It’s easy to underestimate how much things can change in a decade. In July of 2003, a little more than halfway through George W. Bush’s first term in the White House, Bravo debuted a show called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Its premise was simple: each week, a troupe of gay men known as the Fab 5 would come to the rescue of a hapless hetero dude who could benefit from their (respective) expertise in fashion, personal grooming, home decor, food, and (most nebulously) culture. I watched it, almost every week, in the living room of the house where I lived in college, surrounded by housemates and friends, gay and straight and somewhere in between — none of whom happened to be the Cosmo-swilling self-proclaimed shopaholics we might in retrospect think of as the show’s primary audience.
Queer Eye was unique in sparking controversy on both the right and the left, with conservatives panicking at the idea of five real gay men invading respectable American homes on a weekly basis while progressives fretted over whether the word “queer” was still a slur and protested that the show perpetuated stereotypes. Premiering two years before Will & Grace aired its final episode, it appeared at an odd, transitional moment for America’s queer community, in both politics and pop culture. The same-sex marriage movement was just starting to build momentum; four months into Queer Eye‘s run, Massachusetts became the first state to recognize gay and lesbian marriages. Not coincidentally, TV shows featuring gay and lesbian characters were growing increasingly common at this time, especially in the famously progressive realm of premium cable: Six Feet Under, Queer as Folk, and Sex and the City were already on the air, and The L Word would premiere in 2004.
But, as frequently tends to happen when oppressed groups and countercultural movements go mainstream, many of these shows represented queer characters in troubling or otherwise unsatisfying ways. While lesbians complained that the characters on The L Word were far too glamorous to represent their real lives, Will & Grace and Sex and the City made a sexually neutered, stereotypically effeminate “gay best friend” the shopping buddy of choice for the aforementioned Cosmo drinkers.
The chief complaint about Queer Eye was similar: that it was offensive to imply that all gay men are obsessed with superficial aesthetic concerns like fashion and design while all straight men couldn’t care less about them. Looking back on the show with the distance of what has by all accounts been a monumental decade for LGBT rights, I’d go even further. The subtext of Queer Eye seems to be that we should accept gay men and welcome them into our lives — not chiefly because they deserve the same rights and respect as any other human being, but because they can actually be pretty helpful to clueless straight folks!
No amount of revisionist reconsideration is going to save the show from that legacy, which also helps to explain Queer Eye‘s short life as a cultural phenomenon; its ratings dropped sharply in its second season, and Bravo canceled it just four years after its premiere. But still, when I stumbled upon a rerun recently, I marveled at how much better the show was than I remembered. Aired as part of a marathon leading up to last night’s ten-year Queer Eye reunion special, it charged the Fab 5 with making over a man named Jeff, a rugged former male model who hid his David Bowie-esque bone structure behind waist-length hair and a full beard.
What I had forgotten was how markedly — and refreshingly — Queer Eye broke the makeover-show mold. At a time when What Not to Wear seemed a kinder, gentler alternative to the culture-wide neurosis of plastic-surgery chop-shop shows like Extreme Makeover and later The Swan, it wasn’t interested in making its straight guys attractively, stylishly bland. It neither subjected them to liposuction nor stuffed them into Stacy and Clinton’s beloved structured jackets. And, most importantly, Queer Eye didn’t pretend that an over-reliance on sweatpants or a messy apartment was tantamount to mental illness. Although this is surely due in part to the fact that they were straight men, the show’s subjects were not required to cry or otherwise have a breakdown. In one episode I re-watched over the weekend, a man named Josh’s 100-pound weight loss is only mentioned a few times in passing. On What Not to Wear, analysis of a similar transformation’s effect on a female subject would have dominated every scene.
Instead, Queer Eye‘s mood was light and funny, and the Fab 5’s emphasis was not on changing these men fundamentally so much as making them better versions of themselves. (The show itself described each episode as not a “makeover” but a “make-better.”) When it was time for Jeff to buy new clothes, “Fashion Savant” Carson Kressley took him to Orvis, where he could update — but not abandon — his outdoorsy style. “Design Doctor” Thom Felicia, meanwhile, managed to make Josh’s apartment cleaner and more sophisticated while still preserving the quirky touches (a real fire hydrant, a lamp whose base was a sculpture of two bears) that expressed his personality.
And in many cases, they did a great job. It’s Kressley’s campy demeanor and “Culture Vulture” Jai Rodriguez’s questionable usefulness that we tend to remember; what we forget is how spookily talented Felicia was at transforming entire homes with limited time and budget, and how much more insightful “Grooming Guru” Kyan Douglas was than his stylist counterparts on other makeover shows. Ted Allen is so ubiquitous on the Food Network now — and his personality has always differed so markedly from the flamboyance we associate with the Queer Eye cast — that it’s easy to forget the former Esquire contributing editor made his TV debut as the show’s “Food and Wine Connoisseur.”
There was even something a bit radical hidden within Queer Eye‘s Magical Gay Elves premise. On the most basic level, it gave Middle America plenty of examples of gay men and straight men interacting in ways that were positive for both groups and threatening to neither. And since each episode found the Fab 5 poking fun at and then improving the way a straight guy lived his life, it was their point of view — not the smelly, messy, fashion-agnostic heterosexual man’s — that was framed as normal and desirable. There’s no getting around how offensive it is to essentialize all gay men as superficial fashionistas or suggest that anything besides their sexual orientation makes them fundamentally different from straight men, but at least they weren’t the butt of Queer Eye‘s jokes. (Leave that to Comedy Central’s stupid 2004 parody, Straight Plan for the Gay Man.)
Ten years later, it’s clear that the Queer Eye cast is more self-aware than we’d like to give them credit for being. On Sunday’s reunion special, Andy Cohen addressed the show’s ambivalent legacy, asking the Fab 5 whether they think it was ultimately “good for the gays” or perpetuated stereotypes. Almost in unison, they replied, “Both.” (It seems fair to note here that you could conceivably ask the same question about Cohen himself, who remains ubiquitous on Bravo six years after Queer Eye disappeared, and receive a less encouraging response.) Ultimately, that sums up how I will remember Queer Eye: as milestone for gay representation on TV in 2003 that progress has also, thankfully, rendered far too retrograde for 2013.