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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Queer Eye S1/S2 television review: self-care for the straight guy

Queer Eye S1/S2 green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
The nicest, kindest critique of toxic masculinity imaginable. The makeovers aren’t only about new clothes and a haircut: they’re about men waking up to a new sense of self, and a new participation in their own lives.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of reality TV
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I am not a fan of “reality” TV. There’s nothing “real” about it, and I don’t mean that a lot of it is scripted. I mean that it’s about contriving scenarios that are the farthest thing from reality — hello, nobody actually bakes competitively; we bake so we can feed our friends something nice, and doesn’t that make everyone a winner? — merely to gin up reasons for people to be catty to one another. The world is all full up on pointless conflict and mean people. We don’t need to concoct more of either.

So I had zero interest in watching Netflix’s “reality” series Queer Eye — I have never seen the original, either — until I read Laurie Penny’s essay about it at The Baffler. I read her essay because even though I had no interest in the show, she is always brilliant, and always bursting with smart and funny feminist insight. She is the writer I want to be when I grow up. And she more than piqued my interest: she absolutely sold me on my need to watch this show. Which I did. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. I was instantly hooked, much to my enormous surprise even after Penny’s glowing praise.

Everybody loves a fireman!

Everybody loves a fireman!

Now that I’ve seen all of Queer Eye16 episodes on Netflix, plus a truncated freebie on YouTube, and damn, I could watch another 16 right now — I can say that almost everything she writes there, I second. The stuff about living as a queer person doesn’t apply to me, but otherwise, I wish I hadn’t read her essay so I could say everything she says without feeling like there was no point to me parroting her (and knowing that I’d likely not say it all anywhere near so well). But there are a few things she says that I want to underscore, and a few things that she doesn’t say that I need to say.

The show’s premise: five gay guys swoop into small towns in Georgia from their loft base in Atlanta to do week-long fixer-upper jobs on men who desperately need it. (They do one woman — cue sweet jokes about how these guys have never “done” women before — but that episode doesn’t work quite as well as the others.) The Fab Five are Tan France, who handles fashion and is the show’s token accent (he’s British); Jonathan Van Ness, the grooming expert; Karamo Brown, who deals with culture and general life-coaching stuff; Antoni Porowski, go-to for food and wine advice; and Bobby Berk, the interior-design expert. Every single one of them is charming and adorable, and as a gang they run the gamut from could-pass-for-straight (Antoni) to proudly flaming (Jonathan)… which they often acknowledge and discuss. Self-deprecating self-awareness of their performative homosexuality just about negates any potential complaints about the five as gay-male stereotypes, as does the fact that they’re all very distinct individuals, obviously. (But then, I’m not a gay man, and Penny makes some interesting points about why gay men don’t seem to be huge fans of this show.)

Queer Eye may be aspirational, but it’s not unrealistic. (I mean… Jonathan has to tell one guy to floss.)
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And here’s the thing that hit me right in the gut: Queer Eye is so damn nice. Not in an insipid way, but in a kind way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kinder TV show than this one, and oh my god is that so very welcome in our world right now. There is no competition here, except the men the Fab Five are helping competing with themselves in how they strive to make just the tiniest effort to better themselves, and even then only in ways that still let them feel like themselves. These are not impossible makeovers of body and home and soul. This show may be aspirational, but it’s not unrealistic. (I mean… Jonathan has to tell one guy to floss. Tan needs to tell another that clothing with holes worn in it is no longer acceptable street wear. This stuff is not rocket science. And while the Fab Five clearly have a fab budget, sometimes they are just going to Pottery Barn or Target; one guy gets wardrobe tips for shopping vintage, like for where vintage means just “secondhand.”)

“Either that beard goes, honey, or I do.” (Not a direct quote, but almost.)

“Either that beard goes, honey, or I do.” (Not a direct quote, but almost.)

What we witness in each episode are baby steps toward each makeover subject simply learning how to be a slightly more active participant in his own life. I know too many men who don’t seem to realize that they are sitting out on life… and here we see men becoming aware of this, of hairline cracks forming in their unconsciously erected facades. Every episode — every damn one — made me cry with the aching vulnerability of the men the Fab Five are helping… when they can finally get around to admitting they need help. It’s startling and touching to see men being kind to other men, and men talking about their feelings, and men acknowledging that their lives could be better and that they themselves are responsible for that. Because these are not things that our culture has scripts for. (Our culture has scripts for men blaming other people for their woes.) But it’s also startling and touching to see how difficult it is for these men to open up, and how much opening up changes them. The transformation by episode’s end is not just about new clothes and a haircut: it’s about having woken up with a new sense of self, one that they had only the vaguest inkling they were lacking.

