"Hegemonic Masculinity Affirmed: Representations of Gender in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" by Irén Annus
Irén Annus is Associate Professor of American Studies and member of the Gender Studies Research Group at the University of Szeged, Hungary. Her research interests include the construction and representation of social identities with a focus on gender, religion and race/ethnicity. Email:
Reality TV represents a new type of popular television program that has significantly re-shaped the Anglophone mediascape in recent years. Of the numerous sub-genres, lifestyle television has gained such recognition that a variety of cable channels have been launched with programming devoted to re-tailoring one’s body, wardrobe, home, garden, and eating and spending habits, among other things. As the wealth of literature on the topic indicates, the shows on offer are connected to a broad array of contemporary cultural issues, from identity through consumerism to discourses of power.
This study investigates issues of representation in relation to gender in one of these series, the Emmy Award-winning US series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (from here on Queer Eye), through a close reading of a selection of episodes from the first two seasons, which were broadcast in 2010 on Hungary’s deko channel. The paper proposes that (1) this polysemic program is structured around the textual logic of biological essentialism as a result of which (2) the gay experts on the show capitalize on traditional stereotypical traits of femininity assigned to women and gays in contemporary western societies, (3) which they are able to subvert by introducing homo-normative discourses as the dominant normative discourse of the show, in the course of which, (4) by establishing a synthetic friendship with the straight subject, (5) they are eventually able to make him over, or as they say, “make him better,” within their perceived hetero-normative logic. Ultimately, however, they challenge neither dominant discourses of hetero-normativity nor the essentialist cultural logic that lies beneath. Instead, they rely on these as they engage in re-negotiating gay masculinity and re-positioning it within the gender hierarchy, as an outcome of which they contribute to the affirmation of hegemonic masculinity.
As makeover and lifestyle programs are concerned with changing one’s habits, they operate by influencing the perception and representation of the self – ultimately one’s self-identity. Underlying assumptions that guide the investigation are late modern or postmodern understandings of identity. Self-identity, as Stuart Hall defines it, is “a construction, a process never completed” (4), constituted at the intersection of “points of temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practices construct for us” (6). Anthony Giddens argues that identities are also discursively constructed, in the process of which, he warns, we must be aware of the practice of self-tailoring that is an outcome of reflexive monitoring of action on the part of the agent. He concludes that self-identity “is not something that is just given […] but something that has to be routinely created and sustained in the reflexive activities of the individual” (52). Reflexivity is a fundamental practice through which the self is able to connect to the social environment. In fact, Richard Jenkins maintains that identity is “the field upon which the individual and the collective meet and meld” (17), and he therefore claims that identities are constituted at the intersection of internal and external definitions of the self.
As individuals occupy a plurality of changing positions, contemporary identity constructions are fragmented and constantly in flux and, therefore, essentialist and homogeneous categorizations of identity are no longer viable.
Contemporary scholars such as Mike Featherstone propose that lifestyle choices nowadays reflect “individuality, self-expression and a stylistic consciousness” (83) that are also expressed through consumerism. As a result, makeover shows are also elaborately connected to consumer culture and, in subtle ways, to advertising. Featherstone sees a potentially democratizing power in consumerism in post-modernity that allows for considering lifestyle choices as contributing to a shift to post-class and post-gender societies. I maintain, however, that categories reflective of certain social constructions and identities, including class, race/ethnicity, gender, age, etc., still prevail. In fact, they also appear as constitutive forces on various makeover TV programs, all of which have strong normalizing, or as Tania Lewis claims, “regulating” tendencies (Fears 287). In the following, this study is concerned with one of these elements: the gender dimension of the program Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
2. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
Queer Eye was among the most widely viewed lifestyle programs in the US during the first two seasons it was aired, between July 2003 and April 2005 (Kaye 103). While Jeremy Kaye dates the beginning of male conduct books “teaching eager young men how to be dandies” to the Renaissance (113), modern domestic advice books – offering suggestions not only on individual conduct but also on a wide range of issues tied to the home and family life – were shaped during the Victorian period. In the US, this era was marked by the development of modern industrial production and the attendant emergence of a new middle class that advocated a gendered division of labor and, consequently, the model of separate spheres. The home was regarded as the female realm: women were primarily viewed as mothers and wives, the guardian angels of their family (Woloch 114). Accordingly, they were also entrusted with the task of creating the proper home, which included interior design, proper home furnishing and decorating, along with the plan and maintenance of the ornamental garden (Stilgoe 22-48). Guided by the general belief of the age in environmental determinism, the physical home was assigned a central place as it was thought to shape the moral character of its residents. Moreover, the home was also viewed as a distinct site for indoctrinating Christian values and behavior and for displaying proper manners, refined taste and culture; it was a harmonious milieu that distinguished the up-and-coming middle class from the rest of society (Leavitt 22-39, Major 21).
