Queer Eye's Needlessly Woke Makeover

via Netflix
via Netflix

The Queer Eye reboot, whose eight-episode first season bowed on Netflix today, has been marketed as a socially conscious update of the makeover show, in which five gay men improve the lives and aesthetic sensibilities of (mostly) straight-identified men. “The original show was fighting for tolerance,” says Tan France, the re-Fab 5's fashion guru and one of at least two men of color in the group. “Our fight is for acceptance.” If this were true—that the fight for acceptance amounts to raiding the closets of schlubby dudes in need of haircuts—man, would the world be a much easier place to live in. All of our problems—or at least those of gay, upwardly moble, cisgender men—could be solved with little more than a flick of the wrist.


But no, the new Queer Eye is actually about as woke as someone dozing in a sleeping mask with sequined eyes stitched on it. The format is very much the same—the guys pack in a car discuss the needy dude they’ll help fix via some placed products, common-sense tips, and maybe a dash of innocent flirtation. Because it’s Netflix, they can say “shit” and “fuck” sometimes, and because it’s 2018, they do say, “Yaas,” quite a bit. (Also, all of the subjects of the queer eye’s gaze are residents of Georgia.)

Here’s an example of the sort of feedback you can expect to see via grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness, the Carson Kressley of this bunch in terms of his militant flamboyance.

Sprinkled along the way are some teachable moments, like when Van Ness and interior designer Bobby Berk school the jorts-loving Tom, a burly guy who grunts out every word like he’s bearing down on a child he’s birthing, on how a traditional relationship binary of man/woman doesn’t necessarily apply to male-male relationships. “I get that a lot as a gay man, like when I have been in a relationship it’s like, ‘Who wears the pants?,’” says Van Ness, patiently. “Even with hetero couples I think that like more and more, those lines are blurred. And whatever role you are, whether it’s like moon or sun, moon being more feminine energy and sun being more masculine, I think that there’s like gorgeous strength to be had in both.”

It’s particularly telling here that Van Ness sanitizes bodily matters—really what he’s talking about are tops and bottoms—via metaphor. Queer Eye was never much concerned with the fleshly, as it largely avoided serious conversations about sex and physical fitness, for that matter. It’s a show about outfitting exteriors, and often one that relies on the ironing out of eccentricities. The reboot features a few guys whose individuality—ridiculously long hair, an affinity for casual cosplay, a house inherited from a grandmother that appears to be frozen in the ‘70s as it is awash in love beads, shag carpeting, and ruffled curtains—is effectively toned down for something more socially acceptable.

That gay men would be employed to direct other men toward normativity may seem like a tremendous contradiction, but it makes sense—growing up gay (at least in previous decades), you understand what you are, in part, by observing greater society and seeing what you aren’t. In fact, you’re bombarded with the norms you’re transgressing, or will come to transgress. Passing and normalizing have great benefits in day-to-day ease of life—what they mean for your spirit is an entirely different issue, of course—and who better to impart the lessons of how to look good vis a vis societal expectations than a bunch of expert witnesses.


The cast here, while decidedly charming and outspokenly gay, are themselves fairly subdued in their presentation—many things have changed in the 15 years since the original series debuted, but none is more relevant than the shifting connotation of “queer” to slightly more radical identities than your garden-variety gay. It wasn’t always this way, just as “queer” wasn’t always a reclaimed term of pride, and indeed the idea of putting five gay men on television and letting them at it did once seem radical. But now when I hear queer, I think about drag queens in Bushwick and Radical Faeries and the vast array of gender identities—not a bunch of composed dudes in neutral colors, button-downs, and conservatively fitted pants that are trying to get other dudes to wear the uniform.


The show doesn’t really reckon with that, nor does it much bother to detail exactly what makes these guys authorities in their assigned fields—that extends the supposition that their gifted insight is the result of their magical gayness. This isn’t a baseless supposition—there’s something called the “best little boy in the world” hypothesis that explains the overachieving tendencies of many gay men. But there’s a darkness orbiting there that Queer Eye is too chipper to acknowledge. The impetus for “best little boy” tendencies are widely attributed to the deflection of shame that comes from being different and employing external factors to prove your worth. A study whose results were released in 2013 found that “being ‘the best little boy in the world’ comes at a cost, as young gay men who invested in these status-related domains were more likely to spend more time alone, to report more daily eating problems, getting into arguments and lying to others, and to feel more stress each day.” Queer Eye, of course, doesn’t concern itself with these issues either as it ki-ki-ki-ki’s along the way.


While it may not be quite as deep as it wants you to believe it is, Queer Eye is still a fun show, especially if you don’t think about it too hard. This is the case not just given the surface-level approach to politics but also, as with any makeover show, the question stands of much of what the subjects learned will actually stick once the cameras stop rolling. In other words, to what degree did the 45 minutes of content amount to a waste of time?

When it isn’t browbeating you with its importance, Queer Eye sometimes stumbles into truly poignant moments, big and small. In a scene in Episode 3, the guys make over a cop and that leads to what seems to be an incredibly frank conversation between the subject and Karamo Brown, who shares his own feelings about the police and being made to associate with them as a black man. What’s amazing about this goes beyond the tone of the conversation—which Brown says is “healing”—and into the fact that for that period of time, Brown is allotted screen time to meditate on his blackness specifically and unflinchingly, still a rare occurrence for a gay-identified man in American pop culture. And in Episode 4, they make over A.J., a black gay man who’s not entirely out or comfortable with displaying indications of his gayness (he dresses in baggy clothes so as not to reveal how much of a sculpted snack he is). Here the expertise of far more comfortable gay men comes without any suppositions or reiterations of stereotypes—it just seems like genuine guidance. It hit me that there’s a far more relevant show to be made just concerning itself with such issues—forget about the straight guys, why not just have gay guys helping gay guys?


These glimpses of that spirit, actually, I think are the most prosocial thing about Queer Eye—the camaraderie evident between the Fab 5, who are often caught in the backgrounds of scenes with their arms draped around each other in casual, seemingly platonic displays of affection. If we want to talk about representation and what makes this frivolous makeover show really matter, well, it’s that it’s really nice to spend time with five gay dudes who are genuinely nice to each other. It’s really that simple, and really, that’s all it needs to be.



Respectfully, I wonder if you understate the importance of the original. My parents watched it and I do think it sort of eased my coming-out process— at a time where I felt uncertain about how, for example, my dad might feel about me, I knew he liked these five gay men on his TV once a week. They were like a gay exploratory committee that sort of buoyed my confidence.

Additionally, the real affection the OG Fab Five had for their makeover subjects, and vice versa, was kind of something I hadn’t seen before. In Season 1, one of the subjects asked them to be groomsmen in his wedding, while another said a prayer thanking God for the Fab Five, which helped this particularly angsty gay Catholic kid reconcile what felt like two warring parts of his life (in some small part at least).

I have gay friends who *hate* the original and the idea of a reboot, calling it a gay minstrel show and I get where they come from on that. I also kind of agree that the whole self-congratulation thing the new series seems to be infused with overstates its own wokeness, but I do think that this was a small good thing, in a world that’s filled with like lots of big bad things, and that made me really happy? Also if nothing else I always like a good ambush home remodel.