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The New Gay Minstrels

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  • Robert Sterling
    Please send as far and wide as possible. Thanks, Robert Sterling Editor, The Konformist http://www.konformist.com The New Gay Minstrels Noy Thrupkaew, The
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 27 1:31 PM
      Please send as far and wide as possible.

      Robert Sterling
      Editor, The Konformist

      The New Gay Minstrels
      Noy Thrupkaew, The American Prospect
      August 7, 2003

      They're our latest superheroes, expertly coiffed and outfitted, ready
      to blaze a path of good hygiene and high fashion through the Animal
      Houses of America. Grooming guru Kyan Douglas, fashion maven Carson
      Kressley, food expert Ted Allen, interior designer Thom Filicia
      and "culture vulture" Jai Rodriguez are the gay miracle workers on
      Bravo TV's new series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Otherwise known
      as the "Fab 5," they barrel into a different straight guy's home each
      week to perform a brilliant, bitchily witty exorcism of their
      victims' pleated pants, prune butter, nose hair and nasty underpants,
      just in time for some special event like a wedding proposal. It's too
      bad that they can't clean up the god-awful mess that airs just one
      hour before, that dating-show monstrosity known as Boy Meets Boy.

      Bravo TV debuted its two queer-themed shows within weeks of each
      other, with Queer Eye arriving first. Boy Meets Boy, the first gay
      dating show ever, was originally conceived as a Bachelor-esque trifle
      starring one eligible "leading man" who would choose a boyfriend from
      among 15 suitors. But the producers began worrying that a show
      featuring only gay people couldn't hold a wider audience, so they
      decided to add a twist: A number of the suitors would actually be
      straight, and if one straight man could fool the leading man into
      selecting him, the "gay-acting" straight man could win $25,000. No
      one else (the leading man, the other potential boy toys) -- except
      the audience, of course -- would know. After each contestant is
      booted, the producers tell us his sexual orientation.

      The twist has angered many, including leading man James, a 32-year-
      old executive. He learned of the producers' deception only partway
      through the series. "They told me they put the twist in there because
      they wanted straight people to watch," he told MSNBC. "I said to
      them, 'Well, you've played gay people as entertainment for straight
      people. Of course they're going to watch.'"

      Indeed, the presence of a straight man seems to offer an excuse for
      heterosexual viewers to test out their "gaydar," their ability to
      discern queer from straight. The producers flatter themselves in the
      show's intro by touting Boy as an edifying show that creates "a world
      where gay is the norm and straight men must stay in the closet. . . .
      Will boundaries be crossed? Can stereotypes be shattered?" As if the
      show's contrivances can undo power dynamics and norms in an instant,
      or become anything more than a crass guessing game -- one
      that "trivializes what gays and lesbians are forced to go through
      every day," one of my friends recently remarked. "In 36 states in
      this country," he added, "it's legal to fire someone based on his or
      her sexual orientation. On this show, role-playing is done for 'fun'
      or for a cash prize -- the opposite of what a community has to do to
      even survive, to avoid the risk of being fired or even gay bashed."

      This dichotomy is heartbreakingly illustrated by suitor Jason, a shy,
      heavy-lidded young man who is also a combat systems instructor for
      the military. That's right: Don't ask, don't tell. And when Jason's
      sexual orientation is revealed at the end of the show, he's
      effectively told the whole damn world. What will become of him? Will
      the U.S. military drop-kick him right out of a job? None of the other
      suitors, or the mimbo that is James, seems to have noticed or cared
      that Jason might be committing career immolation right in front of
      them. His decision to come out is extraordinary -- especially in
      contrast to the rest of this deceptive show. Here we have a gaggle of
      straight men with everything to gain by lying through their gay
      minstrel act -- and a gay man who has everything to lose because of
      his astonishing, honest insistence on being exactly who he is. Well,
      maybe that's not exactly right. Perhaps some shame would come along
      with the prize money. And maybe Jason will lose his job, no small
      problem, but gain something priceless. As he said of a young man's
      limited prospects in his native Mississippi, "That was the only real
      way out for me, to join the military." Perhaps appearing on Boy is
      his way out -- in more ways than one -- of an escape hatch that led

