Just in case you’ve been living without cable, like an animal, for the past few years, I’ll begin this essay by explaining that Queer Eye For the Straight Guy is a successful show on Bravo where, every week, five gay men make over a straight man: dressing him in a whole new wardrobe, providing grooming advice and a cooking lesson, completely redecorating his home, and giving him a few tips about “culture.” In a sense, then, the show’s mega-reworking of the subject is a summary of the various incarnations of the makeover genre as popular entertainment, incorporating elements from any number of such shows, from What Not to Wear to Divine Design. Moreover,Queer Eye has attempted to retain its popularity by living up to its own premise so that the show itself is always in the process of being made over, elaborating variations of its basic format in holiday specials and groups of themed shows such as the series of episodes entitledQueer Eye for the British Guy, in which the Fab Five, as they are known, took their talents overseas to London in a sort of metrosexual version of the Marshall Plan. Not surprisingly, then, Queer Eye has spawned a number of imitations, including a British version with a different cast (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy—UK) and a short-lived spin-off series, Queer Eye For the Straight Girl, in which three substantially more annoying gay men and one underutilized lesbian tried to give a heterosexual woman inner strength, confidence, and a better understanding of the importance of eyeliner.
Aside from the obnoxiousness of its cast, I suspect that one of the reasons that Queer Eye for the Straight Girl failed is that it lacked the ideological edginess of the parent series. After all, makeovers for women have been a staple of talk shows, fashion magazines, and cosmetics counters for years while Queer Eye for the Straight Guytook the unfamiliar step of extending this process to men (Heller 347-348). Moreover, despite a long cultural tradition of women seeking fashion and decorating advice from other women, the lesbian onQueer Eye for the Straight Girl seemed to be largely ancillary, with most of the show focusing on the transformative efforts of the gay men. As such, Straight Girl presented only a slight twist on a very familiar cultural phenomenon, yet another example of men telling women how they should look and act. In contrast, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy breaks a cultural taboo by allowing gay men to publicly examine and comment on the attractiveness of straight men, which raises a number of alarming (albeit largely spectral) possibilities: that the straight man might become an object of gay male desire or that the straight man could even become a gay man or, more abstractly but perhaps even more alarming for that very reason, the possibility that the distinction between gay and straight might turn out to be more fluid than we’d thought.
Since Queer Eye‘s discussion of the relation between gay male and straight male identity is so clearly foregrounded on the show, I’d like to get some fairly obvious points about the series’ presentation of those identities out of the way before we go any further. Although some critics have argued that the show undermines gay stereotypes (Morrish and O’Mara 350), the general consensus is that Queer Eye‘s representation of gay men is a demographically limited (basically, white and middle class, as Jose Munoz notes) and highly stereotypical one, beginning with, at the most mundane level, a conflation of male homosexuality and femininity that is most evident in the presence of Carson as the show’s obligatory flaming queen (Ramsey and Santiago 353-355). Only slightly more subtle is the positioning of the Fab Five as avatars of “culture,” as experts on cuisine, clothes, and aesthetics–something like a 21st century Oscar Wilde with multiple personality disorder. As Gustavus Stadler has noted, the Queer Eye guys thus fall into a long tradition of viewing gay men as cultural arbiters whose taste and wit have a liberating effect on the heterosexual bourgeois psyche (109-110). Not surprisingly, this tradition also provides the underlying logic that structures the narrative of the show. The rationale in each episode is to help the straight man further a particular romantic goal with a member of “the opposite sex,” for example, in one episode, by preparing Brian, a rabid NY Jets fan, so that he could propose to his girlfriend on the field during halftime at a Jets-Bills game (Episode 151). Thus the Fab Five’s role is to act, as Toby Miller aptly puts it, as a sort of “management consultancy for conventional masculinity,” improving (romantic) efficiency and promoting self-fulfillment (112). While this comedic plot structure itself “makes over” the gay man from his more familiar narrative roles as villain or victim, the show does not really, as Kylo-Patrick Hart wants to argue, present the gay man as superior to straight men (246). Instead, it simply turns the gay man into a helper figure, and, as Judith Roof makes clear, this new positioning is finally not all that novel since it once again establishes homosexuality as entirely secondary, as a supplement to heterosexuality. If anything has changed, it is only that the logic of this particular supplement has shifted from a sort of ontological insufficiency (gay men are failed straight men, i.e. women) to a structurally parallel narratological insufficiency (gay men are failed primary characters), which is finally not much of a shift at all.
