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The secret behind the new gay-themed TV
Same old stereotypes

By Nicole Colson | August 15, 2003 | Page 9

ARE GAY men taking over television? That seems to be the recent buzz in the media--prompted primarily by two shows that premiered on the Bravo cable network in July: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Boy Meets Boy.

But a closer look at these shows that supposedly hail a new "gay-acceptance" on TV reveals that the real buzz is just how much the same old stereotypes about gays are still getting recycled.

Take Boy Meets Boy, the first gay dating show. It was originally conceived to be like ABC's The Bachelor, starring one eligible "leading man" who would choose a boyfriend from among 15 candidates. During filming, producers began worrying that a show featuring only gay people couldn't hold a wide (i.e. "straight") audience. So, they decided that a number of the suitors would secretly be straight. If one straight man could fool the leading man into picking him, the straight guy would win $25,000.

Leading man James was only told of the deception partway through filming. As he recently told MSNBC, "They told me they put the twist in there because they wanted straight people to watch. I said to them, 'Well, you've played gay people as entertainment for straight people. Of course they're going to watch.'"

And that's exactly the problem. The joke's on the gay men--and it's a fairly cruel joke the audience participates in.

It's a similar story on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy--a huge ratings and advertising success. Each week, the "Fab Five"--"an elite team of gay men who have dedicated their lives to extolling the simple virtues of style, taste and class," according to Bravo--takes a hapless straight man and makes him styled, primped and cultured.

Are the guys on Queer Eye witty? Yes. Funny and sharp? You bet. But is the show a step forward for gays and lesbians? No way.

The producers selected five living stereotypes to stick in front of the cameras, replete with stylish clothes, good hair, money to burn, and plenty of catty wit and sexual innuendo. The show enforces the prevalent idea that all gay people are upper middle class white men with money to burn--despite the fact that most gays and lesbians are working class.

The Fab Five are consummate consumers, with every show detailing multiple trips to stores like Diesel and Ralph Lauren, pricey salons and upscale furniture stores. It's the reason advertisers are frothing at the mouth over the show. They don't care about increasing visibility of gays on TV; they care about increasing the visibility of their products.

For the most part, gay characters are "acceptable" for TV viewing as long as they're presented in terms of their lifestyles--almost always wealthy lifestyles--and not in terms of their actual day-to-day problems, such as providing health care for a sick partner, housing discrimination or being a parent in a society that deems you "unfit."

ABC's new fall lineup takes the offensive stereotypes one step further with It's All Relative. In the show, a young couple named Liz and Bobby worry about their parents getting along, because Bobby's parents are "salt-of-the-earth Irish Catholic parents from Boston" (as ABC.com says) and Liz is a Harvard medical student with two gay dads. As ABC proclaims, "Aside from the obvious, there's a culture gap between these in-laws-to-be that makes the Grand Canyon look like a seam in the sidewalk. Liz's parents are devotees of the arts. Bobby's are devotees of the Red Sox. Liz's parents are into [fashion designer Yves] St. Laurent. Bobby's parents swear by St. Patrick."

So not only are gay men not a part of the working class, they stand in direct opposition to the working class (or whatever stereotype passes for "working class" on ABC).

Meanwhile, with the rare exceptions of Willow on the now-defunct Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Carrie Weaver on NBC's ER, lesbian characters are even more invisible than gay men on TV. When lesbian characters do appear, they are usually white and fit the mold of what the entertainment and advertising industry considers "beautiful."

Ultimately, the status of gays and lesbians in society can't be measured by how many gay characters are on TV or even how true-to-life those characters are. It's about the status of the fight for equal rights in the real world--the right to marry and have children, the right to equal treatment when to comes to housing, health care and jobs, the right to live without fear of antigay violence.

These are demands that will only be won by taking them to the streets--and building a new movement to fight for equal rights. Let's see them make a show about that.

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