With warmth and wish-fulfillment, Netflix’s Queer Eye tackles the transformative power of self-love and finding common ground.
On paper, the premise of the original run of Queer Eye was that the straights had problems the gays could fix. There was a transactional flavor to it: that queer men had some privileged knowledge to offer disheveled straight dudes about how to look like they have their shit together. There was also, famously, a more socially-charged proposition underlying the makeover shtick, namely: that gay and straight men could tolerate one another without everyone collectively bursting into flames. Because it’s not 2003 anymore the Netflix reboot goes a couple of steps further: this go round it’s not just about tolerance, it’s about acceptance.
Reality TV isn’t for everyone. And reality TV with a political flavor isn’t for everyone. But for a lot of folks, the new Queer Eye feels like twentieth-century comfort food.
The revamped Queer Eye sees our thoroughly modern Fab Five ditch the bustle of New York for rural Georgia, tackling eight unkempt men from the Deep South. Our gaggle of gay gurus includes grilled cheese chef de cuisine Antoni Porowski; grooming expert/camp queen Jonathan Van Ness; fashion god Tan France; and Bobby Berk, the design guy who always seems saddled with the disproportionate burden of remodeling bachelor pads while the others mix sangria and pick out pocket squares. And, lest we forget, there is Karamo Brown, whose job title of “culture expert” should read: “life coach/heart-to-heart specialist with eyes you can get lost in.” Also, as if Karamo couldn’t get any dreamier, he has A+ inclusion rider game.
The show has been praised as an optimistic and heartfelt response to the subtle ways toxic masculinity can permeate the lives of modern men. And the praise is well deserved. Men have been socialized to undervalue their self-care, self-acceptance, and self-expression and the show excels and underlining how beautiful and powerful men loving themselves can be. In the fifth episode “Camp Rules,” the makeover subject is an over-extended father with six kids and two jobs. Watching him affirm his own needs, and the importance of taking time to take care of himself is incredibly moving.
The new Queer Eye is also much better at highlighting different expressions of queerness; from Jonathan’s exuberance to Antoni’s reserve. Where the original run was guilty of a degree of homogeneity (pun abso-fucking-lutely intended), the reboot runs a more diverse gender expression gambit in addition to featuring two men of color. And in a tear-jerking twist, one of the show’s guests is a semi-closeted twenty-something preparing to come out to a family member—ergo the omission of “For the Straight Guy” from the show’s title.
Queer Eye has moved beyond the early-2000s experiment of “can gay and straight men interact?” to the exceedingly trickier 21st C. swamp of gender, religion, race, and politics. The most talked-about instance of this foray manifests at the beginning of episode three in a stunt, orchestrated without the knowledge of the cast, involving a cop.
After being pulled over, Karamo (a black man) is asked to step out of the vehicle. And at the peak of unease, the cop reveals that the whole thing was a gag. A very poorly thought out the gag. It turns out that he’s the one who nominated the episode’s makeover subject, Cory. Because it breaks my brain to imagine how anyone thought this would be funny, the stunt was most likely intended to initiate politically-charged “good for TV” drama. And Karamo, being the diplomatic demigod that he is, manages to spin gold out of bad taste. Driving alone together, Karamo shares his discomfort with Cory (who also happens to be a cop), and the two briefly discuss the tension between black people and law enforcement. In a talking head segment, Karamo (smartly, and optimistically) brings us back down to earth: “I’m not saying a conversation with one police officer and one gay guy will solve the problems, but maybe it can open up eyes.”
If I had to summarize Queer Eye to an alien, I would tell them that it’s 45 minutes of people from different backgrounds being genuinely fucking kind to each other. Queer Eye feels safe. It is supportive through and through; positive, high-energy, and determined to uphold its vision of a world where you can be yanked out of the clutches of a rut, a depressive episode, or close-mindedness by simply taking the time to affirm your self-worth. That being open and kind to yourself makes you more kind and open person to those around you.
Like comfort food, this is an incredibly tempting proposition, and when you think about it too hard, caveats begin to reveal themselves. Queer Eye is able to do what it does by smoothing controversial wrinkles into an uplifting reality show mold. The most obvious wrinkle being the show’s unsaid operating principle that, as The Conversation’s Stefanie Duguay puts it: “while Queer Eye tackles everything from race to religion, to sexuality—class is never addressed.” The show is more than happy to pathologize the homes and bodies of men, but never as an economic issue.
There’s an uneasy suspicion that, however functional, some of the bigger changes the Fab Five make aren’t ones the subjects could afford on their own. It’s hard to get your self-actualized-modern-man zhuzh when you don’t have the income to move out of your parent’s house. To the new Queer Eye’s credit, there are subtle attempts to steer away from cure-all-consumerism to more realistic changes, like shopping at Target or simply acquiring the right know-how. But it’s hard to apply the same logic to the showstopping home renovations. Especially when you find out that more than one of the show’s guests sold their homes after appearing on the show.
Queer Eye’s attempt to have it both ways, tackling raw socio-political wounds while committing to the safety of its tone, is bit awkward. And in instances like the cheeky dismissal of a bootleg “Make America Great Again” hat the limits of the show’s project start to come into sharp focus. One of the reasons Queer Eye feels like comfort food is that it clips the heels of complicated topics without sitting with them for too long. Is this problematic? Sure. Do I enjoy Queer Eye any less for it? Fuck no. Holding media accountable for its shortcomings is important, but not to the point where something as well-intentioned and forward-thinking as Queer Eye is dismissed on the grounds of not being progressive enough. We’re so lucky to live in a world where Queer Eye exists, and hopefully, it will continue to bless our Netflix queues for a while yet.
Eight episodes of ‘Queer Eye’ are streaming now on Netflix.