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Homogeneity

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Aow did you organize your closet? Ugly, uglier, ugliest?” wails Carson Kressley to his straight makeover victim, before proceeding to poke, prod and pinch him. As one of the five gay “lifestyle experts” on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Bravo’s extremely watchable but extremely freaky new reality show, Kressley’s goal is to transform straight-guy slobs into stylish lookers while relentlessly pushing products.
    Television took a few years to decide how to best portray gay life in our shamelessly promotional reality show era. But with two new gay-themed shows, Queer Eye and Boy meets Boy, the Bravo network has sculpted just the right stereotypes to make gay guys commercially viable to mainstream audiences. Get psyched!
    The formula: Like Bobby Trendy and Steven Cojocaru, the lucrative modern gay must be as inhumanly efficient as Martha Stewart, as domestically magical as Mary Poppins, and as optimistically energetic as Richard Simmons — while remaining funny, unintimidating and totally sexless.

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In one episode of Queer Eye, Kressley and his cohorts — Ted Allen (food and wine), Kyan Douglas (grooming guru), Thom Filicia (design doctor) and Jai Rodriguez (the “culture vulture”) — burst into the cluttered apartment of Butch, an adorable red-haired artist who beams with good nature as they insult him. They point disapprovingly at stains on his futon and underwear — they even smell them and go “ew!” Then they throw out his “Gap 1998” clothes, clean his bathroom and kitchen, paint his walls, cut and highlight his hair, dye his eyebrows, send him to be sprayed with artificial tanner and organize a gallery showing of his artwork — while constantly plugging products from DKNY, Lucky, Seven Jeans and Redken.
    They’re not just gay — they’re Macy’s counter clerks working on commission.
    After remodeling their subject, the Fab Five convene in a luxurious penthouse apartment (you know, where all urban gays live), drink Cosmos and bark final tips at their made-over metrosexual. As “oonce-oonce” dance music plays, the nervously re-wired straight guy shaves with botanical products and squeezes out $50 foie gras onto crackers, as instructed, before rushing out the door for his big night out.
    Of course, the Fab Five do an amazing job. By the end of Butch’s makeover, he looks very cute. He seems brighter and more optimistic, and is almost tearfully thankful. Standing before his awed, applauding friends, he delivers a throaty speech. It’s almost as if Queer Eye is marketing a kind of coming-out process to the heterosexual mainstream — conveniently excluding the pain, doubt and heartbreak that follows after you discover that life still sucks, even when you’re gay.
    Which worries me. Do Butch and the other sloppy straight guys know what they’re getting themselves into? In his ass-flattering jeans, distressed jacket and emulsified hair, Butch (now renamed “Brian”) has turned himself into Stereotype A: the product-addicted, shop-manic, Put-Together Gay. 
    I have to admit: when I met my first Put-Together Gays, way back when I started my weird homo journey into adulthood, I found them alluring too. But while watching this show, I realized that I have spent fourteen years of my dumb gay dating life being enamored of these neat, perfectly styled guys — the ones with nice jaws and biceps, and hair layered in messily presentable fop-mops. I have envied their perfect, charming apartments, with their fashion magazines in flush stacks, well-selected mid-century furniture, frames around old vacation postcards, an old suitcase thrown nonchalantly on the floor.
    Butch wouldn’t know this, but after you have sex with a Put-Together Gay on his spring-fresh, trundle-bed sheets, you leave his place smelling of high-end candles and L’Occitane hand cream, and you wonder where he really lives, who he really is, and whether he has any dust in his life at all. What will happen when all these made-over straight guys sit down in their minimal, tidy, well-painted, minty apartments and realize that there’s still a howling void in their souls? I was tempted to scream into the TV screen: “Turn back, Butch! Run!! Don’t get imprisoned in the gay Bell Jar of style!!”
    While straight men are shown the pathway to product dependency on Queer Eye, gay men are driven partially insane on Boy Meets Boy, Bravo’s weird attempt to create a trashily addictive yet supposedly life-affirming reality show. To its credit, it achieves the former.
    An elimination-dating show in the Bachelor model, one single guy (the sweet, buttery-faced, somewhat emotionally delicate James) must pick a compatible partner from a selection of fifteen men. The setting is a moderno Hollywood Hills-style house. James’s best girlfriend, Andra, is along for the ride. But neither of them know the show’s cruel twist: some of James’s suitors are straight!
