Tuesday, June 07, 2005

How real is reality TV? Deconstructing Queer Eye

Posted by AmishThrasher at 1:41 pm
Reality TV
It's a construct!
In this essay, I want to find out How “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” constructs ‘queer’ and ‘straight’ identities, and is this construction limited to sexual preference? To do this, I will perform a discourse analysis on the episode that aired April 12th, 2004. In particular, I chose the first segment of the program; the segment before the first commercial break occurs. My reason for choosing this particular segment is because it presents us with John, the ‘straight guy’ (or the ‘untransformed straight guy’), before the ‘Fab Five’ have the opportunity to “transform” him.

While I taped several whole episodes, this particular episode stood out because of a quote I recorded on page 17 of my transcript. Here Kyan states “He’s pretty much got it in him naturally, it’s just he’s dealing with deficient materials”(1). I read this quote, and ones similar to it, as meaning ‘John is not hopeless, but we still need to present him as being flawed so we can present a transformation’. So we can look at how discourse is shaped to make him look ‘more flawed’ than he really may be, or how a guy who has “...got it in him naturally”(2) can still be shaped into the untransformed straight guy vs. gay guy dichotomy of the show, this segment is of interest.

Transcribing the program accurately was more difficult than I had expected it to be (note the completed transcript in the attached book). However, I didn’t have the benefit of teletext, voice transcription computer software, and I didn’t record the show in shorthand (any of which would have made the effort significantly easier). There are also other problems, like several people talking at once, making the discourse incomprehensible at times. There was also difficulty, for example, working out whether John’s greeting to the ‘Fab Five’ was “Commin’” or “Who’s it?”(3), and difficulty working out who said a given line while they’re off camera.

There is also an urge to paraphrase, or to ‘clean up’ discourse. The error of doing this, within the context of my transcript, would be to miss an interesting Freudian slip from Kyan. On page 23 of my transcript, he states “...’Coz tonight’s a big night, it’s like the... could be the biggest night of your life, depending on how things go”(4). One reading of this would be to see Kyan as being about to say ‘...it’s like the biggest night of your life’, then catching himself mid-sentence, and remembering that the episode’s subject position is that John “needs” the ‘Fab Five’ to convince Tina that’s he has “become husband material”(5). By cleaning up the text, this insight may well have been lost.

So what discursive repertoires happen in this segment?

One dominant discourse is that of brand. One example of this is the Carson quote “Let’s go check out this ‘Salvation Army’ thing you’ve got going on”. He could have stated ‘K Mart’, ‘garage sale’ or ‘flea market’ and the text would have read quite similarly. In contrast, Carson saying ‘Versace’ in a non-sarcastic manner would have significantly changed the sentence’s meaning. The difference between the function of the former, and its potential variation, is the economic class each set of brands is available, and so the discursive repertoire of brand is unified with, could be read as being a signifier of, class; with the difference between ‘Salvation Army’ and ‘Versace’ being a binary opposition. The function of this is to suggest to us that a difference between untransformed ‘straight’ men, and ‘queer’ men, is either economic class, or an awareness of how brand can present someone as being of a higher socio-economic class.

The latter reading is backed up elsewhere in the text. One comes from Thom, who at one point states “You’re paying a lot of money for the space up there”, then motioning upwards, and continuing “...you walk in and it’s so bland up there”(6). Another line suggesting this happens when John mentions he knows who Roberto Cavalli is; Carson responds “Stop it! Y’have gay friends?”(7).

This feeds into a general discursive repertoire of socio-economics; a discourse whose undertones extend into the discourse about non-branded materials and fabrics (in a fashion similar to the branded ones). This socio-economic discourse is shown by the Carson quotes “Why was all your furniture repossessed then?”(8) and the comment “Do you have bad credit...?”(9), while criticizing John’s choice of furnishings. These quotes clearly show the cross-over between this, and the brand repertoire.

Another prominent discursive repertoire used in this episode is the ‘sexual’ repertoire. There is little variation in meaning between “Can we see your Ying and Yang”(10) and the meaning you would end up with if you replaced the two italicized words with parts of the male anatomy. The biggest change of meaning in doing so would be to loose a witty joke about a necklace John was wearing. Jokes with similar double entendres are a recurring feature of this segment, and could be considered polysemic in their potential readings.

