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Queer Like Us

What "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" does--and doesn't--mean for our culture.

12:00 AM, Aug 14, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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FOR YEARS NOW Bravo has been the drama department of cable channels with its high-tone movie fare and the precious celebrity-worship of "Inside the Actors Studio" hosted by the plodding, sycophantic James Lipton. It only seems logical that its programming should now have a major gay component, but while "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" gets all the attention (in this piece, too, for the most part), it may be Bravo's other gay show, "Boy Meets Boy," that truly leaves a notch on the bedpost of American masculinity. On this gaydar-challenge / dating show, one wholesome young gay man looking for monogamous commitment has to whittle his way through a group of prospective boyfriends, among whom are a handful of straights only pretending to be gay.

Think about it: On national television right now, there are heterosexual males doing their solid best to appear homosexual as they pretend to sincerely court an actual gay man. Only at the end of their romantic candidacies as gay men will they appear for mere seconds in an interview where their sexual orientation is clarified before they return to their otherwise anonymous lives. A few years ago, it seemed remarkable that there were gay men willing to go on television and out themselves. Now there are straight men coming out of a closet they never occupied. And every time the subject of their little TV experience comes up, someone will say, "So, you're not a gay man, but you play one on TV."

Only "Boy Meets Boy"--despite the impressive ratings it's garnered as the warm-up act for "Queer Eye"--is a dopey fantasy show that, for all its incidental significance, doesn't, um, arouse much interest. "Queer Eye," on the other hand, is pretty grabbing as it parlays catty humor and au courant sexual politics into a bubbly adaptation of the always-popular makeover specials from daytime talk shows. (In case you've missed the hubbub, the show is about five gay men, each an expert in one of the gay arts--grooming, cooking, fashion, culture, and interior design. Every week they assist a different, desperate straight guy.) Also, its ratings have impressed NBC enough to run the full hour-long show in the coveted "ER" slot tonight at 10 p.m. (previously the network ran a half-hour, abridged version). But will life on earth be different because of the show's not-yet-wild success?

Will gay men be more beloved in our culture and, as a result, will gay marriage more likely become the law of the land? A conservative friend of mine loves the show and will happily quote his favorite lines from each episode. "The show's going to make opposing gay marriage impossible," he says. Needless to say, the Supreme Court's majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas is the more significant event, but popular culture has a way of affirming or undercutting such fiats from our robed masters. In which case, a wildly successful "Queer Eye" probably would help affirm legal recognition for sexual liberty as an elementary right.

Gay men may be more beloved in our culture because of the show, by the miniature degrees of such phenomena, but only in the form of the show's stereotype. Of course some complain (or hope) that because of the stereotype, the show is bad for gays. Which seems to me wrong. In television and other forms of pop culture, the coming and overcoming of stereotypes is the classic arc of recognition and acceptance for racial and ethnic groups. And being treated like an ethnicity is a huge step up for gays. Even if the gay stock character is theatrical and frivolous, he is also stylish, at home in the world, and knowledgeable about romantic issues.

Best of all, he is expressive: The verbal and physical comedy of "Queer Eye" are what make it entertaining, a sugary-sweet diversion. Not that the gay character can't be mean or edgy--just the opposite. Reality shows count on him to be something of a bitch, like Simon (who insists that he's straight) on "American Idol," Richard on the first season of "Survivor," and of course Carson on "Queer Eye."

Most important, it's the gay men on "Queer Eye" who deliver the punchlines. The straight men (so to speak) are the joke. Indeed, little concern has been shown for "Queer Eye"'s stereotyping of heteros as ill-kempt and culturally-deprived--which is just as well, actually, since there is truth to the charge that many hetero men have no idea how to dress or decorate their homes or cook a decent meal and, besides, complaining about stereotypes is generally a wimpy--I did not say gay--thing to do.