What the show does not do then is to reorient our notions of gay and straight nor does it, by the same token, blur the binary division between the two. If the Fab Five often flirt with the straight guy, this is permissible precisely because such flirtation is so obviously doomed to failure. Carson can stick his hand down the front of the straight guy’s pants “to help him tuck in his shirt” precisely because the show assumes that both the categories of sexual orientation and any individual’s placement within them are immutable, which means that a seduction of the straight man cannot take place. So, we can, I think, be very clear. The show does not turn straight men into gay men. In fact, I’m going to suggest that it does not even turn straight men into straight men that are particularly like gay men. What it does do is turn straight men into straight men with better shoes. And it’s finally those shoes that seem essential to understanding what is going on in Queer Eye. What I’d like to argue is that the show reflects a reconfiguration of the heterosexual male subject that is vastly more far-reaching than anything that could happen when Kyan and a cop from New Jersey share a tanning booth. Following the commodity logic inherent in the makeover show, Queer Eye illustrates the way that postindustrial capitalism undermines the idea of the straight male as subject that is one of the always impossible but nonetheless insistent grounds of our ideas of gender difference and sexual identity in the first place.
Do You Know Our System?
To understand this, we’ll need to start with a few reflections onQueer Eye as illustrative of the makeover genre. Taken on the purely surface level, the show is often rather touching. At the start of one of the British episodes, Ted asks Darin, an expatriate American living in London, why he called them. “I want to cook better…. I want to learn how to dress better,” Darin says, and he seems genuinely grateful by the end of the episode for their help, not to mention the fact that the Fab Five have flown in his homesick wife’s mother, sister, and nephew from the States for a surprise visit (Episode 155). Along the way, there has been the standard series of “reveals”: when Darin sees how Thom has redecorated the living room, when his wife Julie first sees Darin in his new wardrobe and then is shown their new living room, and, in this case, when Julie discovers her family waiting for her in a capsule at the London Eye at the end of the show.
Fairly clearly, then, Queer Eye is predicated on the makeover’s before and after logic, the post-Enlightenment sense of an ameliorative temporality, the notion that time is progress, although here, as Dana Heller notes, progress or self-improvement are seen less as the result of hard work or technological development than as one of the benefits of commodity consumption (348). As such, it should come as no surprise to anyone that commentators on the show have noted that the makeover in general and Queer Eyein particular are simply materializations of consumerist ideology and that any particular Queer Eye episode is really a rather complicated infomercial for a variety of goods and services (Heller 348, Kooijman 107, Velazquez-Vargas 6). Thus, Kyan is always careful to explain the particular benefits of the line of grooming products he’s touting that week, and it is apparently impossible for any of the cast to walk into a store without pausing in front of the sign and identifying the market niche of the goods the place carries, just as it seems perfectly natural for Jai to reflect, near the end of the Darin episode, how simple it was to bring Julie’s family over since he found it so easy to book flights to London by going to the British Airways website.
As one would expect in an infomercial, the viewer can immediately find the mousse or ottoman featured in a given episode by turning to the show’s website, which contains a complete Product Guide (“Find it, Get It, Love It, Use it”). The Product Guide allows you to browse the commodities and services shown on the show by category and includes product descriptions, a notation of the episode in which it appeared, a link to that company’s website, and even a “Buy it” link, which allows you to purchase many of the items right there at theQueer Eye site. Yet, beyond their retailing of any specific product or service, what the show and its website are actually selling is the notion that shopping is progress. As the Product Guide puts it: “You’ve seen us work wonders for straight guys in need of some serious help. Get the same results at home with the same great products, services and suppliers….” In a sense, then, what the show finally becomes is an infomercial not only for these particular goods and services but also for the beneficial effects of consumption itself.