     Actually, you wouldn’t know either, because all the guys on this show look like minor models for Old Navy surfwear. In this version of “gay reality,” men can’t appear too gay. Carson from Queer Eye wouldn’t make it past the first introduction.
    “Find out how two worlds collide as we bridge the gap between gay and straight!” grins host Dani Behr, a blonde, thickly accented Brit with complicated bangs. This apparently deep, uncrossable divide can be described with one familiar phrase: “straight acting.” After years of seeing that expression in personal ads and internet profiles — and not really understanding what it means — viewers can now see just how warped a gay can get when he mistakes natural masculinity for the fake manliness of a Catalina Video porn star.
    For both James and the viewer at home, Boy is a little hard to follow at first. All these “straight-acting” guys have one-syllable soccer names like Chris, Matt and Jim. As they jockily approach him for their first meeting, a visibly shaken James sits in his Hawaiian shirt and lei, trying to tell them apart. It’s incredibly nervewracking to watch each suitor’s awkward introduction: they shake James’s hand like firemen, intoning lines like, “I am looking forward to getting to know you better” in faux-Ryan Idol inflections.  It’s even more uncomfortable to watch the inherently flightier ones — like little button-eyed Wes or attitudinally clubby Rob — try their best to butch it up.
    After James meets everyone, the suitors stand in even rows by the pool in their finished-sleeve, cut-off tees, gelled Justin Timberlake hair and tiny eyebrows plucked within a quarter-inch of their lives. Whether gay or straight, they are a well-groomed, blurry homogeneity. Here, in front of James, lies the leveled-out look of the mainstreamed gay: a bunch of Queer as Folky party boys with shaved, gym toned bodies and gimmicky flip-flops. “Wow, what an interesting cross section,” says James, shellshocked. Get this guy out of L.A.!
    Maybe, though, James will find true love on Boy Meets Boy and erupt in thankful tears like the made-over men on Queer Eye, because he seems to go for guys about as bland as a Starbucks smock. (He occasionally seeks help from Andra, but she looks like she had one too many Mai Tais at the opening luau to be of much help.) In the first elimination round, James boots everyone with any sense of complication or intrigue; he apparently prefers a modified Miami version of ’80s popstar Rick Astley. Crouched over a video monitor in the master bedroom, the producers must have collectively sighed in relief — James’s blindly boring taste in men matches their own.
    Also problematic: James might be allowed to fall mistakenly in love with a straight guy, but in this version of gay reality, races don’t mix.  Like all heterosexual reality shows, they plop down only one obligatory black guy.  Asian men? Sure, they’re represented: they perform for the guys in little Polynesian outfits at the luau.
    None of the producers seem to have trouble with sprinkling straight guys into the mix, but I have to wonder, why didn’t the Bachelor embed lesbians among its marriage-hungry women? These “straight” men walk among the suitors, concealed in their beachy muscle shirts like secret agents of disappointment. As we know, reality shows must involve the possibility of humiliation, so at least the producers made a wise dramatic choice. But in less than one season, they have made the threat of falling for a straight guy as humiliating a predicament as spinsterhood has become for women on television.
    In this new TV age, after all our so-called progress, gay guys are still portrayed as having a shaky relationship with what and whom they’re attracted to. Meanwhile, no one ever questions straight-male sexuality. It’s considered somehow more solid, more “real.” We can safely assume that none of the “straight” guys on Boy Meets Boy will get drunk and make out with another guy. Because the divisions between gay and straight have been so clearly (and commercially) drawn, we’re reminded that straight men are always straight, no matter what show they’re on.
    In the careful, considerate, well-rounded ’90s, gay people had it comparatively good on TV. We were portrayed, for the most part, as smart, strong, complex citizens: Dr. Kerry Weaver on ER, Martin Mull’s lumpy but smart diner boss on Roseanne, even the boring, concerned Matt Fielding on Melrose Place. But that was a different time. In the reality-show era, you can’t be complex and still serve as a human receptacle for advertising.
    In a way, it’s almost comforting to see these bland, imprisoning versions of the gay man: it makes me feel that much closer to my female friends, who have had to endure insipid translations of their desires on TV for decades now. How scary yet appropriate it is that in “reality,” portrayals of gay life are flatter and blander than fiction. A plucked product pusher or straight-acting mouthbreather: take your pick.
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mike Albo
lives and loves in Brooklyn. His second novel The Underminer, written with his longtime pal
Virginia Heffernan, was published by Bloomsbury in February. Check out his upcoming performance dates, other writing and chakras at MikeAlbo.com.