Rather than repeat the stereotypes of the original, the poignant new series contains real moments of catharsis
When Netflix announced that they’d picked up a reboot of 00s makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, what I didn’t expect was for the new episodes to reduce me to sobs. The original show, after all, wasn’t known for its emotional poignancy. Its M.O. was reducing gay guys to surface level stylists, deployed to explain why unibrows are the worst, and how redecorating your apartment with a garish feature wall could help elevate a straight guy’s aesthetically clueless existence. Nowadays, that sort of stereotyping would be less likely to pass, but in 2003, lurid colours and sweeping generalisations were just so fabulous.
Clearly, a remake of a makeover show was still going to be, at its heart, about appearances. But what Netflix’s Queer Eye offers is way more than just advice on how to shave properly and why, if you have some redness in your face, you might need something called green stick (ever heard of it? No, me neither). Rather, across the show’s eight-episode first season, which has been transplanted from NYC to the southern state of Georgia, I was surprised by how sensitive and optimistic it was.
Like the original, each episode of the reboot focuses on one poor hapless heterosexual man. Each one, according to the brand new Fab Five — comprised of design expert Bobby Berk, food expert Antoni Porowski, grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness, fashion expert Tan France, and culture aficionado Karamo Brow — is in desperate need of rescuing from the funk their lives are in. The men go through the rigmarole of replacing their closets, having their homes upgraded, and adding a bit of culture and colour to their lives. However, the Fab Five also delve into topics such as loss, grief, regret, heartbreak, and the inability for some men to express their feelings or deal with their trauma.
“If camp discussions about face masks interwoven with dialogues about toxic masculinity are what it takes for us to start breaking down divisions, then I’m here for it”
Nowhere is this more moving than in the season’s middle episode, “Too Gay Or Not To Gay”. In it the Fab Five meet A.J., a young African American man who, after the death of his father, wants to tell his stepmom that he’s gay. Perhaps it’s because the five gay guys are on home turf, but the episode touches on some pertinent topics, like certain gay men’s fear of femininity and the fetishisation of masculinity. A.J., despite being an (extremely) attractive man, appears to be afraid of outside assumptions surrounding his queerness, and so hides himself behind shapeless clothing, scraggly facial hair, and straight-acting behaviours (like deepening his voice, and even refusing to cook). It’s an acute diversion that unpicks a different sort of crisis of masculinity that prevents LGBTQ people from being who they truly are.
When A.J. eventually tells his stepmother about his sexuality, it’s one of those rare reality TV moments of real catharsis, and you see years’ worth of repression and self-doubt released in an genuine outpour of emotion. As a viewer, it was hard not to feel that the Fab Five had, in some way, helped this man learn to accept his queerness.
There are, of course, some problems with the show. The service of the Fab Five in episode three to perpetual fratboy Cory – a cop with a MAGA hat and Mike Pence posters – is disconcerting, especially because these five articulate gay men don’t question him on his politics or, in fact, mention it at all. Likewise, in the same episode, a staged moment where the Fab Five are pulled over by a cop is used to spark a conversation between Cory and Karamo about Black Lives Matter and police prejudice and brutality. Even if it does end all positively, with Cory the cop shedding a tear and acknowledging more discussions need to be had, it’s probably too much to believe that when the cameras stop rolling Cory wouldn’t continue tweeting “Blue Lives Matter”.
Writing for Slate, J. Bryan Lowder questioned the relevance of the show in our Trumpian era of severe socio-political disparity. Why should it be the job of queer people, he asked, to help spread their culture and help better a man in a MAGA hat? Do we, in 2018, really need to vie for acceptance?
But, in such a turbulent time, maybe the answer is yes – we do need to find ways to have these conversations. In the last year, figures have shown that the murder of cis gay men has increased 400%, and acceptance of LGBTQ people has actually decreased. Even worse, the stats surrounding the murder of trans people — especially trans people of colour — exemplify that we’re experiencing an epidemic of violence. What’s certainly not helping the situation is the nonchalance from the certain privileged corners of the gay media, who are publishing op-eds about why young queer people shouldn’t care about LGBTQ history, as if discrimination is a thing of the past.
It’s never the duty of LGBTQ people to explain or justify our existence. But if camp discussions about face masks or how to cut up a grapefruit interwoven with dialogues about toxic masculinity are what it takes for us to start breaking down divisions, then I’m here for it. Anyway, the makeovers (or “make-betters”, as the Fab Five would prefer) may be the narrative crux of each episode, but any emotional impact felt by the viewers is the real goal. So when I found myself weeping over the effort that Tom from Georgia had made to let go of his cargo shorts, forgo stereotypes about masculine and feminine energy, and embrace making his own guacamole in a bid to get back with his ex-wife Abby, I couldn’t help but feel like the show might just have succeeded.