Ten years ago, on July 15, 2003, five men, all of whom happened to be gay, hopped into a black SUV on a mission: to save a hapless slob, who happened to be straight, from his hapless slobbiness. "Queer Eye for the Straight Eye" was off and running.
The reality show — which starred Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia, Carson Kressley, and Jai Rodriguez dispensing tips on food, grooming, interior design, fashion, and social manners, respectively — was an instant ratings success. Its "make-betters," as "Queer Eye" called its makeovers, kept on keeping on until 2007, when the show ended after five seasons.
In the annals of TV history, "Queer Eye" goes down as a Primetime Emmy winner (it was named Outstanding Reality Program in 2004) that helped cement Bravo's hip, urban, gay-friendly brand. It made a "Dancing With the Stars"-worthy star of Kressley, and led the cool-headed Allen to the hot kitchen of the Food Network's best-kept secret, "Chopped."
Anything beyond that?
"It's a significant show because it participated in a broader culture revolution," says Jim Downs, an associate professor of history at Connecticut College, who's at work on a book about the turning points of the gay rights movement of the 1970s. "It's not singularly responsible for the revolution, but it definitely participated."
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"Queer Eye" arrived in the wake of pop culture moments such as Ellen DeGeneres's (and Ellen DeGeneres's sitcom self's) coming out in 1997, and mainstream acceptance of "Will & Grace" in 1998. By the summer of 2003, one month after the Supreme Court struck down Texas's sodomy law, some didn't blink twice at "Queer Eye." (Some, however, did criticize it for "exploiting" gays.) In USA Today, critic Robert Bianco offered that "Boy Meets Boy," a gay dating show that also premiered that July on Bravo, was "much edgier [and] riskier" than "Queer Eye," since it "forc[ed] viewers to contemplate (thought not see) the sexual component of homosexuality."
Mary Dalton, a professor of communication, film, women's studies, and gender studies at Wake Forest University, asserts "Queer Eye" was more of an "old-tradition" show than a pioneer: It gave viewers stereotypes — the gay man, for instance, who knows his way around a hair salon — with which they were comfortable.
And since nothing is known or revealed on the show about the lives of the "Fab Five," as the series billed its lifestyle gurus, Downs says, "'Queer Eye' is the gays' version of 'The Help,'" referencing the book and film about African American women who work as servants for upper-class white families.
In the end, as the ensuing decade has brought near-180 reversals in the courts and in public opinion on issues like gay marriage, Dalton says she views "Queer Eye" as "a footnote," or a part of a larger story, but not the story itself.
And that's not a bad thing.
Says Downs: "I think every little bit helps."