January 15, 2005

TV: Queer Eye for the Straight Girl

After the success of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, it was inevitable that we’d get Queer Eye for the Straight Girl. The formula is the same: In place of the Fab Five from QE/Guy, QE/Girl gives us the Gal Pals, three gay men (Robbie, Danny, and Damon) and a lesbian (the fabulously-named Honey Labrador) who swoop into the home of a straight girl in need of a life makeover. They re-do her apartment, overhaul her wardrobe and makeup, provide cooking tips, and prepare her for some special event.

So why, on the basis of the first two episodes, is QE/Girl so much less interesting than QE/Guy?

The problem starts with the cast. The Fab Five are one of those rare magical flukes of casting; their personalities are big enough for TV without ever feeling forced or artificial, and they mesh perfectly. They seem to genuinely like one another and to enjoy spending time together. Even more important, they enjoy what they’re doing and take great joy from helping these men get their acts together.

The Gal Pals, on the other hand, have yet to develop any real group chemistry, and their attempts at witty banter feel forced; as individuals, they’re trying too hard to mimic the personalities of their QE/Guy predecessors (Robbie, in particular, wants so badly to be Carson that you can taste the desperation). They’re also cruder than the Fab Five, who have a knack for walking along the line between risque and vulgar without crossing it.

That takes us to the next problem with QE/Girl. A lot of the risque humor in QE/Guy, and a lot of the entertainment value, comes from the sexual tension between a group of gay men and a straight man (especially in a situation where the gay guys are the ones in control). QE/Girl doesn’t have that tension to play with; there’s no taboo being broken when a straight woman gives herself over to a group of gay men for fashion advice. It would have been interesting if the producers had made the Gal Pals an all-lesbian group, but even that dynamic wouldn’t have had the tension that is built into QE/Guy.

As interesting and culturally significant as QE/Guy’s straight-gay dynamic is, though, the real breakthrough of the show was that it was centered on men. Most makeover shows take women as their subjects; the few “makeover” shows that generally feature male guests are usually redoing the men’s stuff – a car, a house – not the men themselves. There’s an implicit criticism of their female subjects built into these shows: How sad are these women, the shows ask, who don’t already know how to dress, to do their own makeup?

Watch, for instance, TLC’s What Not to Wear (I’ve never seen the British version), in which a woman (only rarely is the show’s victim male) is ambushed by the hosts and told that her friends and family have reported her as someone in desperate need of help; they then show her their secretly filmed footage, criticizing her wardrobe at every step; finally, they toss almost all of her clothing into the trash. The show reinforces society’s message that women are supposed to know these things – fashion, style, makeup – and if they don’t, they must be scolded, humiliated, and punished for that failure. At its most extreme, this leads to Fox’s The Swan, in which a group of women are given diet and exercise advice, fashion and makeup assistance, and massive plastic surgery, leading to the climactic pageant in which all but one of the women are told that they still aren’t pretty enough.

So part of the sweetness that comes across when we watch QE/Guy is a cultural thing; men aren’t expected to know anything about grooming or interior design or cooking, and isn’t it adorable that this guy wants to learn? We’re predisposed to be sympathetic to him from the start, and the genuine fondness that the Fab Five feel for their subjects adds to that; the cultural assumption that women shouldn’t need help with these things means that QE/Girl has to work a lot harder to win our sympathy and interest in its subjects.

To be sure, QE/Girl is a far kinder show than What Not to Wear and most of the other makeover shows; it shares QE/Guy’s “we’re not here to change you; we’re here to help you be the best possible you” philosophy, and like the Fab Five, the Gal Pals seem to genuinely enjoy what they’re doing, and to take real joy from watching their subjects blossom. (One thing that’s striking in the first two episodes is how dramatically the womens' confidence increases over the course of the show; it’s a sad comment on how we teach women to equate beauty and self-worth.) Queer Eye for the Straight Girl isn’t an awful show; it’s good-natured and pleasant, and as the Gal Pals grow more comfortable on screen and their interactions less forced, it may well become quite entertaining. But it’s always going to feel like a pale imitation of the original.

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