      Some have argued that the Fab 5 of Queer Eye should break out as
      well -- from the stereotype of the hysterical, prissybritches,
      shopaholic gay man. The Fab 5 are indeed fabulous. But isn't it
      disturbing to have this stereotype, "positive" though it may be,
      stand in for a diverse population? Is the Fab 5 anything other than
      hilariously bitchy and culturally on point? I personally feel
      delivering cultural shrewdness with a soupçon of snark is a lofty and
      laudable goal, but concede the validity of the question. Are gay men
      just the comic relief, the zany, artistic freakshows straight people
      bring home to make their lives aesthetically pleasing -- and remove
      before the gay folks start doing something aesthetically displeasing,
      like talking about their rights or kissing one another? Is the Fab 5
      the new queer help?

      Queer Eye did seem to flirt with these problems at the beginning. The
      Fab 5's members were nearly indistinguishable at first, emitting
      nonstop shrieked quips and throwing around a mind-boggling array
      of "product." "Whoa, nelly!" critics cried. But as the series has
      developed, each expert is bringing his own knowledge and delightful
      personality to the show. The "Jack factor" (of Will and Grace's over-
      the-top Jack) is mostly confined to hilarious fashion expert Carson
      Kressley, for whom the world is a scratching post. "Do you get all
      your clothes at Home Depot?" he asks innocently. On seeing a
      girlfriend's trashy outfit, Kressley snaps, "There's a hooker in
      Trenton who wants her shoes back."

      The others are more recognizably human (if exceptionally handsome).
      Kyan Douglas displays a warm compassion, urging one man to donate
      hair to a charity that makes wigs for sick children. As the interior
      designer, Thom Filicia gets a bit frazzled by his daunting work. Upon
      surveying one mountain man's house, he announces, "It's like a
      kitchen hell in here. . . . It looks, actually, like you're nuts."
      Then he turns it into a chic, livable space. Jai Rodriguez is
      sprightly if underused, assisting with the social niceties, and Ted
      Allen offers whole menus for the straight guy to make -- some of
      which are sadly out of touch with the less highfalutin' diners.

      "They hate my foie gras," Allen moans, as guests choke down their

      Allen blew $150 on the liver alone, which raises another issue: the
      innumerable product placements, the insane spending sprees required
      to transform the frog princes and the seeming conflation of good
      (gay) taste with rampant consumerism.

      "Hmm," said my straight male viewing companion, rubbing his
      improperly shaved face. "I'll do it. I would love to have all that
      nice stuff, but I don't have enough money. They pay for everything,

      Although the money the makeover artists seem to spend is indeed
      rather shocking, they take care to enhance whatever sartorial,
      culinary or cultural strengths their hapless straight victims might
      have. "It's not a makeover show," Douglas has said. "It's a make
      better show." This is no gay My Fair Lady, with a brutal takeover of
      someone's identity. No, there's not enough time for that. Instead,
      the Fab 5 weaves its members' techniques in with each straight
      subject's lifestyle. "In keeping with his basic look and his basic
      attitude," marvels Douglas at one transformation. "But it's, again,
      with style."

      Perhaps that's where Queer Eye finds some substance. The Fab 5's main
      goal isn't a tit-for-tat subjection of straight men to an oppressive,
      anonymous male gaze -- one with which gay men and straight women
      alike are too often familiar. No, the experts are trying to improve a
      man's relationship to his family and, more often than not, to his
      wife or serious girlfriend. "Where's Lisa going to fit in?" asks
      Douglas, reminding straight guy Tom that he has to think of his
      girlfriend's needs if he's going to ask her to move in. Kressley
      adds, "Make a space for Lisa, not just in your heart but in your
      home." The scene then cuts to designer Filicia, who's hurling an
      atrocious piece of furniture out the door.