Below this structure, with its doctrine of progress through purchase, however, the show operates on another, even more phantasmatic level. We can gain some understanding of the nature of this fantasy by noting that the story of each episode is shaped by what we might call The Three Unities of post-Fordist narrative: the unities of place, time, and inaction. Thus, the geography of each episode shrinks to the spaces of consumption: the home, the various stores and salons where items are purchased and services rendered, and the site (often, itself, the home once again) where they will be used and enjoyed in the final event that ends each episode. Similarly, time magically contracts to an ideal temporality of almost immediate gratification. The current unstated conceit of the show is that all the events take place in one day so that, somehow, after the straight guy has gone with Thom to select furniture, one or more rooms of the home are completely redecorated and furnished while he is trying on clothes with Carson and selecting cheeses with Ted so that he can simply walk in the door and be delighted by the new living room or bedroom or kitchen.
Of course, what is left out of these conceptions of time and place are the spatio-temporal sites of labor, not just the factory where the couch was made or the workday of the woman who sewed the sports jacket in China or Guatemala but, beyond the mere mention of the fact that he has a job of some sort, the space and time of the straight guy’s labor as well. By the same token, while it is to be expected that, like most television shows, Queer Eye conceals the work of its own production—from the staff of producers and writers to the filming process itself—what is unusual about the show is that we are not shown, as is typically the case on home renovation shows, at least some gestural series of steps in the process of transforming the straight guy’s home. Here the living room or bedroom is magically renovated without any visible activity at all (Berila and Choudhuri). In short, on Queer Eye, labor itself is completely erased. If there is any work, it is the work of consumption: shopping, grooming, and, usually, a bit of cooking or party preparation that is essentially recreational. The task set for Brian, the Jets fanatic, was to grill some things during a tailgate before the game. By the same token, just as Queer Eyefollows the television convention, also operant in reality shows, of eliding any recognition that the Fab Five’s real job is to work as actors, their labor within the diegesis as “consultants” is made to seem more like play than work, as effortless and as recreational as anything Darin or Brian is asked to do.
It is not at all surprising, then, that in the world of this perfect consumerist fantasy, in which there is no work and the realities of time and place are modified to suit the logics of pleasure and immediate gratification, the one other familiar thing that is missing is money. Prices are rarely, if ever, mentioned; nobody is ever shown actually purchasing anything; and, to take only one instance, Carson can stand in Zegna with Brian and select several outfits without price being an issue at all. It makes sense, of course. If there’s no labor, there really can’t be any money, and it is at this point that the real nature of the fantasy becomes clear: this is consumer capitalism from which even the capitalism has been removed. All that remains is the freely available cornucopia of commodities, just as one would expect in a fairy tale.
Boys Gone Wild
I’ll return to this fantasy, but, for the moment, I want to take a closer look at the one other thing that remains aside from those commodities, the new sofas and hair gel: the consuming subject himself. Judith Roof argues in ” Working Gender/Fading Taxonomies” that the underlying ideology of the makeover genre is intrinsically conservative, not only in its “reforming” of bad subjects to conform to bourgeois norms of beauty and care of the self but even more importantly in these shows’ implicit assertion of the transcendental validity of the gender binary itself. As Roof notes: “Real men and real women are pinned without a gap to masculinity and femininity already defined as an unquestionable goal in an unquestionable form….” Roof goes on to add that Queer Eye‘s unique contribution to this process is that it brings the sexual orientation binary to bear on the task of shoring up the gender taxonomy so that queerness is featured on the show as a means of “producing the normative in the first place.” This would explain why the show’s depiction of gay men is, finally, so stereotypical. The presence on Queer Eye of someone as recognizably “gay” as Carson is absolutely essential not only to the process of demarcating gay from straight but also of reinforcing our belief in the existence of those cultural categories in the first place, the notion of “the queer eye” thus working to confirm the reality of the identity category of “the straight guy.” And yet, I would argue, even as the show insists on the validity of the structures of gender and sexual orientation, it works in other ways to erode and reconfigure the conception of the heterosexual male that is the linchpin of those structures.
