Queer Eye and Normative Dreams
Allow me to have a brief but queer detour on my way to Queer Eye.
I think Fredric Jameson might have been right. (Wait, was it Jameson?) He argued that contemporary (or post-modern) culture sells “intensity.” It promises what Brian Massumi calls affect. For the normal person, the consumer of mass media, it sells an assortment of feelings and emotional relief. Media (literature, magazines, blogs [except mine], and now streaming television) are saturated with intensity. The reasons for this vary. Why are we more comfortable crying or laughing hysterically on our beds with a pint of ice cream in our hands than at cafes, bars, on the sidewalk, or on the stoop with others. Are we afraid of expressing our feelings? Perhaps we are taught that. Once after middle school, two guys bullied me on the school bus ride home. I came through the door sobbing. My mother freaked out. “What have they done to my baby?” She was so shaken that my father decided to take me to the side and tell me, “I don’t care if Mike Tyson threatens you at school…don’t tell your mother.” Obviously that memory has had a lasting effect. I tend to keep my emotions to myself. Middle school is fucked up.
Given this kind of personal experience, I tend to enjoy reading theories that explain this cultural and social “introversion.” Ann Cvetkovich, in An Archive of Feeling, argues that the internalization of feeling became more broadly cultural when doctors began pathologizing certain affectivities. In other words, they considered certain psychic states “of being affected” by external stimuli (what we might call a trigger) to be signs of a medical condition. Intense feelings–of anger, depression, joylessness, or manic happiness–were modified, in part, by the new cultural genre of psychology. I tend to agree with Cvetkovich on this point. Extremes of emotions and feelings, and their performances, have been signs of instability. How does one keep these emotions in check? Do they have a place in public life? If not, the autonomous individual in American life needs to learn how to self-manage. What better avenue than the private office of a therapist?
Enter “Bingeable” Media: Queer Eye’s Normative and Queer Dilemmas
So I began Queer Eye, Netflix’s reboot of the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and I couldn’t help but wonder why in the fuck was I crying (bawling might be the more accurate term) during Tom’s makeover? Maybe there really is something queer about Queer Eye, or this episode at least.
In spite of the consumerism; in spite of the commodification of “feeling”; in spite of the mainstream LGBTQ narratives of acceptance, Queer Eye made the attempt to delve into the utterly ordinary and banality of life-making in a southern town. It was an exploration of affects that keep people in holding patterns that don’t produce anything other than the next day. This episode reminded me of Katie Stewart’s concept of the “space on the side of the road […] a space in which people literally ‘find themselves’ caught in space and time and watching to see what happens, and yet it also makes them irreducible subjects encountering a world” (38). Let’s face it. Most of us pass by this space where life persists without a second glance.
Tom is a 56 year old dump-truck driver. He introduces himself as a “dumb, old country boy from Kentucky.” He’s a father, has had two divorces, and has been diagnosed with Lupus. He lives in a basement apartment. His ordinary is what one might expect from life in the space on the side of the road. “I don’t do a whole lot. I get up, I go to work, I come home. Fix me a redneck margarita [that’s Mountain Dew and tequila, for nonplussed readers]. Smoke a cigarette and watch the television through the door. It’s my favorite thing to do.” I get the sense that although these practices don’t amount to much, the affects they produce (of self-sustaining assurance, of ordinary pleasure) can map onto other ordinaries despite material differences.
So Queer Eye focused on what was ordinary. Ordinary spaces invite unanticipated happenings, psychic snapshots of a life lived with “that special someone,” or self-transformations of beauty and recognition. And sometimes all it takes is a burrito. Antoni’s innocuous questions in the kitchen about Tom’s favorite Mexican cuisine allowed a space where Tom confessed that he still loved Abby, his ex-wife. That Mexican joint was their thing. I felt an affective shift, something that had been building throughout the episode. Tom’s confession was important for me because it illustrates how memory can suddenly snap into place, constellating the things you wish you could have, or things you wish had gone another way. In a way, it outlined the contours of those affective attachments that keeps Tom stuck. So when the “transformation” is complete, Tom, overcome with feeling, starts to cry. And I start to cry.
But I realize, now, that I was crying because there was an underlying sense of urgency in the episode, an affective tremor stitching together the scene of Tom’s life with the makeover itself. What Queer Eye did was take Tom–a cisgender, white, heterosexual male with back and health problems, two divorces, a daughter and a grandchild–and understand how his attachments act “as a space for detaching from the normative world while cultivating a parallel sensorium from it” (Berlant 148). I was deeply affected by the fact that he felt as though he, a member of a population most in my intellectual circle would consider already normative, felt as if he had been living in that parallel sensorium, finally invited to enter the normative one, the beautiful one. He, too, could be “fixed.” Fixing, temporarily, what seems to crowd out hope in spite of the fact that still holds out for hope’s possibility. If it’s not a cruel form of optimism then maybe it’s a queer kind of hope.
Beside figuring out why I cried, a point I’ve been implicitly making is that Tom, and people like him, have to be considered in this larger picture of localized and hidden affective experience. It’s to get the total picture, the reparative picture, of a culture that is at once binding and fluid. If media can provide us access to affective intensity and emotional release, it’s not to satiate but to inform. In a way, media (documentaries, projects, you name it) allow us to
picture a world in which there is something wrong with the everyday and an ‘Other’ world–more real than ‘the real’ and resembling dream or fiction–rises as a sign of unrealized possibility. In the daily, lived conflict between what is and what might have been if people had not lived the lives they were forced to live or chose to live, there is a double vision of two lives (caught and free, used to and anymore, the city and home) differentiated by a lived experience of loss and the dream of redemption (Stewart 50).
So, when Queer Eye explored the practices that kept like Tom trapped within a sensorium that is parallel to normativity–I think that’s a queer invitation to rethink livability in American culture.