing, the late-1990s and beginning of the twenty-first century began the constant reinforcement of a commoditized orthopedic shell that stands in as subjective identity, but which also produces a notion of the subject as a collection of consumptions which locate each individual within a market grid of tastes, classes, personality types, and habits. This produces the illusion of a subject whose coherence is constituted by a commodity reciprocity.  The “wholeness” of the commodity reflexively certifies the illusory wholeness of its consumer.  The thematic coherence of tastes (which is never, in fact, coherent but merely collected) produces the subject as an ensemble effect of an exercise in selection and discriminations–its own version of a taxonomic sorting–reflexively attributed to a consciousness wielding a unifying (and even thematically-consonant) impetus.  While commodity culture itself appears to splinter the taxonomy of taste predilections into a shower of possible categories–Deleuze and Guattari’s “heteroclite”-it  simultaneously reinforces notions of the subject as hypertaxonomic, as a compendium of accrued categorical taxonomies. For example, the young couple who own the run-down Victorian are rendered coherent not only by their home ownership, which produces them as middle-class, but by their willingness to purchase a “fixer upper,” which indicates that they have disposable income, some free time, certain skills, a Calvinist bent towards virtuous industry, and the yuppie tastes of urban pioneers.  The process of major renovation spectrumizes the couple’s predilections into color schemes, space deployments (do they want two full baths or more closet space? Do they need a fitness room or a media room?), hobbies and talents (do they cook, sew, woodwork, read?), right down to their sense of comfort (do they like dark or light spaces? Cozy or Airy?  Modern or antique?).  The process of home repair becomes the process of anatomizing the owners who emerge as the category that fits it all together–home, life “style,” aspirations, tastes.

[8] Home makeovers of various kinds play out reciprocal relations among subjectivity, identity, and commodity, showing how these broad fictions produce and sustain one another.  They also dramatize the ways particularizing identity as a set of “tastes” provides a fantasmatic substantiation of and screen for the way commodities, misunderstood as the “correlatives” of taste, actually produce those tastes in the first place. The spectacle of work in its myriad forms is the fiction of the fiction of the subject. Its oscillating exchange with an orthopedic identity (the fiction of thematics designed to shape, encase, and shore up what always threatens to dissolve), replayed endlessly as part of a dynamic that reinstates the taxonomic by seeming to idiosyncratize it, appears to endow meaning in the places where taxonomy is provisionally abandoned in favor of the “individual”–and as Dennis Allen points out, a particularly “commodified” individual.

[9] The concept of the subject represents a convenient fiction aligning bodies with consciousness.  We imagine the subject to have desire and agency; we project onto it an assumption of separability constituted through historical narratives of development.  The fiction of the subject manifests itself as both agency and identity, as the sense that one is who one is.  Identity is orthopedic in the sense that it provides simultaneously the illusion of subjective coherence and a tromp-d’oeil locus of displacement from which the fiction of the subject is projected and by which it is protected.  This topological explanation, derived from Jacques Lacan’s account of subject formation, itself masks what has always been the perpetuated dynamic through which the conscious entity continuously sorts, adjusts, responds, renarrates its negotiations among the range of available taxonomies, histories, and rules (the Symbolic), its delusion of conscious choice and agency, the field of available objects and images (the Imaginary), its vulnerability to material tears and traumas (The Real), and its unconscious and overdetermined selections, repetitions, and fears. Lacan’s elaborations of the subject, are, of course, infinitely more complex and nuanced than this representation, coming primarily from his work on the subject in his “Schema L” which presents a version of a systemic subject. As the Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real, wrapped inextricably in one another, constantly change through time, the subject, moored in its self-production both to these orders and to the objects and drives through which it interprets difference and pleasure, changes as well. The flexive relation between its sense of speaking self and its unconscious, which it cannot know except indirectly, is both the idiosyncratic product of its individual history and the introjection/projection of the Symbolic/Imaginary/Real terms within which it lives.

