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A Queer Eye on Stereotypes and Ad Revenue: How Gay TV Breaks Ground on Main Street and Madison Avenue


By Ben Patrick Johnson

LOS ANGELES, 1 August 2003 - Does Bravo's new phenomenon, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, flirt almost too boldly (or predictably) with cliché? Of course. But in spite of seeming like yet another outrageous reality-TV exercise, the show has far-reaching social and sociological implications.

Each episode of the series-produced by David Collins and David Metzler, a gay man and a straight man working in tandem- turns on the premise that heterosexual American males are, as a group, lacking in style when it comes to interior design, dress, grooming, cooking and culture. Gay men, the duo posit, are superior in their mastery of these arts.

Fodder for heated debate and endless hours of talk-radio speculation? Of course it is. But it's much easier, on a Tuesday evening at ten o'clock, to sit back on the chintz sofa, tune in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on the Bravo cable network, and go along for the ride, rolling with the Fab Five in their customized black GMC SUV (license plate: "FAB5"-not a "Jimmy", alas) as they descend on the domestic ignorance of a straight man and give his life a makeover, presumably in the course of a single day. With a phalanx of camera crews both leading and trailing, the Queer Eye squadron marches in with all the fervor and commotion of the troops storming the beach at Normandy.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
Kyan Douglas, Ted Allen, Carson Kressley, Jai Rodriquez, Thom Felicia in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
© Photo: Bravo

In the show's first episode, the tiny apartment of a Manhattan artist named (of all things) Butch is emptied of its piles of clothes and stacks of LP records and redecorated into an homage to efficiency, modernity, and designer colors. The kitchen is made useful, the bedroom and living room swapped and reorganized, the bathroom shelved filled with shaving gels and facial scrubs. Butch, meanwhile, is taken on an Eliza Doolittle tour through a designer blue jean store and a styling salon (where his scraggly, long hair is cropped, bleached and appropriately tousled). With his appearance settled, Butch is coached on deportment, through charm lessons and instructions on how to greet patrons and friends at his upcoming art show. (One of the Queer Eye team even snuck off to a graphics press to print up fancy take-away cards promoting Butch's event.) And along the way, he is subjected to no small amount of ribbing and flirtation, especially from Carson Kressley, the show's "fashion savant". But Butch bears up amiably as he is alternately poked at and shoved aside by the team's flood of energy.

Back at his redecorated pad, Butch is wide-eyed at the improvements the show's "Fab Five" have wrought. But there is no time for reflection. There's a quick social manners review with self-proclaimed "culture vulture" Jai Rodriquez, then it's off to Butch's now-gourmet kitchen for a quick how-to on pizza made from lavash and Roma tomatoes. (Ted Allen, the show's food and wine connoisseur, is intent on Butch serving homemade appetizers at his party.).

Finally, it's time for Butch to take center stage. The Queer Eye guys leave, retreating to their "headquarters" to sip cocktails (the show is sponsored by an obscure brand of liqueur) and watch Butch's preparations and art event on closed-circuit television. They whoop and applaud like parents at a child's sporting event, lauding Butch in abstentia for his little successes and admonishing him for his gaffes.

Thanks in part to the team's efforts, Butch's opening is a success. His friends and colleagues are stunned at the changes in his appearance and how he carries himself. Several of the women present ogle him, much to the delight of the voyeuristic Queer Eye crew. Apparently the queer eye and the scrutiny of straight women, at least in downtown Manhattan, respond in ways that are not so disparate.

Across the continent, a few weeks later, a living room full of gay men in West Hollywood, California watch the premiere episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. They respond with repeated cheers and applause. At times it is difficult to hear the show's dialogue track over their comments and laughter.

"I've finally found my show," says one tough-looking, enthusiastic ex-New Yorker at the gathering. "You don't understand--this is a revelation.".

Cheeky, unabashed quips and asides from the cast lend the show an exhilarating freshness. Though the editing and presentation are slick, little of the action appears to be toned-down for the sake of the cameras. And it helps that Queer Eye makes its main home on cable, where speech has historically been freer (and adult situations more permissible) than on the broadcast networks.