The general consensus of the critical commentary on Queer Eyeis that the thrust of the show’s reconfiguration of straight men is to make them metrosexual, or, in other words “like gay men,” although there is some divergence of opinion on exactly what this entails. For Beth Berila and Devika Choudhuri, it means that Queer Eye“commodifies gayness,” reducing gay identity “to a series of products and outer accoutrements.” For Toby Miller, it means that Queer Eyepresents gayness as “a lifestyle of practices that can be adopted, discarded, and redisposed promiscuously—in this case, disarticulated from its referent and resignified as metrosexuality” (112). While there is a certain aptness to these descriptions, which simply restate, after all, Queer Eye‘s own presentation of the makeover process, I’m not certain that they quite capture exactly what is happening when the straight guy selects a sofa with Thom or learns to exfoliate with Kyan. The difficulty is that the show does not usually feature products that are typically marketed to or consumed by gay men (2xist underwear, for example) and that, more subtly, the “gay lifestyle” implicitly constructed by the show focuses on practices (such as cooking) that cross a wide variety of identity categories while ignoring “lifestyle practices” that are more exclusively gay (attending circuit parties or, for that matter, bear weekends) or that have a particular inflection in gay culture (working out). Even the slippage between these two interpretations—the difference between identity as products and identity as practices—suggests that Queer Eye may be doing something a bit more subtle than simply inducing straight men to become “like gay men” through the assumption of a commodified gayness.
It might, instead, be more accurate to argue that what the show actually does is to “commodify straightness” if we understand that phrase in a particular and very specific way. Like many other critics ofQueer Eye, Jay Clarkson notes that the show encourages the straight guys to replicate “a form of imposed gayness” (243) and that the show “makes the straight men more like gay men” (250), but he inserts this idea in a larger context that expands our understanding of it. Surveying changes in conceptions of masculinity during the twentieth century, Clarkson argues for a mid-century shift in definitions of hegemonic masculinity from an emphasis on what a man produces to what he consumes, so that Queer Eyerepresents a particularly apt illustration of the concept of “consumption masculinity” (238-239), of the attempt by marketers and advertisers to “reshape gender norms” (252) by creating a conception of masculinity inextricable from the purchase of particular commodities (see also Ehrenreich 287-88, Gardiner 1257-1258, and Berila and Choudhuri). Clarkson is careful to note, however, that the resulting consumer model is created specifically for straight men and that to call this new aesthetic “gay” or “queer” “obscures the role of contemporary capitalism in its construction” (243). If the thrust of Queer Eye is to make the straight guy like a gay man, then, it does not do so by inducing straight men to buy “gay products” or even to adopt “gay practices” except in the abstract and analogical sense that, like gay men, the straight guys onQueer Eye are supposed to adopt an identity model, a straight masculinity, shaped by marketers. As Clarkson argues: “Just as advertisers have learned to tailor their advertisements to appeal to attitudes traditionally associated with homosexuality to exploit the buying power of homosexuals, they can be seen here attempting to create a consumer masculinity, or metrosexual, just as they helped to construct a hegemonic depiction of gay identity” (243). While the two constructions may parallel each other to a certain extent—in, for example, stressing the importance of refinement and taste—their main similarity, then, is that they link an identity category to particular patterns of consumption and to the fact of consumption itself.
I would add that there is one other significant way in which, on the abstract level, the show aims to make straight men more like gay men or, more accurately, to create a model for straight men that is like the model that has been created for gay men. Like Queer Eye itself, Clarkson does not rigidly distinguish between the consumption of commodities for status purposes (essentially, the purviews of Thom, Ted, and Jai) and the transformation of the self into a desirable object (through the sartorial and grooming instructions provided by Carson and Kyan). While the former, the definition of the male self through one’s possessions, has been a familiar aspect of consumption masculinity since the 1950’s, the latter, the commodification of the male body itself, is a relatively recent extension of the concept, precisely one of the “attitudes traditionally associated with homosexuality” that marketers are now trying to adapt and extend to straight men (Bordo 18, Miller 113-115). Although Clarkson argues that this commodification of the straight man, his attempt to make himself more attractive to his wife or girlfriend, enhances the man’s agency rather than objectifying him (240), I suspect that it might be truer to assert the opposite: that the primary way in which Queer Eye“makes straight men more like gay men” is in the abstract sense that it submits the straight men to a logic of self-commodification with which gay men are already familiar. In other words, on Queer Eye the straight man is repositioned into an osmotic perception of the self as both desiring subject and desired object that has historically been considered the province of women and gay men.
