Life

What Is Queer Eye Looking For?

Does a show about exporting gay talent and joy make sense in 2018?

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
Queer Eye, staring Karamo Brown, Jonathan Van Ness, Tan France, Antoni Porowski, and Bobby Berk
Carin Baer/Netflix

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

A few years ago, in the course of writing about the thorny notion of gay cultural distinctiveness, I remarked in passing how crazy it would be if “some naive network executive tried rebooting a minstrelsy-driven show like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in 2015.” Crazy not because I wouldn’t watch such a thing, but because since the series aired in the early 2000s, with its Fab Five descending upon hapless straight men to sprinkle their primping and polishing fairy magic, it seemed like the mainstream LGBTQ movement had sacrificed, on the altar of equality, the idea that we had any unique magic to offer in the first place.

Apparently, someone at Netflix took my catty toss-off as a challenge (perhaps at the behest of Ted Allen?), because this week we are visited by a new season of the show—this time titled simply Queer Eye—featuring a fresh fivesome of queens. Yet, apart from some updated paint-color palettes and a revamped mix of the delightfully cheesy theme song, little has changed. The new episodes are almost beat-for-beat recreations of the originals, from the carpool-to-the-target strategy session to the pointless culture-consultant position to the remote viewing of the reconstructed student’s final reveal (usually a party) from a Crate-and-Barreled loft. Watching these today is a somewhat odd experience: Emotionally, they are comforting and charming and aww-inducing, the way uplift-oriented reality television should be. But politically, the new Queer Eye feels somehow out of joint with the moment, confused as to why, exactly, it’s been reanimated in 2018.

That’s not to say the show is apolitical. In unleashing the team in the environs of Atlanta upon self-described rednecks and Trump supporters, the producers are explicitly inviting (controlled) moments of ideological and cultural friction—all of which must, naturally, resolve in warm understanding. As culinary maven Antoni offers at the beginning of the first episode, the mission here is to “figure out how we’re similar, as opposed to how different we are.” Or, as interior designer Bobby closes the hour: “All human beings have a commonality … we’re all really exactly the same … it doesn’t matter if it’s gay or straight, the common thread that holds every human together is that we just wanna be loved.”

A lovely sentiment, to be sure, and very much in line with the equality logic I had assumed would prevent a reprise. It’s just that, between these two bookends, Queer Eye doesn’t make that point at all. In fact, it shows exactly the opposite: that these gays are very different from their patients, and that it is precisely that difference that’s so valuable to the show’s project.

Jonathan, the grooming expert (and Gay of Thrones recap genius), is a perfect embodiment of this situation. He is, without question, both the main pleasure of watching the new series and the primary agent of transformation (both physically and spiritually), and that’s largely because he—unlike his dutiful colleagues who are at pains to bridge the divide—makes zero effort to code-switch for the benefit of anyone. From gay pronoun play (“Don’t scare her!” of his mountain-mannish subject) to innuendo (“She’s a hard vibration, honey … she is!” of a vibrating mattress they are testing) to just queenily swanning around in the background of shots while other people are trying to “connect,” Jonathan insists that if you want the benefit of his eye, you are going to have to get into the full range of his queerness. Watching him work, you realize that the sort of Eat Pray Love growth Queer Eye is after—wherein an encounter with something unfamiliar enlarges worlds and unleashes vitality—comes not from soft-pedaling difference but from colliding with it so hard it makes your bones quake.

Of course, that sort of run-in can be painful, and in this incarnation of the show, it’s difficult not to wonder what’s in it for the queers. In her review, my colleague Willa Paskin astutely picks up on how the search for common ground is largely the responsibility of the gays, who are called upon to offer not just style tips but also the ministrations of the therapist, the diplomat, the educator, and the cultural anthropologist to their charges. Meanwhile, the subjects must simply be polite and passively tolerant. Describing a draining dynamic that will be familiar to many queer people dealing with less-than-affirming families, Paskin puts it plainly: “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.”

The emotional labor needed to carry thickets of olive branches around all day is fine—if one chooses to undertake it. But here, it’s weirdly at odds with the show’s other demand. The queens must calm their clients with assurances of sameness while simultaneously drawing on their profound difference—particularly on the world-transforming aesthetic skills and sensibilities for which gay men have long been derided as sissies or stereotypes—in order to bring their students revitalization and happiness. Indeed, the more I reflect on Queer Eye, the more I feel like the whole thing is a queasy-making trade of queer talent and joy (see how the straight man, moribund just yesterday, now grins so brightly!) for little more than a “Well, y’all are all right.”

Thank you, I guess? The theme song of Queer Eye declaims that “things just keep getting better,” and during the show’s original run, you could argue that they were. Legal and legislative momentum was, if uneven, certainly building in our favor, and the show itself helped to hasten a homophilic shift in the culture. Maybe in such hopeful times, it made sense to share our skills and our joy. But now, in the age of Trump, with a steady assault on LGBTQ lives underway, I’m not feeling super generous. It’s a time to circle the wagons and take care of our own. That means preserving our joy where we can find it. I know our culture is beautiful, that our queer magic has the power to change lives. But right now, when things just keep getting more precarious, I’m not sure I’ve got much to spare—certainly not for men in MAGA hats. There are certain failures of taste that just can’t be zhuzhed away.

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J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate associate editor and the editor of Outward. He covers life, culture, and LGBTQ issues.