Queer as Straight Guys with Folk Eyes

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Queer as Straight Guys with Folk Eyes

Chelsea Phillips

In 2003, NBC launched on one of its cable channels, Bravo, a reality-makeover show that became a national obsession. The show was "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Two years earlier, in December of 2000, Showtime produced what was to become one of the most controversial and popular television shows in the network's history: "Queer as Folk," inspired by the BBC original of the same name. Queer was here- in a big, bold way. These two pop culture phenomenon set up a discourse for the pivotal word in each title,
"Queer." Examining both in the context of their own, self-prescribed language, begs the question, how is the term shaped by its invoker, and how in turn is the invoker shaped?

"Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Obviously, there are not a lot of queers queuing up to exchange eyes with the heteros. The eye is a queered object; it is the queer gaze that looks at the straight male. However, the queer gaze is disembodied and unattached
to an actual queer man; it is directed not to the "straight guy" specifically, but to his apparel and lifestyle. The queer eye is juxtaposed with what it is not- it is not straight- and it is not fully human. In this way, it is a relational category which I will call "passive-relational" because the disembodied gaze cannot actively engage in a relationship with the embodied male.

The "queer eye," ironically, makes the "straight guy" more straight, by creating a more sexually desirable figure for the purpose of a heterosexual gaze, embodied in the wife/girlfriend/female blind date. Essentially, the men get packed off to Queerville
for an afternoon and taught the fine art of being an attractive human being. Queer desire is completely denied. The "queerness" is lighthearted, witty and enjoyable; there is no looming presence of AIDS, no hint of "queer-bashing," no sense that the "Fab Five" are
victims of repression or persecution- it's an illusion the nation craves.

"Queer as Folk." Folk? Like Ani? Or like people from the Midwest? Or like everyone if you're Bush? The name sets up a relationship between these "everyman" figured "folk" and queerness- setting up an inclusional relationship. The name implies that these "folk," whosoever they be, are the epitome of queer. This relationship I will call "active-relational," as the term queer is being actively applied to an embodied, autonomous group. The closest we can come to understanding the term in this context is to look at
the characters in the show, those who are queer as folk. Characterization in the show takes a white, middle-class perspective on gayness, mostly male. It is, undoubtedly, a failure to show the experience of any racially or economically marginalized group, not
to mention the absence of more than a cursory glance at fetishism, bisexuality, S/M, etc.- as if white-collar, white male queerness were all that the show could take on.

The show succeeds in many ways, however. There is none of the unmingled lightness of "Queer Eye-" this is in-your-face, unapologetic, defiant Queer. It does not shy from the presence of AIDS (several principle characters are infected), except perhaps in
avoiding being visually explicit about the dying process. The message is clearly one of love and compassion towards AIDS victims. The characters with AIDS are shown in the context of the love and support the "family" gives them, and are a fully developed,
integrated part of the show. Bashing and violence is also a strong and harsh reality; it is inescapable, just as it is in queer communities everywhere.

Conflict with the straight community is present in a variety of ways. In one of the first episodes, one of the characters declares, "There are only two types of straight people: those that hate you to your face, and those that hate you behind your back." Although this is proved more than inaccurate by most of the show, it is also made clear that the "family" in the show is queer and includes only two blood relatives and two straight-identified characters. In this way, it is no wonder that the public craves the mutually positive, if selectively accurate, portrayal of queer men and heterosexuals.

So, wait, what is queer? Granted and understood that there are two different ways of using the word presented here- passive/relational and aggressive/relational. Eve Sedgwick points out a current trend in which "intellectuals and artists of color...are using the leverage of the word 'queer' to do a new kind of justice to the fractal intricacies of language, skin, migration, state" (5). Does this imply that queer is a sort of strategy? It certainly could be argued in light of the two presented examples. The disembodied queer gaze "for" the straight male is ambiguous. Is it offered to the straight man? Yes, and so becomes non-threatening, submissive and a way to protect the queer man from homophobic retaliation by making himself harmless spectacle.

The leverage referred to in the above passage can be likened to a status signifier. Using leverage implies having something "over" another, anything from social power to evidence for blackmail. "Queer" has leverage over the shared "intricacies of language, skin, migration, state;" essentially, queer can be used to highlight/break down the marginalization of these signifiers. Queer is being used as a status term. By claiming a status with "queer," the claimer separates themself from heteronormative culture, and
takes up a power position which allows them to pass judgment on that culture without the recognition of said culture. This is obviously a distinct advantage: bringing into discourse those that were previously, perhaps, not within the 'gay' or 'lesbian' discourse.

What happens within the gay/lesbian/queer culture after such an event? Potentially received in a hostile manner (as, for example, a threat to any progress between the inside and the outside), the term may be rejected by the community which gives it
authority, attacked and degraded easily once it is in the discourse of the community. Specifically, if one group were to make a claim to be "queerer" than another, or to put qualifiers on the term which were unattainable to the larger whole, the support structure for both would be damaged and one would be forced to the margins. This is well documented with feminism, and its seeming incapability to recognize/incorporate the experience of women of color (at least until recently). By not allowing a place for feminist women of color (or refusing to recognize the need for one), the women of color who considered themselves feminists became disillusioned with the term and no longer sought identification with a term that so explicitly did not involve them.