Thus, one of the effects of the Fab Five’s relentless attention to the self-presentation of the straight guy is to train him, in the course of that fictional day, to see himself as others see him, and one of the main thrusts of Queer Eye, particularly in the grooming and clothing segments, is to make him fully conscious of himself as an object, a process that is relentlessly reinforced throughout the show. This commodification of the male subject is thematized in the opening credits, not merely in the show’s title but also in that title’s literalization in the final shot of the sequence, where the camera zooms in on a close-up of Carson’s right eye, and it is fully played out in each episode, from the moment the Fab Five burst through the door and begin commenting on the straight guy’s hairstyle and wardrobe right up to the inevitable scene in which Carson has him model his new clothes for the other members of the makeover team. This process reaches its apotheosis, however, in the show’s major reveal: the presentation of the madeover straight guy to his wife or girlfriend. It is usually at this point that the straight guy most clearly embraces not only his commodified reconstruction but also the objectification implicit in it. Thus Brian excitedly elicits his girlfriend’s responses. “Smell me,” he says, to get her reaction to his new, lighter cologne, “Look at the [hair] gel.” When Julie’s first words on seeing her “new” husband are “You look so hot,” the more reserved Darin simply grins with pleasure.
Men on the Market
Now, once we begin discussing the commodification of men, it becomes almost impossible to ignore a classic essay in the development of feminist theory, Luce Irigaray’s “Women on the Market.” Beginning with Levi-Strauss’s assertion that the organization of societies is based on the exchange of goods and women, Irigaray’s argument is a metaphorical adaptation of Marx’s discussion of the commodity to the status of women. Simply put, she concludes that, appearances to the contrary, society constitutes men as producer-subjects and women as objects of exchange so that all the important relations in society take place as exchanges between men, exchanges from which women are excluded except in their capacity as commodities. One of the founding premises of such a system is that, if women act as “commodity-objects” who insure the circulation of social exchange without participating in it as subjects, then men, conversely, are “exempt from being used and circulated like commodities” (172).
Taken at face value as an analysis of gender relations in Western society, this argument seems a bit extreme even for 1978, when the essay was first published in France. For that matter, it seems a bit implausible even for France, not to mention what happens when one considers the significant impact of second-wave feminism on the Western industrialized countries in the nearly thirty years since this was written. The mere existence of Hillary Clinton and Chippendale dancers and the eternally complex rituals of heterosexual courtship suggest that the circuits of social exchange are not exclusively male and that, as we all know, women can be desiring subjects and that individual men can be—and are—evaluated by them as more or less attractive objects. Actually, though, I think Irigaray is trying to make a subtler and more abstract point, which becomes clear when she discusses the “meta-physical” character of “social operations” and of the body itself. As she puts it, “Participation in society requires that the [female] body submit itself to a specularization, a speculation, that transforms it into a value-bearing object, a standardized sign, an exchangeable signifier, a ‘likeness’ with reference to an authoritative model. A commodity—a woman—is divided into two irreconcilable ‘bodies’: her ‘natural’ body and her socially valued exchangeable body, which is a particularly mimetic expression of masculine values” (179-180, emphasis in the original).
On one level, Irigaray is simply arguing here that cultural norms for women and for women’s bodies—including standards for female attractiveness—are defined by men rather than women. Whether this is still literally true for women today, whether Hillary Clinton, for example, enacts a gendered identity that is largely a product of male constructions, is beyond the scope of this essay. I’d like to focus instead on an additional implication of this passage: the assumption that men are supposed to stand outside this system as individual incarnations of the transcendental subject, determining women’s materiality without being materialized, defining women but not defined by them. What Irigaray does, then, is to identify an abstract cultural position that individual men are supposed to occupy, acting as particular instantiations of the transcendental subject. This symbolic position is a complex and multiple one, of course, but, for our purposes, we can examine just a couple of characteristics that it entails: the notions that the male only has one body—the natural one and not the “value-added” socially exchangeable body—and the corollary notion that the male is a subject who cannot, or at least should not, be objectified. This notion of the male body as “natural,” as prior to and unmarked by the social, is, of course, a cultural fantasy. As Judith Butler makes clear, even to count as gendered in the first place, the male body, any male body, is continually materialized in accordance with a set of implicit regulatory norms (1-4). The fantasy of the male as an unmarked subject is a persistent one, however, and whether or not any individual man occupies this position, the position itself still exists as a cultural expectation or ideal.
