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Guest Commentary: What Does ‘Queer Eye’ Say About Gays on TV?

Jan 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Although it has a very hip edge, there is also an underlying sweetness that Carson, Kyan and the gang on Bravo’s smash hit “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” often show for some of their subjects, especially as they get progressively cleaned up and buffed out according to the Queer Eye protocol.
That sweetness has helped the show create an impact far beyond the up-to-the-minute haircuts, fashionable clothes and trendy interiors it provides for its makeover subjects and the fame, huge salary increases and endorsement deals it has meant to the self-proclaimed Fab Five.
This pop phenomenon has also created some misconceptions both about the amount of gay programming on television today and about what it really means when the gay eye is trained on a subject. That is likely to become a lot clearer when the recently announced spinoff “Gal Pals” hits the airwaves.
The show promises to have gay men make over obviously fashion-challenged straight women. If real life is a guideline for the reality of the show, it may add a mean-spirited edge to the makeover madness that has become one of TV’s most popular sub-genres.
First, however, some facts about just how gay TV is today. If you buy into the trend being trumpeted on the covers of national magazines, you might be led to believe that somehow television has become very, very gay. The stories often make sweeping and uncalled-for conclusions. For instance, the cover story in December’s Vanity Fair calls “Friends” the gayest show on television. It calls Chandler, Ross and Joey “three lovably wisecracking girly-boys … who favor pastel neckties, sweater vests and hair products,” and concludes that they seem unaware of their obvious gayness, even as they spend most of their time hanging out at a coffee shop with the girls.
Whether you agree with that assessment, or see the gay influence in straight characters on shows such as “Frasier” and “Sex and the City,” the numbers actually tell a different story. Out of the 674 leading or supporting actors on prime-time broadcast programs, only 11 are gay characters, according to a recent survey by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
That is still good news for GLAAD, even though that number is actually lower than it was two years ago. The fact is there has been a change in perception, which is a positive thing, even if the portrayals-done by straight actors for the most part-are stereotypical and usually fit inside the clearly defined parameters of white, male and affluent.
The “Queer Eye” guys diverged from the norm, at least as depicted on the small screen, because they are actually gay actors. If they do exhibit some stereotypical traits, that’s part of the show’s charm.
It may not be quite as charming when the boys turn an eye on the girls. One wonders whether the producers will have to hunt in the hinterlands to find female subjects who haven’t updated their look for years, have all the wrong clothes in the closets of their ratty apartments and know zippo about being creative in the kitchen and preparing a meal with high-quality ingredients.
If they do find such women, my advice would be to have each one first don a Teflon shield to protect herself from the slings and zings aimed in her direction.
I have many gay friends and they’re terrific, but sometimes some of them can be bitchy about other people’s appearances. Consider my own experience. As a producer in a television newsroom, back in the day when we “gals” usually wore suits, hose and heels to work, I was often subjected to unsolicited scathing fashion reviews from gay colleague “pals.” That hit parade of comments included “Your shoes … what were you thinking?” and, “Your ring … how gauche!” Then there was the haughtily insulting, “That looks like a bellman’s jacket … will you go get my luggage?”
From co-workers who made a special point of delivering their couture verdicts to an otherwise disinterested jury of my peers, it did not add a lot of love to the workplace proceedings. Yet looking back, the entertainment value was clearly there, although it was way too early in the game for me to have come up with the concept of “Gal Pals,” much less “The `L’ Word.”
So even as media buyers discover gays as a desirable, well-educated, affluent demographic-trendsetters with sophisticated tastes poised to influence Middle America-a word of caution. What is trendy today can also go out of fashion. That doesn’t mean being gay will ever go out of style, but attempts to exploit this genre can turn mean and crass, which can set back a lot of the progress made to date.
After all, what is “Queer Eye” really but a sea of blatant product placement, designed to appeal to the average straight guy and his girlfriend or wife? Advertisers have found in these gay men the perfect spokespeople to push their products. They just happen to be the niche flavor of the moment: gay.
So as the hype goes into overdrive with books, more TV specials and even spoofs, buckle your seat belts. What seems to be such a positive thing can turn mean-spirited. And all the hot air being generated could blow out your tires.
Hillary Atkin is a writer-producer based in Los Angeles.