[10] There is no central or core subjective essence, but a process in constant change and adjustment, which like a spinning spoked wheel, projects the illusion of presence and solidity. The subject finally is a fiction of a space or vortex, an ever-moving Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland keeping up with the moving background.  At the same time, the subject is itself also a vortex, a complex interweaving of inside and outside (which are, of course, both neither) understood partially as a process of sorting or negation.  The subject is imposed and taken up at the same moment, always out of time, any sense of “true inner self” coming from clashes of temporality, imposition, delusions of choice, and the illusion of depth produced by ever-shifting vectors of recognition.

[11]What we think of and privilege as identity, as the sets of histories, tastes, desires, and circumstances that distinguish each of us from the other, consists of those themes and objects selected in response to and as a part of the process of the subject’s perpetual production, but delimited by the terms and objects available culturally.  Some of those terms, such as taxonomic gender or race, belong to and stand for the binary structuration of language and legal systems and thus impress themselves as if inexorable, reproducing a sense of the obvious truth of their division. In this context the taxonomic means the tendency to reproduce binary categories that gain meaning in their opposition to one another. Other terms, such as ethnicity and class which belong as well to symbolic schemes of division, also may define varying individual experience and history as subjects located in particular symbolic and cultural locations.  Yet others, such as tastes in music, clothing, and avocation, or the Jets fan Allen discusses, seem to represent idiosyncratic choices constituting identity and revealing the essence of the subject, but these are, as an effect of subjective process, already partially defined for the subject, as both fodder and product of its process.  Identity is an orthopedic collation, a set of shifting totems referring elsewhere to some digestive dynamic, metamorphic in itself, interwound in Klein bottle fashion with the subject, speaking for and being spoken by it or a part of it.

[12] What, thus, seems like an identity–reflected in a taste perceived as natural and essential–is already an effect of flexive subjective dynamics.  Selected as a way to signal and protect, as a kind of offering to the gaze through whose vantage one sees oneself seeing oneself, these tastes project ourselves back to ourselves in a form that we like, one accepted by the flexive structure that produced the taste in the first place.  Hence, if we present ourselves as avid skiers, it is because we want to see ourselves as avid skiers and see others see us as that.  The choice of avid skier as opposed to surfer, golfer, or Jets fan is determined by the complex, dynamic inter-relations among our feelings of conscious choice and our abilities, our unconscious material, sheer accident, the cultural Symbolic, and the Imaginary attached to these activities–their own complex significations of cachet, ability, style, cultural location, danger, pleasure, etc.  I may like to ski because I am good at skiing, but I may also like it because I like what being a skier makes me look like, or I may want its connotations–the same class, clothing, and life style affiliations as I imagine other skiers have and which are attached by advertizing to various skiing commodities.

[13] When we gather these objects and themes, we end up with what appears to be a composite profile by which we are defined, even though subjectively we always sense that like every other taxonomy, none of it quite fits. This identity organizes sets of associations into synecdoches and symptoms that have some relation to the subject–or some relation to the processes by which the subject constantly produces itself. In this sense, too, identity is orthopedic, a process of protecting ourselves against emptiness.

The Makeover Subject

[14] In this extenuated matrix of subjectivity and identity–defined and expressed in one register through commodity tastes–simple, binary gender seems to fade into the background, assumed and reinforced by taste categories, yet no longer necessarily the premier and/or organizing taxonomy. When assumed, it disappears.  When the relation between body and gender is directly challenged–as in such phenomena as unisex, cross-dressing, participation in activities associated with the other gender, or certain gay and lesbian couplings–taxonomy reappears with a vengeance (a phenomenon linked both to a logic of figure and ground and to the narrative disposition of roles).  The disappearance of taxonomic hierarchy in a delusive welter of commodity “tastes” is actually, obviously, no disappearance at all, but rather a more systemic marshaling of a normativity redefined within the aegis of the commodity, but revivifying a viciously binary, unimaginatively compliant, almost anachronistic version of taxonomic gender.  No one asks the husband about kitchen space, for example, while the wife is absent from landscape, plumbing, and garage. Renovations order the nuclear family in its traditional roles and when, as occasionally happens, the home is owned by a gay couple (men usually), or a couple with a husband who likes to dabble in the kitchen, the house redefines the character of spaces, using rooms and style to discipline the couples back into social coherence.

