By cable standards—no, make that by Bravo standards—last week's premiere of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was a smash hit. According to Nielsen, precisely 1.666 million viewers between the ages 25 and 54 watched the first show. This is less than the "audience" for one edition of USA Today, but it's safe to say Queer Eye
is a big hit at what is a small network owned by a giant company, NBC.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a column wondering why there was no gay channel, given that, by some estimates, there are 10 million to 14 million gay men and women and, as a group, gay households have a median household income over $55,000 a year. Plenty of disposable income there. Many readers, gay or not, wrote to agree, but it's the ones who disagreed that I remember now. They said, essentially: Let us be who we are.
I think about that now because Queer Eye
by a straight guy does neither type of guy—gay or straight—a great favor, at least based on the first two episodes.
The five gay helpers, who try to bring style and hipness to hetero guys, are presented here more or less like the Monkees, racing about town, snapping off witty, snotty little quips. They literally run errands, and, when they're not, they fling insults at their hetero fashion victim. "Do you buy all of your clothes at Home Depot?" style consultant Carson Kressley asked the first heterosexual, whose life the gay guys are going to save, a mess of a man named Brian Schepel (whose nickname, believe it or not, is Butch).
The hetero men, in the episodes I've seen so far, range from a Neanderthal (that's Butch) to a nebbish (Adam Zalta). "Let's talk about shaving, or the lack thereof," says Kyan Douglas, the grooming consultant to Adam, who at the beginning of his second-episode makeover resembles a giant hairball. His friends and family remark that Adam rarely buys clothes or shoes or gets a haircut. "He looks like a clown," says his wife.
Score one for equality. The men on both sides of the sexual divide are presented as stereotypes on this show.
Who would think otherwise? Television is comfortable with stereotypes because nuance is too difficult to explain to tens of millions of viewers, or even 1.666 million. Admirably, television does present gay characters all over the dial now, but most of them never stray too far from what non-gays expect them to be, from Queer Eye to Will & Grace.
The stereotype is more politely presented: We are now supposed to laugh with gay characters as they laugh about
hetero characters. But, if the gay men in Queer Eye
seemed less obviously gay, the show wouldn't have a contextual leg to stand on.
The difference is, now they're the bosses, the superior beings. When Billy Crystal played television's first gay character on Soap
nearly three decades ago, he was gay-sassy, but he was also there to receive, without many defenses, the taunts of the non-gay society around him.
Watching Queer Eye, it's sadder to view the heterosexual men, who aren't presented so much as stereotypes as human urban blight. The ones we've met so far would be far better off if they did things like cut their hair, trim their eyebrows, pick better wallpaper and fill in missing linoleum tiles on their floors.
Indeed, Bravo's heteros could have had very similar makeovers if they had just hired a couple of cleaning ladies and a handyman for several hours.
The subtle shift, I guess, represents improvement that is as much the result of putting gay characters on television as it is the triumph of marketing to men generally. GQ,
after all, was once considered mainly a men's fashion magazine, with good articles. Now it's a mainstream read.
In the trendoid press, the kind of fashion-forward straight man who wouldn't need five gay guys to help him dress is now being dubbed a "metrosexual." He's a guy who gets a manicure, knows designer names, can match a tie with a shirt and apparently even puts his clothes away. Pretty clearly, it's that guy who Bravo hopes will watch this makeover series and laugh at the new stereotype: the slob male.
Somehow, that's progress..
Bednarski may be reached at email@example.com