There is also a strong “Midwestern / Country / Cowboy” repertoire used in constructing the identity of our ‘untransformed ‘straight’ man (John). This could be viewed as a string of inter-textual references and cultural stereotypes. It builds on images created, or used, in TV programs like “The Simpsons”, “The Jerry Springer Show”(11), “The Beverley Hillbillies”, and the spaghetti westerns of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Beyond film and television, a similar repertoire is used by country singers like “Willie Nelson” and “Charlie Daniels”(12). The shared cultural stereotypes fueling this discourse, including ‘the cowboy’, ‘the trailer park community’, and ‘the American redneck’. Perhaps there is an assumption by the show’s producers that such references would be understood in such a context?

Within this repertoire, there is a binary opposition that seems to exist. The opposition presented is between the midwestern / country / un-transformed ‘straight’ version of the cowboy, and the urban / ‘queer’ / ‘transformed straight guy’ version. We can clearly see such an opposition presented to us in the text a couple of times. The first of these is when Kyan states “That’s sweet, he’s a country boy”(13), and Thom responds “He is a real country bumpkin, I think, is the word you’re looking for”(14). The second particularly clear reference is during a Kyan - Carson exchange, where Carson says “You’re kinda like... not George Straight, but George Gay”(15).

Other significant and dominant discourses I came across include occupation, natural beauty, marriage, love and romance, health and hygiene, religion, sport, and gender. Each of these discourses is used to further construct the ‘sexual preferences’ as presented, and examples are listed in the coding sheet of the attached book.

But perhaps the most dominant discourse; one that cuts across most others and one I’ve alluded to repeatedly, is that of transformation. This discourse seemingly excludes homosexuality as a genetically determined sexual preference, and functions to present it as a set of unified, in many cases non-sexual, discourses that a straight man can be ‘transformed’ into.

Something I noticed in doing this analysis is that lines of text are indeed polysemic, and often draw on several repertoires, with complex relationships between them. A seemingly simple line like Ted’s comment “We need to see if he can step up and see if he can become husband material”(16), for instance, draws on repertoires of marriage, religion (assuming marriage is a sub-discourse of religion), gender, transformation, and even sport (“Step up to the plate” being a reference to the sport of baseball). There are also inter-textual, intra-textual, and cultural understandings to each of these. Given the density of meanings contained in individual words and phrases in even one line, it would seem that discourse analysis over a smaller textual base would work better extracting meaning from a smaller sample than a larger one. However, given the limited length of this essay (1,500 words), I decided to place more emphasis on key discourses with specific examples.

So, is discourse analysis objective? To a degree. While it would be difficult to use discourse analysis to show meaning that isn’t there, it is also quite subjective. An example of such a subjectivity is in choosing particular text samples that lend themselves to particular interpretations. It is also possible, either maliciously, through misinterpretation, or otherwise, to overlook certain discursive repertoires. Text interpretation depends on how you define various repertoires, and the quality of the transcript. While it is good for answering a question like ‘How Queer Eye for the Straight Guy deals with ‘straight’ and queer identity’, there are other meanings to be found through semiotics or narratology that can’t be found through discourse. Finally, like semiotics, discourse works better with smaller texts than with larger ones.

And in conclusion, this segment of Queer Eye uses many discourses to construct both what it means to be a straight guy (John) and what it means to be gay (The ‘Fab Five’). These constructs are found in complex relationships of socio-economics, hygiene and grooming, religion, sex, gender, etc. The text presents many binary oppositions dividing the untransformed straight guy from a gay guy, including an awareness of how to present yourself as being of a higher socio-economic class. Certainly, however, the differences extend well beyond sexual preference.

Prior to writing this essay, I looked at the following articles:
SchrØder, Kim Christian, 2002, “Discourses of Fact” in “A Handbook of media and communication research: qualitative and quantitative methodologies”, ed K.B. Jensen, London / New York, Routledge, pp. 98 - 106
Treichler, Paula A., 1988, “AIDS, Homophobia, and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification”, in “AIDS: cultural analysis, cultural activism”, ed. D. Crimp and L. Bersani, Cambridge, Mass., M.I.T. Press, pp 31 – 70.
Wetherell, Margaret, 2001, “Themes in Discourse Research: The Case of Diana”, in “Discourse Theory and Practice”, ed. M. Whetherell, S. Taylor, and S.J. Yates, London, Sage, pp. 14 – 28.

Methodological and other help was also gained from:
Crago, Morwenna MST21RTM Tutoral, Wednesday, March 24th, 2004, Bundoora, Latrobe University
Hughes, Peter, MST21RTM Lecture, Monday, March 22nd, 2004, Bundoora, Latrobe University
The accompanying handouts.

Analysis conducted on Bravo Entertainment / National Broadcasting Company’s, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”, 2003, New York, NY / New Jersey, as aired on Channel Ten, April 12th, 2004, as in references 1 - 16.