Is Queer Eye a Flawed Quest for Acceptance?
Charming and ground-breaking, Netflix's reboot of Queer Eye was the perfect opportunity to free queerness from the straight gaze... So why didn't it?
Straight people love it, Buzzfeed’s thrilled about the endless new material for gifsets and internet quizzes, and Chrissy Teigen’s gotten more people to follow on Twitter. It’s official, Netflix’s all new Queer Eye has the internet buzzing – understandably, given that it’s charming as heck.
The premise of the show, a remake of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, is simple. Men with bad hair, or messy homes, or trouble communicating, find their lives upgraded by the Fab Five, a group who, in their appearances, range from ‘oh, he’s cute’ to ‘if I saw him on the street, I would literally die’ levels of attractiveness (Antoni, if you’re reading this, I’d let you kill me with a rusty spork).
For gay viewers, the programme offers glimpses of representation alongside terrible pressure: to be perfect, in absolutely every way. Perfectly-coiffed Tan spruces up your wardrobe. Jonathan, who resembles a Millennial Jesus, gives you a divine haircut. Karamo, never seen without a bomber jacket, delivers fatherly lectures on how to be less trashy in your cultural tastes. The aforementioned Antoni tries to teach perplexed heterosexuals to julienne a grapefruit. And then disproportionately hard-working Bobby renovates the hovels these men call home. All in less than a week!
The aim of the game is for these industrious gay folks to turn their new protégés into the men they’ve always wanted to be. You’ve seen shows like this before: makeover and home improvement shows are hardly ground-breaking. Queer Eye sets itself apart by focusing entirely on its stars’ beauty and sexuality. In some ways, it’s a cute gimmick, though not without problematic implications. When you watch an Allsopp or an Oliver fix up someone’s life, you aren’t led to believe that their qualifications stem from their heterosexuality. So why does Queer Eye expect viewers to understand gayness as synonymous with aesthetic awareness? We never find out why these men are qualified to help troubled straights. The Fab Five’s presentation as angels who are gay gives one the impression that coming out has a high chance of making you develop altruistic super-powers.
As you might have guessed from the above descriptions, the Fab Five are all cissexual gay or bisexual men. While 'queer' is increasingly being understood as an umbrella term for all kinds of sexualities and gender identities beyond the heterosexual, cis-gendered norm, Queer Eye hasn’t quite gotten that memo, despite its title. What’s more, these five men, despite broader attempts at diversity than the original series, are all fit, young, and conventionally attractive. It’s not unusual for a makeover show to pay homage to the ideal of perfection, but Queer Eye wants to be about more than just looking good.
The Fab Five are posited by the show itself as new frontiersmen in the war against American homophobia, fighting now to be accepted, not just tolerated. To some, they would be the perfect ambassadors for the gay men of 2018. They’re politically aware, dressed to the nines, and always kind. What more could you want?
The problem is that this branding seems so restrictive: in this lens, gay men must be impeccably dressed, beautifully-groomed, and well-muscled (but not disturbingly Terminator-shaped) – as well as being helpful little angels for nearby heterosexuals. The idea of a less ‘perfect’ gay never quite drifts into the show’s consciousness: the Fab Five nervously talk about less than ideal body types or ‘jelly in the belly’ and wince at the idea of larger men dressing in ways that don’t flatter their body type. One wonders if a less conventionally attractive gay man will ever be seen on television. The straight men on the show can be fat, thin, hairy, old, awkward – but the gay men must be variations on male models: indeed, Antoni is a former model, and Karamo just signed with Wilhemina.
Maybe the heterosexual masses would be uncomfortable with gay men who weren’t physically up to scratch. Our media is still so tightly controlled by what straight audiences are thought to want, and so televisual versions of gay experience are centred entirely around the straight gaze. Why do gay men have to serve straight people to be considered likeable, and thus acceptable? It all makes sense as a kind of marketing exercise – most straight people harbour homophobic worries, so Queer Eye is going all out to show them how gay people can make their lives better if they’re only allowed to.
The message seems to be that gay people should make themselves as palatable as possible, putting the onus on gay people to be perfectly pleasant, rather than directly pressuring straight people to be less homophobic. This is hardly surprising, but it is exhausting: one is reminded of all the other times in life that minorities are encouraged to sit politely and wait for their turn to be included. Those that are too loud, too ungainly, are ignored. The fight against bigotry should not rely on respectability politics: we should be encouraging queer men to live their truest, most diverse lives, not imply that gays should flirt sexlessly with straight men to boost their egos, before offering them a haircut.
Despite these concerns, the show is still a rung on the ladder towards better representation of queer people – especially in a media environment where queer media seems to be getting cancelled left, right, and centre. Queer Eye gives us certain gems. You’re unlikely to have seen anyone as fabulously camp as Jonathan on screen before, at least not as anything but an object of fun. The Five’s chemistry as friends is palpable, and it’s still such a novelty to see gay men interact on screen without forced romantic tension. Watching the show for these moments is enough to make one deliriously happy, though hungry for more.
It’s that sense of genuine queer community that fuels what many are calling the best episode of the season. The Fab Five assist closeted AJ, a black guy in a happy relationship, who needs help coming out to his stepmother, and getting his fuzzy beard trimmed down to perfection. Karamo gets to share some wisdom about being out and proud as a black man, and he finally seems genuine in his advice. Antoni and Tan get to giggle over leather harnesses – appearing for a moment like men who’ve had queer experiences, rather than Ken Dolls. And Bobby gets to design a loft for a gay couple, which feels like a relief after watching him pour his labour into straight guys’ homes.
By the end of the episode, AJ’s come out, and one can imagine a more forward-thinking programme, where gay men help each other, where their stories matter on their own terms beyond straight narratives. For one jewelled moment, thanks to an episode that forgets or refuses to pander, it’s the best show on television.