Women were educated on issues of domesticity and proper womanhood, such as how to dress fashionably, how to run a modern household, how to educate and take care of their children, and how to create a refined home and stylish garden. This was achieved through various advice and design books, such as Catherine Beecher’s “Domestic Economy, the housewife’s bible for the antebellum period” (Clinton 46), and women’s magazines, such as Ladies Magazine, which mushroomed during the era. The authors who contributed to these publications were also typically women, especially when regarding specifically female activities. Well-known domestic advisors included Sarah Hale, Catherine Beecher, Caroline Howard Gilman, and Catharine Sedgwick (Woloch 113-119). The realms of the home and the family, constituted as the women’s space, eventually served as areas within which modern female cultural capital could emerge.
The Victorian understanding of the home as a haven of morality and a place of beauty and tranquility has changed in various ways. One important set of alterations came about in the mid-twentieth century when the home appeared “as a model of health, efficiency, and ‘scientific’ motherhood” (Attwood 97) and was also transformed into a place for male leisure activities, due to which the DIY movement developed (Lewis, Smart Living 33). The home was a re-gendered place, a transformed site that displayed male presence and identity more prominently than before. Resulting from the consequent emergence of domestic masculinity, domestic advice programs in areas such as DIY, gardening and gourmet cooking came into being, typically employing male experts and targeting a male audience.
Makeover and lifestyle shows so popular nowadays have emerged out of these programs, in which the experts, argues Lewis (Smart Living) – chefs, lifestyle gurus, home improvement and gardening authorities, etc. – often grounded their advice in common sense knowledge, therefore introducing what she calls “popular expertise” (2), which has replaced former understandings of the expert as a specialist, in possession of some specialized knowledge. The new experts were often men, but they did not defy overall female dominance in the area of domestic advice in terms of the experts or the audience, as illustrated by the brand name and empire of Martha Stewart, who “has captured the public’s imagination and achieved new heights in the proliferation of domestic advice” (Leavitt 197).
This has been challenged most recently by a number of makeover series launched in Anglophone cultures with gay men as lifestyle experts, including Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan in a number of interior design programs, such as the British Trading Up and the Canadian Home Heist, and fashion advisers Gok Wan in How to Look Good Naked and Mark Montano in Ten Years Younger and While You Were Out, to mention only a few. Of these, the most popular formula was introduced in Queer Eye, with five gay experts offering an overall transformation to a straight guy, representing “a full frontal capitalist assault on traditional hetero-masculine gender performance” (Clarkson 235), while also providing “the most positive representation of gay men in US television” (Hart 242). By bestowing a “new acceptance and appreciation for gay men”, argues Kylo-Patrick Hart (250), the program not only constructed a space within which gay and straight were constituted as equals, but gays were consistently depicted as superior to heterosexuals.
This makeover program was broadcast on Bravo TV in the US from mid-2003 to mid-2007, soon with spin-off series launched in Britain and Australia. The initial formula of the show guaranteed its instant success: a team of five experts, Carson Kressley, Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia and Jai Rodriguez, representing five major areas typically addressed in lifestyle programs – fashion, food/wine, grooming, interior design, and culture – enter the life of a messy straight guy to transform both him and his home completely by the end of the show.