The Fab Five’s makeover subjects are in no way bad men… but toxic masculinity infects even them.
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Now, Laurie Penny is not wrong when she writes that Queer Eye’s “gimmick is that … toxic masculinity is killing the world, and there are ways out of it aside from fascism or festering away in a lonely bedroom until you are eaten by your starving pitbull or your own insecurities.” But I think it’s important to note — particularly because SO MANY MEN freak the fuck out the minute anyone says “toxic masculinity” — that all of the makeover subjects here seem to be decent, hardworking men, some doing incredibly important work: one is firefighter who trains other firefighters; another is a man who works two jobs and barely sleeps so that he can support his family. They are IN NO WAY bad people… but toxic masculinity infects even them. (It’s not masculinity itself that is toxic. Hence the word toxic acting as a modifier to distinguish it from regular, nontoxic, unmodified masculinity. Toxic masculinity is what tells you that grammar is for girls, my dudes.) Toxic masculinity is what had made them internalize the notions that real men don’t talk about their emotions, or even have emotions; that real men aren’t bothered about their appearance, even if that means they walk around like cavemen; that real men don’t need cleanliness, such as a sofa that doesn’t reek of cat urine; that real men don’t take care of their health, like eating some fresh vegetables once in a while.

Antoni is my favorite, because dayum... he’s great in the kitchen.

Antoni is my favorite, because dayum… he’s great in the kitchen.

(I might exempt the Trump-supporting cop from the “decent.” If one of the show’s overarching themes is “Yes, we can all get along!” it’s strained by this episode. And it’s absolutely awful watching Karamo, who is black, having to play nice with this man and pretend that centuries of endemic racism can be solved if we just have a little chat. This is expecting too much from kindness and civility.)

This is not a show that passes the Bechdel Test. There is barely a woman who appears here (with the exception of the one female subject) who isn’t purely an adjunct to the makeover guys, and of course all those women — friends, sisters, wives, mothers — talk about onscreen is those men. But this is nevertheless a hugely feminist show: it is all about getting men to recognize that narrow traditional ideas of masculinity are hurting them. Of course, Queer Eye is also an example of a frustrating characteristic of our patriarchal culture: that men will hear things that women have been saying since forever only when another man — even if he is gay — says them. But as Penny notes: “I’m happy to let that go, though, because it’s just so damn satisfying watching men sort one another out for once.”

There’s something to be said, too, for the critique of traditional masculinity that the queerness of the Fab Five offers. It’s actually sort of difficult for me to imagine how anyone might fail to see any of Our Heroes as less than “masculine”: even at his most fey, for instance, Jonathan is still a complete gentleman in every sense of the word. But there’s an obvious and pointed distinction between how put-together and at ease in the world and in their own bodies the Fab Five are next to the unhappy schlubs they are fairy-godfathering. And yet Queer Eye makes no bones about gayness being proof against toxic masculinity or manbaby syndrome, either: the adult son of their one female subject is gay, and the Five need to shame him into cleaning his damn room in the house he lives in with his mother, if only out of respect for her, but also as a way to grow the fuck up.

This man thought he was ugly and unfixable.... I’m not cry-- yes, yes, I am.

This man thought he was ugly and unfixable…. I’m not cry– yes, yes, I am.

(The clean-up-your-room-dude path to adulthood is where Queer Eye shares a sliver of Venn diagram with right-wing “philosopher” Jordan Peterson, who has convinced legions of disaffected dudes to give him $80,000 a month to let him tell them to clean their rooms. DO NOT EVEN ATTEMPT TO COMPARE PETERSON FURTHER TO THE FAB FIVE. Peterson thinks romance has something to do with lobsters, and not ordering them for dinner in fancy restaurants, either. The Fab Five are like [gently], “My friend, your wife makes an effort for you, so how about you tuck your shirt in — yes, the one without the holes — and maybe make this nice salad for you both to enjoy with a glass of wine?” Also they do this for the price of a Netflix subscription, or you could even watch every episode during a one-month free trial.)

