Story by Jess Kung Multimedia Manager Illustration by Adrian Carrillo Illustrator
“Queer Eye,” formerly “For The Straight Guy,” debuted in 2003. It was a makeover show premised on the fact that the gays are better than you. Every episode five exuberant men, the Fab Five, would read the house down on some hapless slob and then build them back up, usually shaved and with better fitting pants. There was a gay for grooming, food and wine, interior design, fashion and culture (the “heart” of their Captain Planet). It aired on Bravo, and it was a runaway hit. It won an Emmy in 2004. So like, Netflix just dropped a revival.
“Queer” as a word has evolved an incredible amount. It has meant “peculiar,” and “untrustworthy,” and it has been a pejorative term for same sex relationships. After the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s, it began to be reclaimed as a descriptor for LGBTQ identities adjacent to and beyond those terms, as well as a lens used to understand non-normativity as a whole.
The original show’s popularity brought gay voices and bodies into homes across the country. For a lot of people, it was one of the only ways to see gayness in a positive light.
Positive, with conditions. There were a lot of arguments that the show only deals in stereotypes, that to be gay was to be sophisticated, catty and mostly white. Another critique was that it used gay tokenism to sell product. The late seasons of the original show are dense with corporate sponsorships. Anyone can be accepted and respected if they can move units, and maybe a company gets progressive points for working with the queers.
The new show addresses those critiques in roundabout ways. There are no name-drop sponsorships, and the show doesn’t hide the local contractors helping with renovations. They’re based in Atlanta instead of New York, so fancy brands are eschewed in favor of what’s available to their “heroes” (it’s the show’s nomenclature and it sucks). In one episode, they go to Target because it’s the only store in the area.
The new Fab Five get to speak for themselves more than the original, in both confessional-style interviews and in one-on-one interactions with the heroes. Those conversations are where the show lives and dies. It’s basically the job of the culture guy, Karamo Brown, to have these conversations. He was the first gay black man on “The Real World,” and he is the one who plays therapist with the Georgians the most.
The show ends up coddling delicate masculinity and supporting these men in their heteronormative endeavors.
In one episode in particular, he has a long talk with a Trump-supporting cop in Atlanta traffic. I am suspicious when serious societal issues are temporarily resolved through a conversation and a hug. It doesn’t sit well that Brown, the lone black member of the Five, is suddenly burdened with resolving the pain of police brutality.
It might feel good to see an open dialogue happen, to come out knowing that both are “good people,” but it doesn’t question anything beyond that. What about the institution? What about Trump? For a show that sells itself on a version of wokeness (like, a Kendall Jenner “Start the Conversation” sign level of woke), it never confronts major controversy. In the show’s view, anyone can change and be a friend and you can just overlook how they condone a racist and homophobic administration.
The show isn’t very queer. If their hero is single, the Fab Five love to talk about being ready for lady friends. They reassure some of their heroes that this product isn’t really makeup, that the new wardrobe is going to stay blue and neutral. The show ends up coddling delicate masculinity and supporting these men in their heteronormative endeavors. Despite the serious conversations and the 20 percent increase in diversity (two men of color instead of one!), the Five still serve as capitalist cheerleaders.
I actually like both versions a lot and I think they aren’t without value. Men are allowed to be platonically intimate on this show, men are allowed to cry and throw their jorts away and moisturize. Despite all critiques, the show is still a fun fantasy - a reality where five exuberant men come to clean your home, buy you pants and help you reach your full potential.
Anyway, it’s on Netflix and the fourth episode is the best one.