Each episode follows the same format. In the opening, we see black and white images of the five experts – commonly referred to as the Fab 5 – engaged in their regular, everyday jobs until they receive a call. They immediately drop their work and, as if they were “secret style agents” (Papacharissi and Fernback 362), don their dark shades and dash off to complete their next assignment, which is the invasion of the home of yet another sloppy straight man. On their way there, as they head through New York City in a huge black SUV, they are briefed on their subject. They then introduce him to the viewers as well by quickly running through his profile at his house and head straight for the door to raid and investigate the home and its owner.
Through the underlying text of the opening, the subtle marginalization of the straight world begins: the home is represented as a crime scene and the straight man to be made over as a criminal, while his female relations – either the girlfriend, the wife, a sister or the mother – appear as the victims who ended up contacting the Fab 5, as if the police, desperately requesting their help to make their loved one over. Inherent in their plea is the public admission of their failure to act as effective agents capable of introducing any change in the appearance and lifestyle of the subject. This subtext therefore constitutes the gay guys as perceived to be almighty, powerful gurus, whose appearance on the premises will convince their man to change his ways. Therefore, the Fab 5 are placed in an ultimate power position within the show, representing gay expertise and influence as superior to the hetero world – both to male choices and to female influence. In this context, I would argue, their sexuality is essential to their role as experts in the program.
The rest of the show confirms this logic: women disappear from the program, symbolically relinquishing the power to domesticate the straight guy to the Fab 5, and will return only for the final reveal at the very end of the episode, once the Fab 5 have finished their job and left the premises. The straight guy is represented as obedient, always subjecting himself to the advice of these experts, who escort him to various shops and sites of his transformation, including a hairdresser’s, a manicurist’s and a massage salon. His body is being made over in parallel with his house: by the time they arrive home, it is cleaned up and re-furbished. After the reveal of the transformed home, the transformed body is divulged as the straight guy puts on a casual fashion show, presenting his new look: his fresh wardrobe and improved style. Then he receives even more grooming advice on how to shave, how to fix his hair, or what facial cream to apply, followed by a cooking class on how to prepare something quickly to impress the guests who will gather for the reveal that evening. He displays his new body and reality then, as he returns to his regular hetero life, friends and family, already a regulated, normalized guy. The makeover is guided by the underlying purpose of transforming the straight guy into a proper, youthful, fashionable, sexy, middle-class metropolitan male, in keeping with the desires of women – as conceived by the Fab 5.
The closing section of the show is a follow-up surveillance. After the Fab 5 have said their emotional good-byes to the straight guy, they return to their high-rise New York City loft, where they monitor how well he is observing their rules. The very last images capture how the newly styled guy celebrates his transformation: usually he throws a party and toasts the Fab 5, thanking them for their patient guidance and superb expertise. This is enacted as if a rite of passage, marking the end of his brief interface with the Fab 5 and the beginning of a new phase in his life as a proper straight guy.
3.The Queer Eye: Homo-normativity in lifestyle expertise
Similarly to makeover shows in general, such as What not to Wear and House Invaders, this program capitalizes on “normative female cultural forms” (Firth et al. 477) that have also been listed among the stereotypical traits associated with male homosexuality. The series reverts to hetero-normative logic by transforming this gay stigma into a virtue, based on which gay experts are constituted as naturally (Gorman-Murray 230) stylish, sensitive, cultured and artistic, born with exquisite taste in the culinary arts as well. These portrayals utilize essentialist logic to frame the male hierarchy that is created in the program, within which gay earns fame and straight is shamed. In order to achieve this, the show exploits the female cultural capital that has been accumulated within the area of domesticity, while by assigning primacy to the gay expertise, it is also able to constitute homo-normativity as the dominant discourse of the series. Homo-normativity is conceptualized as referring to a form of politics that, on the one hand, presents homosexuality as the norm, while, on the other, it “does not contest dominant hetero-normative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them” (Papacharissi and Fernback, 354).