[15] All of this metamorphic business–this preoccupation with the possibility of subjective improvement, mobility, and flexibility– is carried into the most recent makeover craze–the refashioning of subjects themselves. In the plethora of makeover programs broadcast in 2004-2005–Extreme Makeover, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,Queer Eye for the British Guy, Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, The Swan, A Makeover Story, What Not to Wear, The Biggest Loser, and obligatory segments on Oprah and Dr. Phil–subjects refind commodity fulfillment in a spectacular disciplining into gender normativity.  In the context of the makeover as spectacle, commodified cosmetic processes produce the illusion of subjective completion, a realizing, via commodity, of what is imagined as the “real” self hiding inside an erroneous and misleadingly-designed shell.  Recall as well, however, that makeover metamorphoses are decoys for recentering structural normativity. Although viewers may identify with the work as the commodity means to a more satisfying end, they are also identifying with order and ordering itself, to a return to secure taxonomy.  The bait-and-switch dynamic of the metamorphic process becomes more open and obvious at the point when makeovers begin to focus almost obsessively on consumers themselves. In the welter of work and process, from the miasmic mix of plastic surgery, dental work, wardrobe, fitness, and home redecoration, emerges the re-unified front of taxonomic and social gender regimes, the rescue of which retroactively situates all of those makeovers and all of that work as always having been about reassuring what seems to be slipping away. Real men and real women are pinned without a gap to masculinity and femininity already defined as an unquestionable goal in an unquestionable form as an effect of discipline and correction.  In the plethora of body makeover shows, the focus on process (on the spectacle of metamorphosis as elliptical as ever) distracts from the return of an unquestioned rigidly binary gender normativity linked to the production narratives’ series of heteroideological connections–not in this case the story of how parts and work make a whole, but the return of the patriarchal nuclear family as the naturalized and desirable cause and effect of all effort.

[16] Re-realizing the truth of a seamlessly incorporated and cooperating set of binary gender regimes (and their heteronarrative train of organizing associations), makeovers obsessively replay the same gendering narrative over and over.  Their subjects are initially scarred by some gender unintelligibility, by some excess fat, wrinkles, glasses, bad teeth, droopy breasts, back hair, bad hygiene, messy habits, polyester shirts, and unibrows that have side-lined them from the busy mainstream of gender compliance. These makeovers are rendered precisely as a question of the relations among the parts and the whole. Like the old houses first subject to television restoration, makeovers parse the whole into problem areas.  Experts then diagnose “procedures” and “treatments” to improve those parts.

[17] While the old house was imaged in relation to its environment and the parts imagined in relation to an architectural whole, the makeover subject is often imaged in relation to a blue-backed computer screen, which separates the subject from any environment and fragments the body into a series of close-up problem areas.  Like any manufactured product, the computerized and alienated body is redesigned to comply, not with the natural inclinations of that body, but with the specifications of taxonomic and social gender regimes.  The body’s separation from any field of interaction, not only in its rendition via blue screen, but also its isolation in Beverly Hills or at a fitness ranch, always away from home, family, and job, deliberately loses any field of relation, function, or significance that might distract from the body and its relation to a normativizing impetus that pushes the subject towards a gender compliance so normative that it becomes invisible.  The absence of field or ground prevents any connection between the apparent seamlessness of gender and the complexity of social and cultural systems through which the subject became non-compliant in the first place.

