Civilizing Young Males

There are forests leveled by the mountains of sociological literature confirming what most people have intuitively known for quite a long time: Children who grow up with a mother and father fair better, on average, than children who are not so blessed. Part of the value of having parents of two different flavors is that men and women tend to bring two contrasting views of the world to their children.

If this were the Sixties, we would talk about the Yin and the Yang. This is a more grounded age less enamored with half-understood Eastern philosophy. We can, therefore, generalize that fathers tend to teach the competitive traits: a willingness to test oneself against others, a recognition of the value of strength, and poise under pressure. The traditional feminine perspective is more nurturing; more concerned about nesting, more attuned to grooming, dress, and accommodating other people’s feelings.

Of course, these are generalizations. There are Moms who teach their children how to throw a curve ball or drill a soccer ball into a net, while instilling a cutthroat competitiveness as fierce as any father could. There are Dads who read their children poetry and find just the right curtains for their kid’s room.

If all goes well, balanced children are produced. However, many young males typically need additional civilizing. Some young men, particularly, men without wives, tend to live sloppy undirected lives, eating out of pizza boxes, with clothes strewn about in unwashed piles, and the television perpetually tuned to ESPN. A walk through dorms on a college campus will confirm the observation that, as a rule, boys are less civilized than girls.

It is generally the job of young women to complete the job begun by boys’ mothers and finish the civilizing process. The charm of this civilizing process is behind the appeal of the campy Bravo channel show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The show begins with a young unkept fellow living alone in an apartment with a goal shared by most young men to impress a girl. The fellow genuinely wants to make a good impression, but has never acquired the social skills to do so. His apartment is dirty and unappealing. His clothes are comfortable but not fashionable. His hair is generally disheveled and he has not really acquired good grooming skills. He has not yet realized that being a gentleman and having good manners really means making the people around you feel comfortable. Even if he has recognized this, he has not quite figured out how to go about being a gentleman.

Each week, five gay men come to the rescue of some young straight man. Of course, the show takes advantage of the gay stereotype of being more fashion conscience. One fellow is an interior designer and helps create an inviting space out of a grime-filled dingy apartment. Another takes the young rube for a haircut and provides general grooming instructions. Our third gay hero takes the young straight man shopping for flattering cloths. A fourth instructor provides dating instructions, for example when to buy a small gift to impress a girl. The final gay fellow is an expert cook teaching the young man how to prepare a dinner for his girl friend or how to order for her in fine restaurant.

There are a number of reasons the show has grown in popularity. The “fab five” display a genuine concern for the prospects of their makeover candidate. What many fail to appreciate is that they are embarked on a fundamentally conservative enterprise: the civilizing of young males in society. The five gay men are fulfilling a traditionally feminine role in this context. One is reminded of the metaphor in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises where the steers are put in with the bulls to settle them down.

Although the series unapologetically plays on gay and straight stereotypes and it is clear that the producers have the unstated intention of portraying stereotypical homosexual behavior in a favorable light, the series works because it transcends it own propagandistic goals and features real human warmth and humor. The first attempt to feature homosexuality on a ongoing television series fell flat. Ellen Degeneres’s sitcom was too clumsy, preachy and actually mean-spirited. It died a merciful death. NBC’s Will and Grace that features homosexual characters is frankly too vulgar to be seen as anything but shameless exploitation.

Now in the interests of reciprocity, there should be a show Straight Eye for the Queer Guy where five straight guys help a stereotypical gay fellow learns to appreciate some traditionally male activities. There could be a sports counselor who helps with appreciating sports; a cuisine guy who teaches the gay student how to brew hot chili or to barbecue; a fashion advisor who explains the convenience of jeans, T-shirts and sweatpants; a cultural guide who takes the gay fellow hunting to appreciate primal urges at dominance, and interior design consultant who help our gay student purchase large-screen televisions and foosball games.

It is apparent that good humor and open friendliness has an audience

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