Really what Queer Eye comes down to for me, as a hetero woman, is this: Will the Fab Five make me over, and can we please have straight queer men? In my dreams, this show would be so successful in radically changing our ideas about what makes a man a man that it’s simply not needed anymore. Until then, its genuine niceness will have to do as a refreshing change from real reality.


Queer Eye is streaming globally on Netflix.


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Queer Eye S1/S2 (2018) | directed by David Collins (creator)
US/Can release: S1: Feb 07 2018 | S2: Jun 15 2018 (direct to Netflix)
UK/Ire release: S1: Feb 07 2018 | S2: Jun 15 2018 (direct to Netflix)

MPAA: rated TV-14
BBFC: rated 12 (moderate sex references, bleeped strong language)

viewed at home on physical media or digital platform I paid for

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
posted in:
LGBT | reviews

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Lennon

    Love it. If you really feel like you could go for more, I found the original series to be just as moving and kind when I watched it during its original airing. I thought the Netflix version was very true to that same spirit of the original.

  • Owen1120

    hello, nobody actually bakes competitively; we bake so we can feed our friends something nice, and doesn’t that make everyone a winner?

    The Netflix show Nailed It! is basically what you suggest- amateur bakers do professional challenges, they fail spectacularly, everyone laughs, them most of all. But the real point of the show is to give everyone baking tips- everyone comes on and talks about a person they want to bake for, and the hosts always provide help to inspire them to keep working hard at home. Plus, the Fab Five (minus Antoni) guest star on an episode- I haven’t watched it yet, but I doubt that they actually compete for $10,000 plus baking supplies.

  • Owen1120

    I really love this review- I should get around to watching this show

  • Bluejay

    Great write-up, MaryAnn, thanks!

    Just going by what I remember, I found it interesting that the first season seemed to feature more clients from the “red” side of the cultural divide — the Trump-supporting cop, the devout Christian man with many daughters, the firemen who probably weren’t as familiar or comfortable with gay men (the fire chief made awkward jokes about needing one of the Fab 5 to button up his shirt); while the second season featured more “blue” clients — the African American lady, the trans man, the young progressive mayor of a small inclusive town. I wonder if this was a conscious thematic decision (Season 1: “Reach out to the Trumpers”; Season 2: “But don’t forget to highlight our allies too.”)

    It’s also just as interesting, if not more, to see the Fab 5 working out their own issues: Karamo and his feelings about cops; Bobby’s trauma with being rejected by his religious community; Tan realizing he didn’t know much about trans issues and could be much more involved in the LGBT community. Outside the show, it’s also fascinating to see them hash out their political opinions; Antoni and Jonathan have very different attitudes about the “gay cake” baker.

    I did wonder, at times, if the show inadvertently reinforces some toxic notions even as it dismantles others. In some (not all) of the episodes featuring single men, the Fab 5 sometimes told the client that he needed to clean up his act in order to get the girl, and at the end they’d cheer wildly from the Loft when they watched video of him flirting and the woman responding. (So are the men cleaning up out of respect for themselves and not just to “win” romance? And is that message always getting through?)

    I also think Tan’s preferred “look” is getting predictable; no matter what size or shape the client is in, Tan always seems to put him in a blazer, button-down shirt (patterned, if the guy used to like wearing logo tees), and skinny pants. Some of the clients (like the homeschooled piano prodigy from Season 2) seemed to have their own original style to begin with, and giving them the Tan makeover just imposed a look that wasn’t comfortably theirs. (Disclosure: I’ve tried his suggested “French tuck” a few times, and it doesn’t seem to work for me. :-) )

    I would love to see some sort of “one year later” follow-up on some of the show’s clients, to see if they’ve stuck to their new routines and attitudes (and managed to keep their renovated homes looking clean and organized). The show is mostly wonderful, but I’m also a bit skeptical of whether one-week makeovers can really transform lives. The clients always go through an exit interview at the end of the episode, where they express gratitude for how their lives have been touched and changed, but while some of them are genuinely emotional, others seem — to me — a bit perfunctory and “saying what they want to hear.”

