Queer (Theory) Eye for the Straight (Legal) Guy: Lawrence V. Texas' Makeover of Bowers V. Hardwick

Article excerpt

SUSAN BURGESS, OHIO UNIVERSITY

In this article, I distill the complex discourse of queer theory into four claims and then employ those claims to construct an original interpretation of the 2003 decision of Lawrence v. Texas in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law criminalizing same-sex sodomy and overturned the 1986 case of Bowers v. Hardwick. Drawing on the queer performance in the reality television show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, 1 characterize Lawrence as a makeover of Bowers. Using Queer Eye's parody of sexual identity as a model, I offer a parody of judicial power, and conclude that my application of queer theory produces a better account of the complexity of constitutional change and a more savvy understanding of the persistence of power than that which is typically offered in conventional constitutional discourse.

Queer theory was developed in cultural studies and has many applications to political science. In this article, I distill this complex discourse into four claims that are relevant to political science. These are: (1) sexuality is central, not marginal, to the construction of meaning and political power; (2) identity is performative, not natural; (3) political struggle is better understood as ironic parody than as earnest liberation; and (4) popular culture provides a unique insight into the everyday operation of political power that may under certain circumstances transform, rather than simply mirror, status quo power relations. I then employ these claims to construct an original interpretation of the 2003 decision of Lawrence v. Texas in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law criminalizing same-sex sodomy and thereby overturned the 1986 case of Bowers v. Hardwick in which the Court had upheld a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy.

Drawing on the queer performance in the reality television show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, I characterize Lawrence as a makeover of Bowers. There are many parallels between Queer Eye and Lawrence. Both premiered in the Summer of 2003. ' Lawrence has its own Fab Five, the five justices in the majority, namely Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter, and Stevens. In addition, Queer Eye provides an excellent example of all four claims of queer theory, by revealing the centrality of sexuality, the performativity of identity, and the irony of political struggle through an accessible and entertaining narrative that comes from popular culture. In its third season on the BRAVO Channel as of July 2005, Queer Eye contributes to the trend in television toward reality and makeover programming, as well as to the recent centralization of gay characters. Each episode of Queer Eye features a heterosexual man who is living by a rule that, for a variety of reasons, no longer works for him. Five homosexual men (the Fab Five) review the rule and update it in five selected areas (food, grooming, fashion, decorating, and culture), providing along the way an accessible, entertaining, and somewhat critical view of straight life.

Consistent with the first claim of queer theory, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is premised on the centrality of sexuality and the heterosexual/homosexual binary. Proudly without regard to their sexuality, the Fab Five are defined as homosexual in every way, and the heterosexual men they make over are presented as their distinct opposites. In fact, every activity of both the homosexuals and heterosexuals on the show is presumed to be inflected with sexuality, even in categories that seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with sex, including food, grooming, and culture. Absent these distinctions, which are based on the centrality of sex, the show does not have meaning. The Fab Fives makeover of the straight guy also highlights various slippages in the heterosexual/homosexual binary that reveal the instability of identity. These slippages are parodied through the Fab Five's queer performance, which challenges-at least to some extent-the political advantages and disadvantages that respectively accrue to each identity. …