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The Body is Good Business

08.04.2003 | SOCIETY

By the time you read this, the buzz over Queer Eye for the Straight Guy will probably have died down. This has nothing to do with the quality of the show. It's just that Americans have short attention spans, and the publicity mill can only allow for one Fantastic Premiere a month. But think back, if you can, to three weeks ago, when every writer was all a-flutter over this new program, in which a quintet of gay men give makeovers to schlubby heteros. Queer Eye is the kind of topic that critics eat up with a spoon and ask for seconds. It allows members of a profession that is traditionally touchy on the subject of masculinity to assert its manliness (see: Ernest Hemmingway), while at the same time professing tolerance for its queer brethren.

Some went so far as to say that this show signaled a revolution, a true cultural shift. The July 13 New York Times featured an article by John Sellers, in which he chronicled his experiences undergoing the Queer Eye treatment. He spoke thusly about why he desperately needed a queenly makeover: "I have been to Hooters more times than I've eaten sushi. I refer to both men and women as 'dude.' And in my bathroom, right above the toilet, I proudly hang a print of dogs playing poker." It was a very poor job of promo-hack-piece-disguised-as-serious-exposé, but the same could be said for much of the Queer Eye coverage. For all journalists, regardless of beat, prostrate themselves before the altar of Free Shit.

Following his makeover, Sellers proclaimed, "The show as a whole suggests that something has changed not just in Bravo's programming department (which is bringing out an increasingly gay-friendly lineup) but in the culture at large."

Sellers was correct when he said that things have changed in our culture, but not really in the direction of gaiety. Granted, the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down sodomy laws as unconstitutional is one sign of a cultural shift, as is Canada's seeming readiness to legalize gay marriage. However, counterrevolutionary forces are already gathering on the right to combat these advances. President Bush held a press conference on July 30 to announce that he is working with government lawyers to draft a law officially defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colorado) has sponsored a Constitutional amendment for the same purpose. A Gallup poll released the same day as Bush's announcement showed that only 48% of Americans approved of homosexual relations between consenting adults, down from 60% in May of last year, which may indicate that Americans only tolerate gay folk when they're invisible.

In most of America, gay men roughly hold the same position in society that blacks held in the mid-1950s. In general, people think they should be allowed to exist, as long as that existence doesn't take place next door. One can still get beaten up or even killed for being gay (or suspected of same) in this country, while at the same time, for a small, insular group of Very Hip People, gay = cool. Queer Eye is not The Fire Next Time or Soul on Ice; it's closer to Norman Mailer's The White Negro. As it fits straight men into the uniform of the Pink Team, it shows how you, the viewer at home, can emulate the style and mannerisms of an oppressed subculture to up your In Quotient, while escaping any of the danger inherent in actually belonging to that culture.

In all the hubbub over the show, and the supposedly changing mores of sexuality, most commentators missed the real revolution that it documents. The truly groundbreaking aspect of the show is not the use of gay men to make over straight guys--TV has been telling us for years that all gay men are good for is decorating and clothes shopping. The kind of man willing to undergo the Queer Eye treatment is no doubt open minded, and watching such people willingly get made over is not as intriguing as kidnapping a frat boy and deprogramming him.

No, the revolution depicted on Queer Eye is more Wall Street than Stonewall, and is nothing less than the creation of a new industry. Some fabulous cosmetics executive must have figured out that, after years of shaming women into buying obscenely priced goo, they were still only hitting 50% of the potential market. The CEOs put two and two together, and voila: Manly Exfloliants. Queer Eye has more product placement than The Price is Right and Monster Garage combined. During the show's premiere, in which a theatrical scene painter named Butch was shellacked with cosmetics, all of the labels on the little spritzy bottles and jars of cream he was assaulted with were prominently featured. These products are new to the world of the hetero male, and one day, Queer Eye will be seen as the break in the dam that brought in a rush of beefy beauty products. Lest you doubt me, let it be known that Ben Affleck, fresh from J. Lo restyling, has been signed to endorse a new line of male cosmetics from L'Oreal.

But this new market is itself a reaction to another market that has emerged in the last quarter century or so. The men on Queer Eye are all either hoping to mollify a girlfriend who is sick of his slovenly ways, or attract a lady with newly tacked-on suaveness. Acceptability to women is the ultimate goal of Queer Eye's lab experiments, and this shows what has really changed in society: the new male need for female approval. Formerly, it was the woman who changed herself to attract the man. Now, both sexes feel the pressure to peacock themselves to get some action. This is only fair, since women have been plucking themselves and stuffing large things into small sheathes for centuries. It's interesting to note that producer David Collins hit upon the idea for Queer Eye when, at an outdoor café, he overheard a wife berate her unkempt husband, comparing him unfavorably to a trio of chiseled, well-dressed gay men sashaying down the block in front of him.

As women earn more money and become more independent, they no longer need men for economic reasons. They now want--and realize that they can demand--what was once the singular province of men: arm candy. It's simple economics; if women no longer need men, then men must make women want them, and to make women want them, they must accede to women's desires as much as women acceded to theirs. Supply and demand in action.

If straight men are smart, they'll watch Queer Eye and wise up to the new market but quick. According to a recent Times article, the Y chromosome might be an endangered species. A research team at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts has discovered that this chromosome, the defining characteristic of males, is shrinking. During the fertilization process, the X chromosomes in the sperm and egg can recombine with one another, whereas the Y chromosome can only recombine with itself. Hundreds of generations of this inbreeding have produced a Y chromosome that contains a tenth of the genes that the X carries. Scientists are puzzled, not that this is happening, but why men still exist at all after millions of years of such genetic self-love.

Some have surmised that this is the true, biological reason for the rise of the metrosexual, the supposed new face of masculinity. For the uninitiated, the metrosexual is purported to be Today's Man, possessed of an ambiguous sexuality and few, if any, of the traditional traits of manly behavior (football watching, burping contest participation, upright toilet seat abandonment). Personally, I don't believe in the existence of these hairless, waif-like creatures beyond the East Village and Williamsburg--try finding any of them in Bed-Stuy or Staten Island, let alone Iowa. The metrosexual gospel was promulgated in large part by Sex and the City, a show that reflects the reality of such an infuriatingly infinitesimal segment of Gotham's population that it's like examining one tiny speck of a Monet.

Women don't want a legion of muffin-baking metrosexuals any more than they want face-painting hooligans. They do, however, want something different than what they've been getting. The increased power of women and the steely hand of evolution have created a buyer's market for men's wares, and Queer Eye simply shows how to best display the goods. We shall see equal opportunity objectification in our lifetime. This, like all economic trends, is neither good nor bad--it's just another wave in the endless tide of commerce. Women are new consumers in the body market, and as we all know, the customer is always right.

About the Author
Matthew Callan blogs daily at MSN Sports Filter. He has contributed to the NY Press, NPR, and "Excelsior You Fathead", a biography of Jean Shepherd. His Freezerbox piece "The Lemon Pledge" was given honorable mention in the 2003 edition of "Best American Non-Required Reading," and his fiction has been shortlisted for contests in Zoetrope: All-Story, Bomb magazine, and other publications.
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