Queer Eye Returns, Aiming for Acceptance, Not Just Tolerance

The new Fab Five visit Trump country in Netflix’s reboot.

The new Fab Five of Netflix’s Queer Eye.
The new Fab Five of Netflix’s Queer Eye. Netflix

At the very start of Queer Eye, Netflix’s reboot of the early 2000s hit in which five gay men made over a slovenly subject, fashion expert Tan France, a member of the new quintet, remarks, “The original show was fighting for tolerance. Our fight is for acceptance.” France and his co-hosts, all learned in the arts of self-presentation— the show is built around the stereotype that gay men are chicer than everyone else—are hoping not just for peaceful co-existence with heterosexuals, but a real, loving affinity. The new series is full of declarations of love between gay and straight men, but all of the emotional heavy lifting is done by the gay hosts themselves, who are called upon to practice both tolerance and acceptance with antic high energy. Queer Eye suggests we can all get along, if only half of us would just be super-duper nice and patient with the other half.

Queer Eye—originally titled Queer Eye for the Straight Guy—premiered in 2003 and overlapped for almost its entire run with Will & Grace. Like that show, it was a pop culture phenomenon that brought funny gay men benevolently helping clueless straights into middle-American living rooms. The gentlemen doing the upgrading this time around are Tan, a fashion guru of South Asian descent with a British accent and a dashing gray pompadour; Karamo, a black man who, as the nebulous “culture” expert, seems responsible for boosting the subject’s confidence; the white-blond designer Bobby; Antoni, the handsome food expert, notable for being the not-particularly-notable one; and long-haired Jonathan, the groomer, the most flamboyant and reality show–ready of the bunch. (He’s also the host of the screamingly funny recap series Gay of Thrones.)

The reboot has been recalibrated, slightly but emphatically, for the Trump era, moving from New York City to Atlanta. The geographical switch signals the new Queer Eye’s interest in interacting with a more politically and racially diverse set of sartorially challenged Americans. In the eight-episode season, the Fab Five help two self-described rednecks, one white Christian father, a firehouse full of white firemen, a white stand-up comic who lives with his parents, an American of Pakistani descent, a closeted black man, and a black man living in a house that hasn’t been rehabbed since the 1970s. In the second half of these episodes, the guys stay in Atlanta to help people of color (and a nerdy comedian) feel and look better. It’s a tasty reality TV smoothie: part food show, part real estate show, part makeover show, part matchmaking show, part therapy, and sweet throughout. In the other half, they take a pickup truck into rural and suburban Georgia, and find that even there people appreciate the warm and considerate ministrations of gentle gay do-gooders—which is what passes for a feel-good story these days.

In one such episode, the first of the season, they tend to Tom, a garrulous 57-year-old man with a gnarly beard, jorts, a fetid La-Z-Boy, and a taste for redneck Margaritas. The Fab Five don’t know what to expect, but Tom is an enthusiastic sweetheart who gamely learns to apply green stick to his red face and welcomes the guys’ pep talks and their condescending interest in his love life. (They insist to Tom that he’s not old, but they treat his feelings for his ex-wife with the, “Aw, sweeeeeet,” vibe we normally reserve for the elderly.) By the end of the episode, Tom has shed tears and expressed his love for the fellas: “I’ve never hung with gay guys before. But they were just so open with me and I was so open with them. I love the Fab Five. They made me feel great.”

