January 12, 2005

Slobby men, slobby women.

Why is "Queer Eye for the Straight Girl" bad when "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" was good? You might think it's just because "Guy" was first, and the idea that was fun when it was new is dull when it's old. But Alessandra Stanley, in today's NYT, detects a different causality, and it has deep and disturbing implications:
There are plenty of women who do not comb their hair or throw out old newspapers, but on reality shows they seem more pathetic than cute. "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" worked by tugging at all the endearing stereotypes of heterosexual men as unkempt, oafish and in need of a woman's - or a gay man's - touch. Giving Oscar Madison a makeover makes comic sense. It's not quite as funny for the Madwoman of Chaillot.

What is the larger message here? It's not just that the new show is "more unsettling than it is amusing," as Stanley concludes, but that when a woman looks messy on the surface, one ought to conclude that she has underlying problems. She's pathetic, and cannot be saved by mere stylists. When a man is messy on the surface, however, a surface workover will solve the problem. The logic seems to be that the heterosexual stereotype for the male is that of a slob, so the slobby "straight guy" is really a normal well-adjusted man, but the heterosexual stereotype for a female is someone who takes care of her appearance, so the "straight girl" who deviates from the stereotype is abnormal.

Stanley notes that in the midst of the makeover, the woman in Episode 1 of "Queer Eye for the Straight Girl" says "this is all superficial." On "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," when the stylists fixed the man's surface, they liberated his attractive inner self. The man's beautiful inside emerged, and everyone felt warm and fuzzy in the end. Stanley is saying, this is not happening for the woman, because there could not have been a lovely inner self just waiting to be liberated by a superficial makeover, because no such lovely inner self, if female, would have let herself go like that in the first place.

What are the implications of Stanley's observation? Of course, we judge people by the impression they make on us when we see them. And we probably are already likely to have a more negative reaction to an unattractive woman than to an unattractive man (even if we are consciously committed to avoiding unfair discrimination). But now this sex-typed judgment goes a step further. Our negativity toward ill-kempt women now includes a harsh judgment about their mental health!

Well, it's just one episode of a show, so there's still hope that nonconformity might spring from individualism and strong character. I note that the show's producers try to select a makeover candidate whose transformation will entertain us, and they may have just misjudged what would make a good show in making their pick for Episode 1. They might have thought evoking our tender sympathies for a fragile flower of a woman would work. So there's still plenty of hope that slovenly women have it together on the inside -- at least as often as slovenly men.

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