      It's a little wrenching to watch gay men -- so often maligned by
      conservatives as immoral, commitment-phobic, sex-crazed affronts to
      nature and marriage -- act as raunchy, hilarious fairy godmothers and
      relationship counselors to commitment-seeking straight people, and
      with such genuine warmth. Family values, indeed. In the last episode,
      the team's members threw themselves into their most ambitious
      project: helping a young man craft a marriage proposal, down to every
      perfect candle, orchid and jaw-dropping dessert. Straight guy John,
      sitting with his benefactors in the lush, Moroccan-themed tent where
      he would propose, was overcome. Adam's apple bobbing, he ducked his
      head as the team patted him comfortingly. "Oh my God, it's all right,
      don't cry, we're glad you like it," the experts soothed. John raised
      his head and his wineglass and said, "To all you all." It was a
      lovely moment, a recognition of the gay men's efforts and emotional
      investment, a realization that the Fab 5 had become inextricably
      intertwined with -- indeed, had made possible -- one of the most
      significant events in his life.

      As for the actual proposal, the experts watched it unfold on a TV in
      their chic "loft." The men were breathless, fanning themselves,
      holding hands. And when girlfriend Tina struggled out a "yes," they
      screamed and jumped up in delight. The moment would prove cruelly
      ironic not 12 hours later, when President Bush declared his
      opposition to gay marriage with the announcement that his lawyers
      were drafting legislation strictly defining marriage as a union
      between a man and a woman. This came after news of a growing backlash
      against gay rights, perhaps prompted by the recent Supreme Court
      ruling against a Texas anti-sodomy law, or, conservatives speculated,
      the increased visibility of queer people in culture and

      So the five men who had wholeheartedly orchestrated this elaborate
      marriage proposal would face the possible banning of their own
      potential unions, just a day after their show aired. Perhaps they
      wouldn't want to get married, perhaps they would reject it. But
      social conservatives want to make sure that they, and every other
      lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered person, won't even have the
      chance to choose.

      In the end, the show has situated its dream team somewhere between
      servants and superheroes. The team watches the success of its efforts
      from another room, not privy to reaping the benefits firsthand. The
      Fab 5 lives in a gay world, coming to straights' rescue when
      summoned. The opening sequence has each of the men, living on Gay
      Street, snapping open his cell phone to reveal the glowing Queer Eye
      insignia. It's a straight-guy emergency! As the team struts down
      Straight Street, the men are magically transformed. "You came into my
      life / and my world never looked so bright," goes the techno song on
      the soundtrack. And it's true: The Fab 5 players work with a scathing
      yet warm professionalism that is a joy to behold. But at the end of
      the day, must they return to their Batcave, their chic servants'
      quarters? Perhaps they want each protégé to shine on his own. Perhaps
      they prefer the "gay world" of the loft, with its tasteful decor and
      brightly colored cocktail drinks. This is all fine and good. But
      deliberately boxing them out of full access to all the rooms in
      the "straight" house is not. After their work banishing the horrors
      from straight men's closets, it seems especially wrong to ask the
      dream teamers to adjourn to theirs.

      After all, though Queer Eye has its historical "adversaries" meeting
      in a safe, product-swaddled world, there's no mistaking the goodwill,
      camaraderie and respect that the show's participants feel toward one
      another by the end. The men bond over the intimacies that only fast
      friends share -- handling skanky undergarments, hugging
      enthusiastically, forcing one another to try on hideous outfits.
      (Yes, it cuts both ways. Straight guy Tom made Kressley put on an
      embarrassing swimsuit.) There's a "we are family" vibe, a feeling of
      interconnection that is only heightened at moments like John's
      tearful toast and the Fab 5's joy over his proposal. Sure, the show
      presents a cartoony little utopia -- but it's a half-subversive one.
      Underneath the makeover veneer and the celebration of straight
      families is the suggestion of something else: the possibility of new
      friendships and the realization that with freedom, family can take
      many forms. As Kyan Douglas might say, it's our world, only better.

      Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect contributing editor. She saw Kyan Douglas
      walking down the street in New York two weekends ago but was so
      starstruck that she froze like a bunny in the headlights.
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