But did he make them feel great? Tan asks Tom if he’s nervous to be dressed by a gay man. Tom replies, “Not at all, gay guys dress great.” A show predicated on this very stereotype is not the best grounds to interrogate it, so this gets a laugh. But in the pickup later, Tom asks Bobby and Jonathan if either of them is married. Bobby is. Tom asks, “Are you the husband or the wife?” Bobby is taken aback, but before he can answer the question, he is interrupted by Jonathan, who from the back seat says “That’s a sexist question” and then babbles his way around to his belief that each member of a couple may have stronger sun (male) or moon (female) energy, at which point Bobby cuts him off: “We both wear the pants.” If one of Queer Eye’s aims is to lessen homophobia, this exchange is an own goal: Bobby probably wishes he could have the moment back. But if it’s just to let people be themselves and not personally set everyone with homophobic ideas straight, score one for Jonathan. A little later, Jonathan tells Tom as he’s cutting his hair, “the smell of cigarettes wafting off your beard is hot.” Tom laughs. Jonathan may or may not be joking, but he’s definitely not worried about making the subject of his makeover uncomfortable.

In Queer Eye, the gay sidekick is turned into five people and made the star of the show. But sometimes the sidekick DNA is so strong it overwhelms the episode. This is the case when Karamo is called upon to bond with a former Marine about racism. As the guys drive into Georgia to make over Cory, a married, white police officer with a brush cut, a mustache, and a MAGA hat, they are pulled over by a stern officer. Karamo is driving, and when the officer tersely asks for ID, he says he has none because they are filming a show. The police officer asks Karamo to step outside of the vehicle, at which point he reveals … he’s the guy who nominated Cory to be on Queer Eye! It’s a tense, anxious sequence, featuring a cop so malignantly powerful that he thinks pulling over a black man could conceivably be funny, nothing more than a good prank. The five burst out into shrieks and peals of nervous laughter, and Karamo jokingly pushes the cop, saying “You can’t do that to me!” They cackle at the officer’s jokes and make friendly conversation before accepting a police escort into town.

Later in the episode, Karamo and Cory are alone in the car, and Karamo brings up his entrée into town—how Cory’s friend, Henry, pulling them over really scared him. “I was freaking out. I really thought that this was going to be the incident where I got dragged out of the car,” he says. Cory mentions a local incident in which a cop kicked a handcuffed man in the face and says, “There’s nothing that makes that all right.” Karamo says that hearing him acknowledge this, “just heals me and gives me a little relief. I only hear cops saying, what about us—and it is true, what about you—but what about us? We’re both dealing with the same pain on two different ends.” To this generous read on the relationship between black people and police officers, Cory replies, “It does go both ways. I’m glad you feel that way. Black lives matter. They weren’t able to be heard, and police officers weren’t able to be heard. Everyone wants to talk but no one wants to listen.”

Cory is willing to be drawn out, but it’s Karamo who is doing most of the work: all the active listening, all the connecting. He was mistreated and now he’s the one trying to smooth things over. Later, Karamo tells Cory, “I was the most apprehensive to meet you. … I thought, ‘Here’s another asshole white cop.’ But I respect you so much as a police officer.” Cory, crying, agrees that “riding back with you from Atlanta was one of the best parts of all this.” At the end of the episode, Henry, the offending officer, wears a silly wrestling costume and joins the Fab Five to watch footage of a made-over Cory taking his family to the theater. Remind me, who is accepting whom here?

The pattern repeats itself in another episode that calls on Bobby to confront his homophobic and religious past. The makeover subject is also named Bobby, a father of six who works two jobs and is deeply involved with his church. While planting zucchini, Bobby the designer asks, “What’s your view on homosexuality?” The other Bobby replies, “Growing up? Gays are crazy; gays are wrong.” Designer Bobby then walks us through his childhood in a religious homophobic environment, while the other Bobby makes kind-sounding assertions about forgoing judgment. “Maybe you think we’re judgmental. Maybe you think we hate gays,” he says. “That’s not us.” At the end of the episode, the other Bobby thanks the Fab Five and says they prayed about letting people invade their lives: “Growing up the way we did, homosexuals weren’t accepted, they still aren’t, but you are here.” After fixing up this straight man’s messy house, building a beautiful play area for his kids, cutting his hair, organizing his closet, encouraging him to treat himself well, organizing a second wedding, and seeing only the best in him, they ought to be.