Straight Eye for the Consumer Guy

Dan Friedman

The second most obvious trend in television – next to the sudden popularity of so-called ‘Reality’ TV – has been the ubiquity and (qualified) embrace of gay characters. Since Ellen Degeneres came out in 1997 on her sitcom Ellen, there has been a stream of shows featuring homosexuality of different sorts: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Queer as Folk, The Graham Norton Effect, Will and Grace, The L Word; even the late lamented Buffy the Vampire Slayer had the openly lesbian Willow and Tara to help her fight the dark side. It is a queer media moment. Particularly in light of the recent passage, by nine states, of anti-gay marriage amendments, and of an election in which homosexuality proved to be an extremely potent ‘scare’ issue, the question remains: on what terms is homosexuality acceptable, even desirable to the advert-buying public, which, of course, fuels the television economy?

I want to suggest that, rather than gay TV heralding a new era of openness to the diverse forms of sexuality to which we all have access, they have already invited a defensive response, as we have recently seen. It is more than simple ‘backlash,’ however. Just as gay marriage is threatened by a constitutional amendment, so gay TV is threatened by the pendulum of fashion and the advertisers’ loss of interest. Gay TV has its fifteen minutes of novelty-driven fame, but what comes next?

Gay characters on television are being exploited in two ways, neither of which is new and neither of which is particularly liberating.

The first type of exploitation is simple: gay characters are the expendable shock troops of consumer capitalism. The fabulous five on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy are poster children for conspicuous consumption. The show is a voyeuristic gaze at the initiation of ‘straight guys’ into the rules of fashionable food, interior design, clothes and so-called ‘culture,’ previously available only to those who shop: women and queers. There is a large literature of the long history of gays and lesbians serving as priestesses, holy fools, minstrels, and other religious-cultural functionaries in pagan, medieval Christian, African, Native American, and Asian cultures. Now their rôle has been translated: for the worshippers in the church of capitalism, they’re the priests of good taste. This is just another way of window-dressing the education of the consumer: give a man a suit and he’ll wear it for a day, teach him how to shop and he’ll dress up forever.

The beauty of this scheme for the advertisers is that the very people who would carp at this type of indoctrination – people like myself who inveigh against the vicious cycle of production-waste-consumption-waste – are exactly those people who would think twice about criticizing an explicitly ‘Queer’ show. A criticism of this show might feel like, be interpreted as, or be deliberately misconstrued as another ‘straight’ attack on queer culture. Isn’t it homophobic to criticize gay culture, even if “gay culture” is here troped as merely about acquiring the right consumer goods? Who am I to criticize? In any case, such an attack would be a win-win situation for the advertisers and the Bravo network because the controversy would re-kindle interest in the show and bring back viewers. Of course, neither of these institutions is invested in the sexuality and lifestyle the show co-opts -- only in the ratings it draws.

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December 2004

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Dan Friedman

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From previous issues:

Where Left and Right Collide
Dan Friedman

Eye Candy
Michael Shurkin

The Failure of Anti-Despotism
Justin Weitz