The show capitalizes further on the essentialist mode of representation in terms of presumed sexuality and sexual dynamics. Some authors note that a striking feature of lifestyle programs is the “ungendering of the expertise” (Lewis, Smart Living 6), whereas others observe that the presenters’ sexuality is “suspended” (Frith et al. 480). Hannah Frith et al. elaborate on the relevance of this in relation to gay hosts in their analysis of the success of lifestyle expert Gok Wan in How to Look Good Naked, a makeover series that focuses on making women feel good about themselves. They find that Wan is accepted in the position of a facilitator in the show as it has effectively “reconstructed his gay male identity into a castrated, context-free configuration, which not only renders him harmless but also enables him to be grafted seamlessly as a supporter and adviser into the heterosexual world” (481). Women feel free to confide in him because he is represented as “sex-less”, and therefore harmless to their sexuality, and thus they can trust him with their body, even naked, a situation which would be “perhaps culturally unimaginable (at least for the present) if the host was a straight man or a lesbian” (Frith et al. 482).
Based on this, one may argue that Queer Eye, thus, should have employed “sex-less” lesbians as experts, but this is not a realistic suggestion as this show operates within a very strict cultural logic. Within this logic, the rather negative stereotypical image of lesbians – “often perceived as masculine, independent, aggressive and sexually deviant” (Brown and Groscup 160) – does not match the anticipated image of the new, sensitive, flamboyant and stylish lifestyle experts. Moreover, this logic prefers men and masculinity over women and femininity; indeed, David Collins and Michael Williams, the openly gay producers of the show – even if unconsciously – were probably more keen on advancing the socio-cultural position of gays than that of women. And, certainly, this possible undercurrent is captured by Kaye who summarizes the opinion of the show in the mainstream press as “a breakthrough for gay liberation” (104).
Therefore, I argue that the constitution of gay sexuality is an indispensable element of How to Look Good Naked as well as of Queer Eye. In fact, in its very title, by manipulating a set of sexual and cultural binary oppositions, Queer Eye assures the American audience that their straight guy, representing the hetero-normalcy dominant outside of the show, is void of sexual temptation, illusion, and inappropriate conduct, a fear that would be much more difficult to achieve with female experts on the scene. In the program, this is achieved through the constitution of an uneven gay representation: on the one hand, the presenters conceal their gay sexuality and identity, while, on the other, they overemphasize the character traits based on which they claim to be in possession of the cultural capital that places them in the position of the expert, a powerful knowledgeable agent. In order to stress the latter, they at times include gay comments or inside jokes, but are careful never to exceed the perceived limits of heterosexual good taste.
It is at the intersection of these that the dominant framework of homo-normativity is constructed, and it is within this that the experts operate on the show. Theirs is the dominant view and discourse: they strongly criticize the “Neanderthal” (Allen et al. 3) straight guys for not fitting into the hetero-normative environment, and they create a homo-normative context, within which the inventive changes and corrections can be best achieved. This is actually highlighted through the unstated but obvious fact that the women around these messy guys were unable to groom them within the hetero-normative world, and, therefore, the superior gay expert and his homo-normativity become the key to the overall transformation.
This is perhaps best depicted in the closing scene where the Fab 5 observe the actions of the transformed straight guy, first on his own, then returning to his friends and family, as if re-born in the midst of everyone’s joy and admiration. While they, as lifestyle gods, are watching these scenes through surveillance cameras “in panoptical manner” (Papacharissi and Fernback 360) from their smart loft in a Manhattan high-rise, they freely comment, evaluate, and pass judgment on the straight world, both male and female, and celebrate their achievements with a final triumphal clink of champagne glasses there.
4. The Straight Guy: Hetero-normativity restored
Besides presenting themselves as the all-powerful lifestyle experts, the Fab 5 also gain access to the straight guy. They are able to win his trust and willingness to cooperate by establishing a synthetic friendship with him. This concept is a re-working of Firth et al.’s notion of synthetic sisterhood, which they use to characterize the relationship between gay presenter Gok Wan and the female makeover subjects in How to Look Good Naked (477). They employ this concept first introduced (by McRobbie and Garber) to describe the false, short-term friendship that is established between key figures in the show. Similarly, the brief but very intense friendship between the Fab 5 and the straight guy within the homo-normative reality of the show establishes the human factor through which cooperation between them and ensuing straight transformation are made possible.