This point would also seem a bit implausible if Queer Eye itself were not based on this very premise, if each show did not open with a construction of the straight guy as precisely this unmarked male. Here the man’s “natural” body is imagined literally, as a body seemingly untouched by civilization: badly groomed and unkempt, living in squalor, so that, as Sasha Torres points out, the straight guys invariably demonstrate an “abject incompetence in the care of the self” (96). Darin, for example, has a serious case of acne on his back, in part because he only washes the sheets every couple of weeks. Brian is even more of a mess. He admits that he’s been cutting his own hair for the past ten years, there are flies in his bathroom and dirty athletic socks on the floor of his home office, and his girlfriend Rachel complains that he wears tattered t-shirts with, as she puts it, “big pit stains.” Her major, and perhaps not unrelated concern, however, is that he tends to wear too much cologne. Finally, the show’s depiction of straight men—as inconscient slobs living in an almost Hobbesian state of nature—turns out to be every bit as stereotypical as its depiction of gay men.
The job of the Fab Five, of course, is to remake these “all too natural” bodies, and Queer Eye is finally only one example of a more general attempt by advertisers and marketers to encourage the creation of a second, socially exchangeable body in that segment of the male population, estimated at 75 million, that they think of as representing “conventional masculinity,” precisely the population from which the straight guy on Queer Eye is drawn (O’Barr). In a roundtable discussion on “Advertising and the New Masculinities,” Tyson Smith analyzes a Gillette ad in which six young NASCAR drivers do a “power makeover” on a scruffy unshaven guy so that he can get the girl. As Smith puts it, what the ad does is to tackle “the paradox of how to sell appearance and vanity to your scruffy-faced, slacker, manly-man who has been conditioned by tradition not to give a damn about his appearance” (quoted in O’Barr). The function of the ad, then, is to reconfigure this identity category, providing an “expansion in the male role for heterosexual men” that allows more interest in grooming products and in “primping, appearance, and vanity” (Smith, quoted in O’Barr). Despite Smith’s stress on vanity here, with its connotations of the male as narcissistic subject, he makes clear that this process actually involves the male’s acceptance of himself as an object for others: the ad “suggests that men do have to pay more attention to what women want.” Thus, it is particularly apt that the Gillette ad borrows its basic concept and narrative structure from Queer Eyesince both of them are, finally, not just commercials for particular products or even commercials that encourage consumption in general but commercials about the need for men to construct another, value-added body for themselves. In short, they are commercials, aimed at the traditional male, about the benefits of marketing himself.
The Social Relations of Things
If Queer Eye is, then, part of a larger attempt to reconfigure the positionality of the conventional male by submitting him to the logic of the commodity, both as a consumer subject and as a commodified object, we might ask in what way the show, as an instance of contemporary consumer culture in general, attempts to make over the gender system itself. If we go back to Marx for a possible answer, we recall that the commodity fetish involves a downplaying of the use value of an object in favor of an attention to its exchange value. Marx calls this view of the commodity “fetishism” because it represents a denial: exchange value is thought to inhere in the commodity itself, and any awareness that the value of a commodity actually derives from the labor used to produce it is repressed. One of the important corollaries of this, for Marx, is that in a commodity culture the relations between people, including the relations of production, are concealed by our focus on the exchange of the commodities. As he puts it, the true mystery of commodity exchange is that “the mutual relations of the producers…take the form of a social relation between the products” (82-83). Now, in the present context, the question this raises is: what happens when the people themselves become commodities, when marketing and makeover shows in general and Queer Eye in particular indicate the emergence of a commodification so extensive that there is now no subject/agent who can stand outside the circuits of exchange?
One possible answer is that, once it develops to a certain point, the logic of the commodity system inverts. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to take another look back at the phantasmatic consumer paradise depicted on Queer Eye. One of the reasons that there is no money or labor on the show is that, here, actual commodities and services no longer have an exchange value. Within the context ofQueer Eye, the cost of a Zegna jacket is irrelevant because, in the world of the makeover, the important thing about clothes or sofas or hair products is not their exchange value but their use value, determined by the extent to which they can provide pleasure for and/or enhance the marketability of the straight guy. Here, exchange value has migrated and now resides in the people, each of whom becomes both his or her own producer/subject and an object of consumption for someone else, with exchange value now redefined in reference to what might be called the “social norms of attractive self-presentation.” It seems particularly relevant in this context that one of the recurrent tropes of the makeovers on Queer Eye—they say some version of it in every episode—is the insistence that the guy is being made “worthy of” or being “brought up to the level of” his girlfriend or fiancé.