[18] Most makeover shows emphasize the before-and-after through constantly compared images, but the bulk of the shows consist of the repeated narrative of the abject and pathetic dead end lives of the subjects before their gender re-conformity. The shows’ narratives of rebirth make conformity (and normative masculinity/femininity) the answer to a host of ills from childhood neglect to romantic rejection, from unfortunate genetics to social discomfort.  In this obsessively repeated scenario, gender conformity is a panacea, and it is within the reach of everyone, even though all the shows both present and elide the hard work it takes actually to be gender conforming.  The paradoxical message of the makeover is that gender normativity is difficult for anyone not naturally endowed.  Masculinity and femininity require work: surgery, work outs, weight control, make up, clothing, attitude.  In other words normative gender is anything but natural and anything but easy. There is never a question in these shows of subjects wanting to be made over into anything other than a strictly gender conforming being–no requests, for example, to be made into the perfect dyke, or a screaming queen, a motorcycle gang member, or even something like Don Knotts.

[19] The merger of taxonomic (male/female) and social (feminine/masculine) gender regimes–of male with masculine and female with feminine–dominates only in an imaginary of isolation somehow deemed intrinsic to the metamorphic process (a cocoon, for example), but actually necessary to the narrative of product that subtends and sustains the makeover as a positive experience.  In this narrative the non-compliant subject realizes his or her unhappiness, which is because the body just doesn’t fit (the male isn’t masculine, biology clashes with social versions of masculinity), so via application and selection, the lucky subject becomes the object of expert treatment. While Beth Beril and Devika Choudhuri explore the waysQueer Eye plays among class, ace, and gender, Allen demonstrates that the queer “treatment” of the straight man is holistic and includes a resounding resecuring re-heterosexualization of the straight man as sex/gender categories and roles are reassuringly reshuffled into their weekly normalizing. The Fab 5’s overt queerness does not lead us into the queerness of all makeover helper figures, but instead shows how all helper figures occupy a metaphorically queer site in narrative itself, as I suggested in All About Thelma and Eve. Never the subjects of their own romance, helper figures occupy the position of wise visionary, skill, and desirelessness–or their desire is completely consumed by making the subject/makeover object over. Helper figures, however, do not include all workers, only those who never accede to any clearly heteroreproductive site themselves.  They occupy a specifically asymptotic, or never-quite-able-to-accede to a specifically operative heterosexual gender in the main narrative.  They are, thus, left to dangle mid-story, so to speak, as the heteronarrative continues without them.  In Queer Eye, they quite literally watch the end of the story from the sidelines, but manage to comment on it.

[20] These experts or shamans reshape the body and the subject evokes the Rocky Balboa discourse of fortitude and survival through the intermediate stages of pain, struggle, and working out.  At the end, after having been refitted with hair, make-up, and clothing that contribute to the image of compliance, the subject is “revealed” to the “oooo’s and ahhhh’s” of family, friends, and television audience.  A constant comparison between the pathetic before (usually in nondescript greying underwear) and the shining after (for women in long gown) images compliance as a magical Cinderella effect, but at the same time also presents the disappearance of the subject into a gender anonymity. All individuality gone, the remade subject looks more like everyone else than everyone else. The triumph of the makeover is invisibility.

[21] At the same time the isolation and fragmentation of the makeover body prevents any actual consciousness of the gender normativizing that is the goal of the process.  While appearing to make visible the processes of transformation, makeovers become hard to see. Although the various experts often discuss the ways they will “feminize” a body, for example, the process of that feminization is hidden in its fragmentation and separation, a fragmentation further exacerbated by the surgical procedure’s veiling of the subject, visible excision of parts, and post-surgical bandaging.  Our vision of process is actually occluded by the by-products of the process itself, and images of partial transformation are deliberately withheld.  The shows’ imaging conventions actually produce a processual cocoon viewers cannot penetrate. The narrative shape of these shows makes the subject’s emergence from this cocoon in the ending “reveal” the anticipated pay-off of the process that defers any curiosity about mediate stages to the anticipated joy of the end.   Accompanying this process is a great deal of testimony about hope, salvation, strength, and gratitude from bandaged, huffing mid-morphees.  And we see a great deal of the priestly caste of morphers whose kind services are the salvation of order and the guarantors of happiness.  Finally, of course, these subjects are not really isolated at all, but the constant object of the camera view, never alone, revealing their most “private” moments.

