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.
Now that I’ve seen all of Queer Eye — 16 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.)
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.”)
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.
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.
(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.
(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.