In effect, then, the aim of the show is to insure that an equal amount of “value” resides in both the straight guy and the straight girl, that these commodities are equivalent. Contrary to Marx, at this level of commodification, commodity exchange no longer substitutes for social relations. Instead, it becomes the very principle of social relations, which are transformed into an endless circulation of the shifting positionalities of product and consumer. Such shifting positionalities animate Queer Eye in several ways. To begin with, they provide the paradox at the heart of the show, which seems to be about assisting the straight guy by furthering his desires as a subject, helping Darin to dress better or Brian to propose successfully, although the heteronarrative of any given episode of Queer Eye is really structured around the woman’s desire, as subject, for a certain presentation of this male, as object. This mutability of the positions of subject and object, consumer and commodity, is not just hidden at the heart of the show, however. It is also continually played out in the endless circulation of erotic energies that provides much of the surface narrative on Queer Eye. In addition to any flirting the Fab Five may direct at the straight guy, one of them always comments on how pretty his wife or girlfriend is, just as she in her turn always responds positively to her madeover husband or boyfriend. And what about the Fab Five themselves, who, in traditional Marxist terms, would have to be seen as the producers of the male commodity’s value through their play-labor of consulting and who thus should stand behind or outside the circuits of exchange? Carefully packaged and presented, Carson and the others also take their places in the shifting relations of subject and object. Although the logic of the show inhibits the straight guy from completing the circle by returning the gaze of the queer eye himself, so that it is extremely unlikely that a transformed Brian or Darin would be transformed enough to comment on Carson’s attractiveness, the system nonetheless functions perfectly well even if it has to leave the binary division of sexual orientation in place. Instead, the Fab Five simply become objects of consumption for the viewer, extending the circuits of exchange out into the audience. I know any number of fans of the show who would be happy to discuss with you how hot they think Kyan is.
All Things Just Keep Getting Better
Now, the real world doesn’t work quite the way that the world ofQueer Eye does, and that’s true not only because it still contains a number of straight guys who don’t want a gay man to help them tuck in their shirts. If nothing else, there are still labor and money and time. Like most makeover shows, Queer Eyepresents us with a version of utopia, and, in a utopia, as we learned in Lost Horizons, everything is not always exactly what it seems to be. As it happens, a Zegna sports jacket will run you about $1,500, which, to judge by the rest of Brian’s possessions, was a bit beyond his means. In fact, in a country where the median household income in 2004 was $44,389 (U.S. Census), it’s beyond a lot of people’s means, even before you start adding in the sofas from Domain and imported cheeses. So, Berila and Choudhuri are almost right when they say that Queer Eye privileges “an upscale model of masculinity that requires consumption and is therefore unattainable for working class and lower-middle class men,” except, I think, they miss the point. Just as it would be more accurate to say that the show privileges “a model of masculinity based on upscale consumption,” the underlying logic of Queer Eye, and of makeover shows in general, is that consumption—and consumption masculinity—is available to everyone. Finally, the lingering psychological aftereffect of such shows is less the feeling that you must buy a particular high-end product than that, linking progress and self-improvement to shopping, you feel you must buy something. If a 2004 retail industry poll showed that men were 50% more likely to go shopping after the airing of a new episode of Queer Eye (Dossi 3), they weren’t all necessarily heading to Ralph Lauren. It’s worth remembering that a Gillette M3 Razor retails for only $10.00.