[22] The makeover show, thus, which is about the spectacle of the conforming product and the virtues of taxonomic compliance, is also about work–the work of the transformation, the work of the shamans whose wisdom and skill conserve order.  The work of metamorphosis, which occupies the bulk of these shows, is veiled, repetitive (the shows actually repeat sequences over), and focused on the purveyors of change–the surgeons, gay men, therapists, fitness instructors, fashion advisors, hairdressers, therapists, and make-up artists–who conduct the transformation, piece by piece.  Not only does this clinicalize metamorphosis while pathologizing deviation from normative appearance, it also welds gender conformity to essence–and this is the real trick of the makeover.  Instead of using these “repair” technologies to reflect, express, and reveal gender idiosyncrasy, the makeover shamans and the narrative of metamorphosis produce the illusion that the only problem that exists is that the normally gendered subject does not match his or her body.  There is no question at all about the status of gender itself, remarkable (or really not so) when the some of the shamans themselves are openly gay.

[23] The closing down of gender complexity hidden within the metamorphic narrative dramatizes the relation between sexuality and gender as a matter of role.  Although the majority of makeover magicians are themselves normatively gendered, the sexual status of the FAB 5 from Queer Eye for the Straight Guyenacts the relation between the subject of normative metamorphoses and his helpers as a version of a typical heteronarrative in which the protagonist is aided by some middling queer figure towards culminating success in romance.  Queer Eye for the Straight Guy‘s Fab 5 occupy the role of shamans, the gender guides that conduct heteronormative protagonists through the liminal middling space/time of self-transformation. But their gender is never in question, not because they are normatively masculine (the five actually represent a range of masculinities and liminal types), but because their gender does not operate within the heteronormative mating impetus of the show’s main trajectory.  I am suggesting, as dicta, that gender is practically determined by a subject’s role in narrative rather than vice versa. The makeover is clearly, almost cornily a literal “hetero” narrative both in its shape and in the way it typically sets out heterosexual coupling as the goal of the makeover process, even if the makeover subject is already married.

[24] This repetition and/or reaffirmation of the hetero itself reiterates and is allied with what Allen suggests is the commodification of the subject.  “Social exchange,” as Allen points out, becomes commodity exchange which in turn also transforms the Queers in the scene into commodities, obviating homophobia (they are commodities, not queers) and aligning desire, commodification, spectacle, and heterosexuality as the great axis of fantasmatic objectivity and persistent denial.  This sets the stage for television’s next move: shows about the shamans themselves in a return to the simulacrum of work as spectacle. Such shows as Monster Garage, American Chopper, American Hot Rod, Miami Slice, and Southern Steel focus on the familial dynamics of workers in a repeated homosocialized Oedipal scenario in which straight sons (figurative and not) contend with straight fathers over a creative commodity that bears their stamp.American Chopper, American Hot Rod, and Southern Steel all focus on the fabrication of high end custom vehicles.  The shops are small and thus inevitably import whole oedipal dramas. The familial politics of some of these programs are themselves evidence of the oedipal impetus of the makeover’s making.  American Chopper‘s Teutels, for example, are constantly entwined in oedipal snarling, though recently, the clown figure son Mikey subtly came out on the show by introducing his “partner,” Eric. American Hot Rod follows a similar pattern, oedipalizing the relations between employer and employees. It is no longer clear what the commodity is here–motorcycle or brand or worker–but it is at least masculinity welded ineffably to an orthopedics literalized in metal.