Sedgwick makes a very useful correlation between the terms "gay" and "sex" and "queer" and "gender." Much as we have come to think of sex as being "merely" biological and gender as being socially constructed, thanks to Laquer, so there is a tendency in
Sedgwick to do the same with "gay" and "queer."
..."gay" and "lesbian" still present themselves...as objective, empirical categories governed by empirical rules of evidence..."Queer" seems to hinge much more radically and explicitly on a person's undertaking particular, performative acts of experimental
self-perception and filiation. (5)
Therefore, in the same way that gender may be felt implicitly and is generally held to be more fluid than the biological determiners of sex, so is queer a fluid and less restrictive signifier of sexuality.

In Thursday's class, Anne and Gilda drew several diagrams on the board of what in/out space looked like in their minds. One of Anne's diagrams showed the outside as fully
encompassing the inside; Gilda's demonstrated the exclusivity of both outside and inside by showing the existence of presence in the space between. These diagrams were extremely helpful for envisioning my own concepts of 'gay' and 'queer' for this paper. I believe that, from a Sedgwick-gay ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy") point of view, the model would look something like Gilda's. The pretty- agreed-upon normative culture would be inside, the 'gay' culture would be outside, and there would be a lot that neither group would want to let in; S/M, fetish, inter-generational couples; those on the outside of inside AND the outside of outside, the queer in some instances, simply unnamed in others. In a very real sense, "Queer as Folk" uses its "queer" to expand the outside boundaries in the way Gilda was describing, bringing to our visual field (and into the outside), at least for a moment, patterns of behavior that were beyond out.

The encompassing in-within-out model would represent the Sedgwick-queer point of view. 'Queer' accepts and encompasses 'gay' as being part of itself, but 'gay' resists, therefore attempting to create a segregated space inside the outside. This attempt would be fruitless, as, in the opinion of the queer whose model this is; 'gay' is always/already encompassed, and therefore cannot voluntarily separate. This is reflected and expanded by "Queer as Folk," which is actively inclusive. In the sense of "Queer
Eye for the Straight Guy," the term is commandeered and used to represent only the harmless, disembodied gaze without homoerotic desire, nullifying its attempt to encompass more.

This qualifying of points of view is leading to another of Sedgwick's arguments, that perhaps the biggest difference between 'gay' and 'queer' is what happens to the word when it is used, and what happens to the user. The effects of the user on the word have
been discussed throughout the paper, but what is the word's effect on the user?

Delaney comes to an awareness of his experiences with the various men he meets in the cinema (Mike; the perpetual virgin), and to realize that he cannot explain their desire by receiving it: "all I could explain...was my side of the relationship" (128).
Although he cannot explain it, it does not change his pleasure in the experience, a fact he refers back to Lacan for, "one desires the desire of the other" (1). The effect of queer on a large group calls to mind visions of marchers chanting "We're here! We're Queer!" It seems to be a nebulous, all-encompassing term, allowing a certain
freedom when it is invoked by the masses and creating power through united numbers. However, on an individual level, the question becomes, how do you prove that you are queer? If you claim the status of queer, how do you keep it? It is the eternal problem of "anyone's use of 'queer' about themselves means differently from their use of it about someone else" (Sedgwick 9). To label someone queer is to take the agency to name themselves; to name yourself requires being exposed to the judgment of others- will you be found worthy? Do you need to be? Sedgwick argues not: "...all it takes- to make the description 'queer' a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first person" (5).

In the pilot episode of "Queer as Folk" a Jeep belonging to one of the characters is graffitied and "FAGGOT" is written in pink spray paint on the side paneling. As the owner
drives through downtown Pittsburg, he declares his inclination to leave the graffiti and begins yelling "I'm a faggot!" to the passersby. The impulsion to use it in the first person allows the character to change the term from being the projection of others onto himself into an external declaration of his own sexuality. This claim is defiant of, and exclusionary to, anyone who would refuse to drive down the street yelling "I'm a faggot;" he has set the mark. By turning the phrase from passive-relational to active-relational,
forming the word to himself, and himself to the word, he both illustrates Sedgwick's points and plays at renouncing the community which protects him. For a moment, it is him versus the world and it is a beautiful thing- but it cannot last. The term does not stand on its own, but always relationally to that which it is not, creating language barriers which isolate and ostracize while creating new insides and outsides. This constant tension illustrates clearly the endless revision as the term shapes and reshapes those who invoke it; it is a struggle which can be traced, as Caroline Dinshaw pointed out, throughout the late nineteenth century to the present day. "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Queer as Folk" exemplify this struggle in the realm of modern American pop culture.

Works Cited/Consulted
1. Delaney, Samuel R. "Aversion/Perversion/Diversion." Longer Views: Extended Essays. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996.

2. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

3. Laquer, Thomas. "Of Language and the Flesh." Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990. 3-24.

4. "Pilot: Episodes 1/2." Queer as Folk. Showtime. 3 December 2000.

5. Sedgwick, Eve. Tendencies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993. 5-9.

6. Sinfield, Alan. "Diaspora and Hybridity: Queer Identities and the Ethnicity Model." Textual Practice. 10(2), 1996. 271-293.

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