"While [Will and Jack] are as stereotypical as Amos and Andy, they help humanize gay life."
--Gay author Felice Picano to Richard Burnett's Three Dollar Bill column in Montreal's Hour newspaper
"We're not actors, we're just guys on a TV show being ourselves. We don't claim to represent
the entire gay community. ... If that means that in some way we sometimes embody these stereotypes
then so be it, because if it's not OK to sometimes be stereotypical -- whatever that means --
then it's allowing a fearful straight community to dictate to me how I should behave."
--Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Kyan Douglas to Miami's The Weekly News, Dec. 18.
Much ado has been made over the stereotypes represented on Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I find it to be much ado about nothing. With the exception of Carson Kreely, the fashion maven, I don't see these guys as being very stereotypical. And while I think that while Carson may camp it up from time to time, overall I don't think he's playing a character. (Consequently, Carson, much like Jack on Will & Grace is one of the best elements on the show, adding a great touch of humor and particular queerness.) Are the other members of the Fab 5 supposed to be stereotypes because they are experts on grooming, food, culture, and home decor? That's something akin to saying that women hosting makeover shows are being stereotypical because women are supposed to be good with makeup.
First, stereotypes generally exist because somewhere, somehow they are built upon at least a grain of truth. I have witnessed some of the harshest stereotypes played out in people, sometimes several people, I know and respect. The primary problem is that stereotypes are usually employed by hateful and ignorant people to oppress entire groups. These people seek to solidfy their power base by instilling the stereotype as The Truth and then spread this disinformation.
But stereotypes can be fun when rooted in truth. I love, and I mean love, a good show tune. And if you catch me on the right day, my inner drag queen will emerge and I'll do a full a dead-on Diana Ross singing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." I don't care that anyone knows it, although any who hear it may rue the day.
Unfortunately, the idea of the effeminate gay man is an object of scorn even among many in the gay community. Look at any personal ad these days and you're more likely than not to see somebody seeking "straight-acting" or "masculine" men. Some of the cruder ads specifically ask for "no femmes." The only place it seems you'll find an effeminate man accepted seems to be on Queer as Folk, with Emmet, the loveable flamer of the group.
Certainly when it debuted, Queer as Folk was held up as not only giving us stereotypes of the community, but dwelling on the most negative of stereotypes: promiscuous and orgiastic sex and prolific drug use. And, for the most part, those critics were right. Strangely, this criticism is rarely heard any more, perhaps because the show is in its fourth season now and is old news or newer, fresher targets like Queer Eye are available. Perhaps those criticisms have died down because QAF was recognized as the soap opera it truly is (and what soap opera doesn't have the most extreme personalities of people represented). Probably all of these factors contributed, but perhaps also the realization that, despite all its sensationalism, QAF actually taught some very positive things to the straight world.
Straight people began to hold get togethers around the show. Supposedly it is a huge hit with straight women particularly. The show also embraced feminine men like Emmet; inter-generational love; acceptance of HIV positive men; and accepting people despite their faults. The show also showed the struggles of gay life. It showed the strains of gay parenting, making relationships work, legal issues, workplace issues, and more.
Complaints have been levied against Will Truman for his uber-celebate life as well as the uber-flaming Jack on Will & Grace. Critics target the character of Will as having no love life and, thus, being the ultimate non-threatening gay man. No wonder heterosexuals accept him, and by extension the show, they say, because Will doesn't exhibit any behavior (say, like kissing other men) that tends to scare the straights. Also, could we have anyone more stereotypical than Jack. He's irresponsible, flighty, fashion-obsessed, catty, and incapable of sustaining a stable or single relationship. Oh, and he loves showtunes.
While these criticisms aren't foundless, what ground have we lost with this show? Will & Grace arguably made bringing shows like Queer Eye and perhaps even QAF to our television screens. This show laid a foundation that resonates today. Ellen could be mentioned here as truly setting us up for Will & Grace, but, unfortunately, it blew it. Although the infamous "Puppy Episode" was handled well, Ellen subsequently shifted focus dramatically. What little humor there previously was drowned in DeGeneres working through her own issues on television. It lost ratings once Ellen came out, and turned off viewers while Will & Grace sustains an audience after firmly establishing in the first episode that Will would never be converted to heterosexuality. (Consequently, Will's life has not been as neutered as some would make out. In one episode, his fantasy of sleeping with Stone Phillips was hysterically depicted with a guest appearance by Phillips himself.)
Ultimately, all of these shows do contain stereotypical behaviior from their cast to one degree or another. Still, none of them are the glitter-paint minstrel shows some critics would make them out to be. Being queer once meant being something radical. Queer politics was not about conforming to the mainstream, but standing apart from it and still demanding acceptance. Now being gay has somehow evolved into being as similar to straight America as we possibly can be. The political line has become, "if we're more ordinary, they won't notice we like people with the same genitalia."
So, now, in true Donner family fashion, we are turning on these shows and our own sensibilities because they fail to hide queerness. They are criticized because these gay people are too, well, gay. (Or in Will's case, he isn't gay enough, although Jack is too gay.) Somehow we've become afraid that if we promote the idea we all like high coutre (the label I like best says "wash and wear"), or we have fabulous house decors (mine is chez Garden Ridge) that we'll quit finding acceptance among straight people. Now isn't that a queer idea?