    Also, Laurie Penny is right: Bobby is awesome. Jonathan gives you a shave and Antoni suggests an appetizer, but Bobby rebuilds your house. (Well, he envisions it and then his crack team — who needs more credit — makes it happen.)

  • Bluejay

    If you haven’t seen, here are some quick “Queer Eye” mini-makeovers:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54BVvP7zvDQ

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M00TZU7q9ME

  • Bluejay

    Also wonderful: Karamo talking about his sons, fatherhood, and family. Nontoxic masculinity at its best.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxPYfliQZDU

  • Dokeo

    The original Queer Eye was the same way. If you’re looking for more, check out those episodes.

  • Bluejay

    And now that Queer Eye stuff is showing up in my YouTube mentions, here’s something that popped up: an entire (short) episode in the town of Yass, Australia!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vM2zD5FtrkQ

    Very moving conversations… though, as I mentioned in my longer comment, some of the motivational speeches regarding “getting the girl” still seem problematic to me. I could have done without Tan’s “let’s get you laid!” (I guess it’s in the context of self-care and feeling you’re someone worth loving, but that notion could always be phrased differently, without “women as sexual prizes” as a lazy default.)

  • Bluejay

    Okay, one last (I think!). Talking about whether or not they’d ever meet with Trump. Karamo is deeply admirable. But Jonathan is on fire.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VarTr6E_Hj4

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  • Isobel_A

    Although loads of people always have baked competitively. Country fairs have had baking competitions forever.

  • But those people are not baking under hot studio lights, time pressure, and the glowering eye of judges just waiting to insult their efforts. Completely different scenario from reality TV.

  • Karamo and his feelings about cops

    But Karamo’s feelings about cops are wholly justified, and that episode resolves nothing. I sincerely doubt that he had much of a change of heart… or at least he might have until the next time a cop pulled him over for being a black man driving a suspiciously expensive car.

    at the end they’d cheer wildly from the Loft when they watched video of him flirting and the woman responding

    Well, yeah, but… she responded. I mean, they’re not wrong in that you do need to bring a minimal level of self-respect and grooming to dating and romantic situations. And whenever we do see this dynamic, it’s clear to me that the women were simply waiting for the guy to make an effort for *her,* not so that they could go out trolling for random booty. We never see women who are not welcoming of a guy’s advances, or even any man who behaves inappropriately toward women.

    And also, it’s a nice change from the advice that women get if we’re unhappy with our dating opportunities. Women are constantly told we need to change ourselves: lose weight, dress better, and so on. Men are told: You deserve a supermodel without even having to try, even if you are a dumb schlub. This is a tiny corrective to that.

    ; no matter what size or

    It’s pretty basic, that’s true. But so is Antoni’s cooking ideas for them. These guys are absolute beginners. They need the foundations before they can go on to try something more complicated and adventurous.

    I would love to see some sort of “one year later” follow-up on some of the show’s clients

    Me too!

  • This is the truncated freebie I linked to in my review.

  • Hmm, Laurie Penny’s description of the original show doesn’t inspire me. Maybe I’ll try one or two episodes…

  • As I said in response to someone else here who said the same thing, Laurie Penny’s description of the original show doesn’t inspire me. But maybe I’ll give it a shot.

  • Bluejay

    Oh, whoops! I didn’t click on that link. My bad.

  • Bluejay

    But Karamo’s feelings about cops are wholly justified

    Oh, absolutely. I never meant to suggest otherwise. I just meant I found it striking to hear such a painful conversation that hits a raw national nerve. Even though previous episodes had had honest personal conversations, this went way deeper socially and politically than I had been expecting from the show up to that point. I think this was the episode when I realized the show wasn’t going to limit itself to lightness and froth and individual insecurities, but was unafraid to touch on big national social issues whenever it needed to.

  • Bluejay

    Been reading more about that cop episode, and man, it was INTENSE behind the scenes (and onscreen as well). The producers and camera crew knew about the “pulling over” setup, but the Fab 5 didn’t; and they randomly decide who gets to drive the car on any given day, and that day it happened to be Karamo. Afterwards, he and Tan France were FURIOUS and refused to shoot more episodes until they got assurances that nothing like this would happen again.