[25] Queer Eye begins this trajectory toward the commodity male, focusing on modes of metamorphosis–on redecoration, cosmetic improvement of appearance and grooming habits, tutoring in behaviors and consideration, and on learning a “show” dish to prepare for one’s girl friend.  The project is to normativize and conform the object of expert ministrations to the gender expectations of masculinity so that he can couple more effectively than before, a project that makes quite apparent how gender, narrative, and heteroideology work together.  That the experts are openly–even hyperbolically–gay emphasizes the queerness of the middle as itself a fixed identity category in a narrative relation to the hetero. With no apparent love lives of their own in the show, the Fab 5 flirt with their usually (thank goodness) non-homophobic subject man, serving as surrogates of almost every kind.  The show ends with an extended ritualized reveal.  First we see the straight guy’s house or apartment, room by room. Then from their spiffy loft and with drinks in their hands, the Fab 5 watch the new and improved straight guy on wide-screen HDTV showering and shaving (using his new products), fixing his hair, getting dressed, preparing the meal, lighting candles, and greeting his (usually) stunned paramour for a night of atypical romance in which the straight guy has become more than his typical duffus self.

[26] The vantage of the audience to Queer Eye, as in most makeover shows, would seem to be a positional vantage, a site from which gender/sex taxonomies can be seen as such or perhaps an identification with the style shamans (as in shows that focus on plastic surgeons).  Both the narrative of pathos and the lives of shamans, however, tend to situate the audience as already conforming, as not as unfortunate as the shows’ subjects. Thus, the audience is itself normativized in comparison to the unfortunate other (just as lives were constantly normalized in relation to Jerry Springer’s domestic brawling), in terms not only of gender, but especially of class.  Makeover shows that focus on plastic surgery such as Miami Slice de-emphasize the pathetic narrative in favor of the surgeons’ expertise, especially since their subjects are far wealthier, but in all cases, the spectacle of the makeover is a ritual of reassurance that all can be made right or better, that improvement is within our control, that if we aren’t beautiful in a Barbie or Ken sort of way, then it is our own choice.  We feel better and just good enough.

Compensatory Obsessions

[27] This spectacle of gender conformity is a pageant (sometimes literally as in The Swan) of large-scale quiescence, of a resolution or bringing into focus of the not-quite-seeable where intelligibility is both end and resolution.  This suggests that retrospectively all makeover subjects are anamorphically gendered beings whose cure is really a matter of how they are seen, even when this “focusing” mechanism is quite literally a series of metamorphic interventions. And all spectators are constantly reassured either of their normalcy or the fact that help is near if they want it.  Gender normativity is situated as a commodity and although commodities would seem to be detachable inessential attributes, relocating gender normativity as a commodity has the paradoxical effect of relocating that normativity as even more natural than nature–as a correlative of subjective essence.  Normative gender as a commodity working through the delusions of consumer choice simultaneously makes apparent that the only choice there is is the unhappy choice to stay unhappy by opting out of the consumer system, by not electing the available transformations towards a coherence that has become increasingly narrow.  Non-normative subjects are not only non-normative, they are also prideless cheapskates who don’t take care of themselves.  It is through this logic of non-consumption–of consumers not availing themselves–that consumers become unavailable–or undesirable–the authors of their own personal, rewritable tragedies.  If we are not commodities (meaning if we do not continuously consume), then we are doomed to unhappiness.

[28] That the makeover ritual is replayed daily, often four or five times in one form or another, however, suggests that the makeover is symptomatic of something else. If we understand gender as a system of inter-influential, interconstitutive, and co-productive regulating regimes, then the obsessive repetition of the makeover suggests a process of compensation, a working harder in the site of normativity to overcome some problem somewhere else.  Makeovers overcompensate, which suggests to begin with that the normative itself is insecure and must be constantly resecured.  But what destabilizes the normative, which is, given the work it obviously takes, already unstable? Why this need to constantly, almost vengefully resecure the taxonomic?