Queer Eye's producers do their best to approach their audience on multiple levels. They put on a noisy big-top show while engaging the pathos of both sides of what has long been a broad cultural divide. In the process, Queer Eye runs a certain risk of perpetuating stereotypes-the lisping gay man, the predator, the mincing, bitter cultural aesthete. But the show's title includes a former gay slur, queer, which has been appropriated by the gay political movement as a term of prideful self-identification. Not surprisingly, the show, like its title, speaks from a position of empowerment.

It also helps that each of the program's five gay style "experts" is a credible authority in his own field. While they are certainly colorful-and were surely chosen for this as much as for their expertise-none of them speaks for anyone but himself. Collectively, they don't represent gay men as a whole, any more than Diahann Carroll represented black women when her fictional character Julia appeared on American television in 1968. No one TV program can demonstrate the breadth of a culture-or, in the case of gay men, a culture within a culture. Thankfully, Queer Eye knows better than to pretend to such importance-to do so would be absurd, and poisonous to the show's essential whimsy.

The irony is that, despite any intentions to the contrary, Queer Eye is important. With a dearth of gay voices in the media (as in daily life across the United States), it will be impossible for the American audience not to look at the Queer Eye team as representative of gay men, as they do the fictional characters of the wildly successful Will and Grace.

Not surprisingly, if there is any group that risks being maligned or marginalized by the show, it is heterosexual men. There is an obvious temptation for the show's producers and editors to portray straight men as clueless knuckle-draggers. And in accordance with Queer Eye's format, the volunteer straight guy on each week's broadcast will be shown as incompetent in some of the more intimate aspects of their own affairs. While the Fab Five thus far are more sarcastic than mean-spirited in the treatment of their subject, each of the straight men in the show's first three episodes comes off as a bit of a stooge.

Of course, any concern is academic unless middle America tunes into the show in significant numbers. To the delight of Queer Eye's producers, America is indeed watching. In its initial outing, the heavily-promoted show proved a wise gamble for the Bravo cable network, now part of the NBC television family. Queer Eye scored the channel its highest rating ever for the time period in which it aired, and the network's second highest rating to date. Two days later, NBC made the unprecedented move of re-airing the cable show's premiere episode on its larger broadcast network in the slot following Will and Grace, creating a block of gay-oriented programming. Thus the show has reached beyond a core audience of gay men and is being taken in by a mass viewership, even if the larger tune-in was only based on curiosity.

All this comes amid media criticism that Bravo, formerly a relatively highbrow arts outlet, has being dumbed-down and mainstreamed by NBC since its acquisition. While Queer Eye may be a less esoteric programming choice than a broadcast of Falstaff, it is not exactly mainstream television fare.

Neither is Boy Meets Boy, a gay dating reality series that Bravo programmers are launching on the heels of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. From its on-air promos, Boy Meets Boy promises to be as base and titillating as its straight predecessors The Bachelor and Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?

In the long run, will either of these new Bravo shows maintain a large audience? Good question. If it happens, it will be because the mainstream has moved in the network's direction, and not vice versa. While gay media pundits took it as a blow when plans for a full-time gay cable channel were recently scrapped for lack of financial viability, they took heart in the recent announcement that independent gay feature films are being made available on several of the nation's largest pay-per-view outlets, whose profits are subscriber-based.

Of course, for a commercial network, ratings are only one measure of success. The other do-or-die element is advertising revenue. Will brands besides Queer Eye's alcohol sponsor flock to the show to get in on its hip cachet? The answer appears to be yes. It was announced this week that Orbitz, a big player in the online travel business, is buying time on Queer Eye to air commercials targeted specifically at the show's core audience, gay consumers with disposable income. The spots are believed to be the first of their kind by a major advertiser, and represent a breakthrough as significant as NBC's airing of Queer Eye in prime time.

Whatever criticism may be heaped at the doorstep of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, two things are clear: the show is merciless fun, and, whether or not it intends to, will change the face of television.

Ben Patrick Johnson is a writer and free-lance journalist in Los Angeles. His latest novel, In and Out in Hollywood was published by Palari Publishing, Richmond.

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