    More here (Tan’s interview starts around 1:40):

    https://www.refinery29.com/2018/05/198606/tan-france-queer-eye-racism-bigots

    Tan has also been asked “Are you a terrorist?” BY ONE OF THE CLIENTS. Clearly there’s some ugly stuff that gets edited out of the show; I almost wish we could see it, so we can see how much shit needs to be addressed and confronted.

  • I never meant to suggest otherwise.

    I didn’t think you did! I just disagree with you that their conversation was very productive.

  • Afterwards, he and Tan France were FURIOUS and refused to shoot more episodes until they got assurances that nothing like this would happen again.

    I don’t blame them. That scene was appalling.

  • Bluejay

    Whether or not it was ultimately productive, it DID explicitly address a painful national issue, and I’m just struck that it happened at all. The show could easily have not picked this guy as the client (knowing he’d have to speak in depth to Karamo), not accepted the nomination from his cop buddy, not set up the “pulling over” prank (which was admittedly a wrongheaded horrible idea). I think on some level the producers knew they were setting the scene for this kind of conversation to happen, and they didn’t run away from it.

    Here’s Karamo’s take on it. The conversation apparently ran over 2 hours, which was edited down into 2 minutes; I’d love to see the unedited footage. But Karamo seems to feel the episode made breakthroughs with some viewers.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umkwSkpeOo8

  • Bluejay

    Another thought: As you said, this show is about helping beginners. Beginning fashion tips, beginning cooking tips, basic grooming. Karamo’s talks probably do the same; the goal isn’t to solve racism, but simply to have him and the client mutually recognize each other as individual human beings. Baby steps.

  • Lennon

    Yeah I mean I haven’t gone back to audit it now and see if it holds up to what I remember of watching it 15 years ago. It’s possible it might not resonate as much now. But I remember being moved by a lot of the same stuff you called out in your review then. It was remarkable to watch these guys being pulled out of the toxic masculinity that told them they couldn’t take care of themselves and really having their lives turned around.

    I’d be interested to hear if you do go back and check them out. Talking about it makes me want to go back and check a few episodes out as well, to see how it holds up to my memories.

  • Lennon

    I would love to see some sort of “one year later” follow-up on some of the show’s clients, to see if they’ve stuck to their new routines and attitudes (and managed to keep their renovated homes looking clean and organized). The show is mostly wonderful, but I’m also a bit skeptical of whether one-week makeovers can really transform lives.

    One of the things I liked about the original series was that they did do this, and the guys had totally kept it up! It really did seem to have been a life-changing experience for them, which was really cool to see.

  • Bluejay

    Cool! I hope that’s true of the clients in this series as well.

  • Bluejay

    can we please have straight queer men? In my dreams, this show would be so successful in radically changing our ideas about what makes a man a man that it’s simply not needed anymore.

    Yes please. We need all men — of ANY sexual orientation — to be more like these guys. This clip of them going through friendship exercises just got me weeping; I wish the world was like this.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqHso7CwmaQ

  • Good point.

  • It’s possible that stuff that was groundbreaking 15 years ago wouldn’t feel that way now.

  • Dent

    Depression kills a lot of men. College is like this great big wave that rolls over everything. I can imagine the financial stresses of mid-life are the same way.

  • Depression kills a lot of men because men are not socialized to deal with their emotions, to talk about their emotions, or even to admit they HAVE emotions, unless it’s anger, and even the permitted expression of that is very limited. Do you think *Queer Eye* will help with this?

  • Bluejay

    I think it might.

    Another show that challenges this restrictive male socialization is Steven Universe — also from an LGBT creator, Rebecca Sugar. I think it’s absolutely brilliant.

    This video is worth watching, even for folks who don’t follow Steven Universe; and if it gets you interested in the show, it doesn’t spoil any major story points.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z5ICVEIRIk

  • Bluejay

    …I mean, I guess it spoils a couple. But once folks get into the show, I doubt they’ll mind. :-)

  • RogerBW

    Some of it’s bound to be the consultant effect – I’m sure many of us have noticed that when an expensive consultancy firm comes in to a company and gives the exact same advice that the workers have been giving for ages (except their version will cost more and not work as well), that’s the version that gets followed. Fifteen years ago “gay guys know more about looking good than straight guys” was still an acceptable cliché, I guess; I’m not at all convinced that it is now.

  • It’s about men getting paid — and well — to do work that women do for free. :-)

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