[29] We might look to other obvious contemporary sites of taxonomic overcompensation: right-wing politics, any mindless emphasis on the automatic virtues of the nuclear family, fundamentalist religious beliefs, political agendas designed to enforce and reinforce the ideological advantages of marriage, and identity politics as the insistent taxonomizing and control of differences.  One reason for these systematic overcompensations is that we are culturally anxious about the loss of taxonomy itself, the loss of category and the kind of structure it fronts and reproduces.  Taxonomy, as the artificial sorting into categories which can present only the appearance of stability and uniformity, is simultaneously always fraught with impossibility (nothing really fits) and is entirely necessary to sustain and perpetuate the kinship and economic systems it subtends and which in turn produce the illusion of the very possibility of making such binary discriminations.

[30] This is one reason gay marriage, really a very minor matter and no change to structure at all, is such lightening rod.  Gay marriage perpetuates the complementary binary unit structure of culture as singular and privatized, though it simultaneously shows the extent to which coupling is never a matter of binary oppositions or complementarity at all.  The gender taxonomy upon which marriage is premised is itself at best only provisional, covering over the bad fits and lack of relation that threatens all human interactions. The gay threat to marriage is the exposure of how all marriage is already poised to fall through its founding fictions of taxonomic complementarity, especially as reproduction, the ostensible end to marriage, has long been accomplished outside of marriage anyway. If we are afraid that categories of intelligibility are disappearing, our first line of defense is the symbolic site of heteronarrative itself–the joinder conclusion of taxonomic binary difference as the only means to a satisfying end.  Gay marriage both assaults heteronarrative with its vision of coupling “sameness” (a sameness understood only within a logic of rigid binary taxonomy in the first place) and, oddly, also confirms at least the desirability of such a structure. Marriage is, however, a heteronarrative conclusion already assaulted by larger systemic changes and shifts.  The worry about gay marriage is itself only a symptom of a larger anxiety about the loss of taxonomy (and hence structural order) itself.

[31] On a cultural level, the symptoms that taxonomy no longer contains are instances of mixed genre and species, imagined primarily in science fiction, but renderable through the same computer technologies by which makeover comparisons are portrayed.  Genetic metamorphoses as in The Nutty Professor (1996), or shapeshifters and morphing characters that appeared in various Star Treks, or mixed genre art that has appeared since the beginning of the twentieth century in Dada, the work of Lucille Leseuer, and various performance art projects.  These manifestations suggest a pervasive phenomenon of exceeding, reorganizing, mixing, ignoring genre that is linked to a loss of taxonomic aegis.  In other words, one symptom that the taxonomic no longer governs is the emergence of representations by which categories are dismissed or exceeded.  And even in those documents where this might happen, such asSpiderman, narrative pushes mixed species back to the normative via romance or heroism.

[32] Mixed genre and mixed species are not merely some taxonomic reshuffling, but an emergence of multiple regimes through the modes of representation–morphing, digital computers–that enable their representation but also themselves embody the kinds of shifts which exceed genre in the first place. The processes of normativizing–narrativizing mixed species, makeovers, right wing politics–persist and seem frantically active and visibly repressive.  But they are only so because they are trying hard to reinstate taxonomic hegemonies frozen in time.

[33] Instead, then, of fixing our gender analyses on the spectacle of the trans-, which we have been doing as a sort of intellectual antidote to all of this normalizing, we might want to consider what stimulates all of this over-compensation–the fear that taxonomies do not hold, that the binariness of our insistent structuralism is a compulsion to reduce that masks a very different scenario in which genders are not binary but multiple dynamics, shifting, mobile, flexive, and operating through culture in intelligible ways.  We need to think about how we might think about gender otherwise–other than structurally, other than through the obvious fiction of its “natural” two-ness.  We need to think about what non-structuralist, non-taxonomizing assumptions and dynamics might help us understand the relations between our binary structures and the multiple other dispositions gender enjoys, enlisting other dynamic analysis such as systems theory, cybernetics, the geometries of curved spaces and the complexities of multiple, interactive, and barely predictable interactions through which gender practices already operate.  We know, even now, that there are more than two.


I would like to thank Emma Crandall and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan for the opportunity to present a portion of this paper.  Thanks also to Dennis Allen and renée hoogland for their advice.

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