Their purpose – as the Fab 5 put it in the Introduction to their lifestyle advice book published in 2004 under the same title as the show – is to offer a new perspective to men: “A queer ‘eye’ doesn’t mean a queer look. It’s a point of view, a receptiveness to looking at what works and what doesn’t, instead of just accepting things as they are. It’s an openness to what’s stylish and fun” (Allen et al. 3). In the course of re-tailoring the straight messy guy, therefore, they teach him self-reflexivity (Lewis, Fears), transform experiences in the boutique or the hairdresser’s from being emasculating to liberating, in the process of which they are also creating an educated consumer. The straight subject is trained to embrace proper – in this context, middle-class – style and taste and to engage in social and cultural etiquette and propriety.
This signifies an important turn in masculinity, as discussed by Jay Clarkson, who argues that contemporary masculinity is defined in terms of consumption since “the quest for physical consumption replaces the need for brute force” (239). More specifically, he proposes that Queer Eye in fact “re-idealizes masculinity as metro-sexual” (252), structuring the makeover of the straight guy “on a metro-sexual consumer culture” (Papacharissi and Fernback 352). The possibility of metro-sexual transformation already emerges with the Fab 5’s choice of the straight guy: he tends to be young, white, lower middle-class, and urban, most likely from New York or another East Coast city. And although he cannot, in every possible way, be transformed into what Mark Simpson first defined in 1994 as a metro-sexual man – “a single young man with a high disposable income, living or working in the city (because that’s where all the best shops are), [who] is perhaps the most promising consumer market of the decade” – the Fab 5 insist on making the straight guy aware that “‘unmanly’ passions [such as shopping or getting a manicure] are in fact manly” (Simpson). The straight guy is re-programmed as a good consumer and re-born as a fashionable, nicely groomed, sexy, gentle man, especially appealing to women as well as pleasing to everyone else around him.
The transformation of the male space reflects similar features: the new home is often characterized by adjectives such as masculine, urban, modern, chic, functional, organized, and orderly, but also warm, welcoming and comfortable. Moreover, it is often emphasized that the revived home is inviting for women as well; in fact, sometimes the makeover experience closes with a new cohabitation or marriage proposal by the straight guy. This indicates that the re-furbished homes reflect mainstream society’s hetero-normative expectations as well: they are re-made to reflect “the conflation of family and home” (Gorman-Murray 231), reinforcing the cultural norm of patriarchal family model and “hetero-models of cohabitation” (Gorman-Murray 233), expressed in monogamous commitment and partnered cohabitation. The private space, thus, is devoid of elements of gay domesticity or any challenges to mainstream norms and expectations.
The lifestyle transformation, therefore, does not challenge the hetero-normative reality of the straight guy. Some scholars, such as Zizi Papacharissi and Jan Fernback, consider the homo-normativity in the show as a form of “veneer” (358), and indeed, underneath, the straight guy is not challenged in his hetero-normativity – only in the way it is enacted. The Fab 5 drag their subject, stuck in his time capsule, into contemporary realities, modernizing and updating his behaviors and attitudes so that he can enjoy greater success within the hetero-normative realities: he is trained to fit into the upscale, dynamic, fashionable cosmopolitan world.
5. The Queer and the Straight: Hegemonic masculinity affirmed
According to Lewis, “[a]n important trajectory … in the history of popular advice around the self and the home has been the ongoing dialogue and negotiation between the boundaries and norms of masculine and feminine culture and identity” (Smart Living 45-46). Besides straight men and women, some of the more recent lifestyle programs like Queer Eye also engage gays in this negotiation, adding a new dimension to the gendering of domesticity and attendant changes in gender hierarchy. Representing the gay world in the series in relation to the straight world in terms of the basic dichotomy of male and female offers an insight into these changes.
The nature of gay representation in the Anglophone media has received increased attention in recent years. Queer Eye seems to be characterized by what Paul Fejos observes of gay identities depicted on American TV. He argues that gay masculinity is presented as primarily “young, white, Caucasian, preferably with a well-muscled, smooth body, handsome face, good education, professional job, and high income” (Avila-Saavedra 8). One may regard perhaps the least central figure of the Fab 5, Jai Rodriguez, the expert on culture, as an exception to this because he is of Hispanic descent. However, since the US Census of 2000, Hispanics can officially be regarded as white – and Rodriguez can be easily classified as such because of his appearance and character. Fejos’ claim, therefore, applies to our show as well. Actually, it is supported further by the fact that representations of other gays, lesbians, or groups with other alternative sexual preference were missing completely in the parts under examination. This feature may be explained by underlying assumptions about gender relations of power. The uneven gender sensitivity reflected in the program is indicative of the extent to which the show seems to work within a subtext through which “queer sexism”, to use James Ward’s phrase (2000), may be detected insofar as Queer Eye is characterized by the central position of Fejos’ white gay guys – obviously one of privilege – and by a lack of consideration of other gender or sexual groups within society.