If some men at least seem to be getting the message about consumption that advertisers and marketers want them to, this brings us, finally, to the question of whether the commodified masculinity presented on Queer Eye can itself be seen as progress. Queer Eye‘s theme song, a sort of anthem for the concept of the makeover that consists largely of the words “all things just keep getting better” sung over a techno-dance beat, would seem to insist, if only implicitly, that men’s self-marketing really is a good thing. Personally, I’m not so sure whether the version of commodity culture that I’ve been discussing is better than the one described by Marx or, more importantly, whether the erosion of the ideal of the straight male as subject that it entails represents an improvement in our ideas about conventional masculinity in particular and the gender system in general. On the one hand, it does seem plausible that, aside from a desire to go shopping, another of the lingering psychological aftereffects for some of the show’s straight male viewers might be a dim recognition of the instability of the positions of subject and object, if only in the form of a sense that they might want to package themselves a bit better for the benefit of the women in their lives. And I suppose one could argue that the transformation of everyone into commodities does at least begin to equalize the genders, even if it may not be the sort of equality one would necessarily want to begin with. On the other hand, it also seems possible that the self-marketing of men advocated on Queer Eye may simply be a surface mutation that leaves what Irigaray called hom(m)osexuality firmly in place. As Irigaray would surely note, the primary interaction on the show is still between the men, with the woman serving largely as the pretext for some male bonding. In the end, to be honest, I think it may be a bit too early to tell which of these perspectives is right, especially if we keep in mind the real truth about most makeovers: very often, the new thing is not really better than the old thing but, simply, different.
- Berila, Beth and Devika Dibya Choudhuri. “Metrosexuality the Middle Class Way: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Genders 42 (2005). ;Making Over Masculinity: A Queer “I” for the Straight Guy.
- Bordo, Susan. The Male Body. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
- Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.”New York: Routledge, 1993.
- Clarkson, Jay. “Contesting Masculinity’s Makeover: Queer Eye, Consumer Masculinity, and ‘Straight-Acting’ Gays.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 29.3 (2005): 235-255.
- Dossi, Joel. “The Rise and Fall of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.“AfterElton.com 3 January 2005. <http://www.afterelton.com/TV/2005/1/queereye.html>.
- Ehrenreich, Barbara. “The Decline of Patriarchy.” Constructing Masculinity. Eds. Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, and Simon Watson. New York: Routledge, 1995. 284-290.
- Gardiner, Judith Kegan. “Masculinity, the Teening of America, and Empathic Targeting.” Signs 25.4 (2000): 1257-1261.
- Hart, Kylo-Patrick. “We’re Here, We’re Queer—and We’re Better Than You: The Representational Superiority of Gay Men to Heterosexuals on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.“ The Journal of Men’s Studies12.3 (2004): 241-253.
- Heller, Dana. “Taking the Nation ‘From Drab to Fab’: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Feminist Media Studies4.3 (2004): 347-350.
- Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.
- Kooijman, Jaap. “They’re Here, They’re Queer, and Straight America Loves It.” GLQ 11.1 (2005): 106-109.
- Marx, Karl. Capital. New York: The Modern Library, 1906.
- Miller, Toby. “A Metrosexual Eye on Queer Guy.” GLQ 11.1 (2005): 112-117.
- Morrish, Liz and Kathleen O’Mara. “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy:Confirming and Confounding Masculinity.”Feminist Media Studies 4.3 (2004): 350-352.
- Munoz, Jose Esteban. “Queer Minstrels for the Straight Eye: Race as Surplus in Gay TV.” GLQ 11.1 (2005): 101-102.
- O’Barr, William M. et al. “Roundtable on Advertising and the New Masculinities.” Advertising and Society Review 5.4 (2004). <Click here to view>
- Queer Eye for the Straight Girl. Bravo Network. 2005.
- Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Bravo Network. 2003-2006.
- “Queer Eye Website.” Bravotv.com. 1 April 2006.<http://www.bravotv.com/Queer_Eye_for_the_Straight_Guy>.
- Ramsey, E. Michele and Gladys Santiago. “The Conflation of Male Homosexuality and Femininity in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.“Feminist Media Studies 4.3 (2004): 353-355.
- Roof, Judith. “Working Gender/Fading Taxonomies.”
- Stadler, Gustavus. “Queer Guy for the Straight ‘I.'” GLQ 11.1 (2005): 109-111.
- Torres, Sasha. “Why Can’t Johnny Shave?” GLQ 11.1 (2005): 95-97.
- U.S. Census Bureau. “Income 2004.” 30 August 2005. http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/income04/statemhi.html>.
- Velazquez Vargas, Yarma. “Queer Eye for Straight Social Values.”Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide 11.5 (Sept./Oct. 2004): 6.