The Fab 5 can fully dominate the show because of their expertise in domesticity – something that they achieve through the mobilization of essentialist categories that assign presumed feminine traits to the gay man. This is in line with what Guillermo Avila-Saavedra observes about gay identities on American TV inasmuch as they reinforce “traditional constructions of femininity” (2009, 19). While these constructions were used to contribute to the negative gay stereotype in the past, the Fab 5 in Queer Eye manage to subvert it and re-constitute it as a virtue – one that was initially connected to women, as was the cultural capital that evolved out of it in the field of lifestyle and domestic advice. The series, therefore, does not exceed traditional essentialist logic; instead, it exploits and confirms it. The change the program propagates remains within that logic and signifies a manipulation of femininity to achieve a shift of cultural capital in order to advance gays at the expense of women. Queer Eye is a show that owes its success to its ability to marginalize women as effective agents in shaping and regulating deviant men, something that the Fab 5 can do in no time. They are like, to use Papacharissi and Fernback’s parallel, the fairy godmother who instantly transforms Cinderella with a magic wand (355). This can be performed only through a thorough appropriation of this – traditionally also female – role, thus we need to turn to a linguistic and cultural shift and define the Fab 5 as the fairy “godfathers” doing magic. This remains a valid claim even if the show “replicates the oppressive conflation of male homosexuality with femininity” insofar as the series represents a stereotypical gay “appropriation of feminine desire” (Gorman-Murray 230) in the transformation of the straight guy and his home.
Therefore, by inverting and appropriating domestic femininity, hence re-positioning gays over women within the gender hierarchy, the show moves in the direction of strengthening hegemonic masculinity. This is described by R. W. Connell and James Messerschmidt as various “configurations of practice that are accomplished in social action” (836). As these theorists acknowledge that multiple masculinities exist, they find that “hegemony may be established by the incorporation of … [various] masculinities into the existing gender order” (848). The show in fact seems to mark an important moment, a possible shift through which privileged gays move in the direction of integrating into the hegemony among men and their masculinities that Demetriou defines as “internal hegemony” (described in Connell and Messerschmidt 853).
This shift, however, has certain implications that may appear somewhat problematic for women in terms of their socio-cultural positioning. It has been acknowledged that a “given pattern of hegemonic masculinity … [tends] to stabilize patriarchal power or reconstitute it in new conditions” (Connell and Messerschmidt 853) – something that Queer Eye achieves through the various dynamisms discussed above. In fact, Lewis also concludes that in this program “the discourse of gay identity is not disruptive of heterosexual social order […it is used to] reinforce patriarchal notions of masculinity” (Smart Living 19). While this program does not challenge hegemonic masculinity, it positions gays such that they share in this with the straight guys. During the show itself, gays may occupy the top level in the gender hierarchy, but in the long run, “heterosexuality…is not replaced as the core of hegemonic masculinity (Clarkson 240). Similarly to other programs with a gay presence, status hierarchy reflects “heterosexuality’s normalcy” (Becker 7), but, as Clarkson argues, Queer Eye institutes one significant turn: the show reflects heterosexuals who are “not homophobic” (241).
Ultimately, the series re-introduces essentialist categories in constructing gay and straight masculinities, through which the deviant straight guy is restored to hetero-normative life through the straightjacket context created by the Fab 5’s homo-normative discourse and behavior. In the course of this, a dividing line is created between homo and hetero sapiens, who, although temporarily united through a synthetic friendship, resume their separate lives after the show. However, they remain connected through hegemonic masculinity more than ever before, modifying the gender hierarchy so that gays gain – while females fail.
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