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Courtesy of Netflix

February 25, 2018

The Beauty and Vulnerability of Netflix’s Queer Eye

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On Feb. 7, Netflix released its reboot of mid-2000s hit reality series Queer Eye. For the uninitiated, Queer Eye features a crew of gay men — the “fab five” — who rejuvenate their subjects’ lifestyles. Each fab five member has a specialty: fashion (Tan France), grooming (Jonathan Van Ness), interior design (Bobby Berk), culture (Karamo Brown) and food and wine (Antoni Porowski). At first blush, Queer Eye sounds like an indulgent, if light, watch.

But after binging its first season in just over a day, I realized that Queer Eye is an outlier. The show’s emotional impact is unlike that of any other lifestyle show I’ve watched. For the next few days, I told anyone who would listen that they had to drop everything and watch Queer Eye.

“Really?” my friend asked, “You’re calling it one of the best shows ever?”

I understand the apprehension. The original Queer Eye, which was broadcast on Bravo from 2003 to 2007, had vocal critics. Some queer viewers felt that the show reinforced the stereotype that gay men are inherently fashionable and cultured. In a 2003 Village Voice polemic, Richard Goldstein wrote, “it’s a measure of how far we haven’t come that the meeting [between straight and gay men] must be staged on stereotypical ground.”

But in Netflix’s reboot, fashion, grooming and the like are truly conduits for conversations about sexuality, masculinity and vulnerability. To fall in love with Queer Eye, you have to understand that the fab five’s make-overs—or, as they say, “make-betters”—strike much deeper than the surface.

The fab five work with a diverse group of men who live in the Atlanta region throughout the season. The thing that ties all of their subjects together is their conformity, in one way other, to masculinity. Rather than simply giving their subjects an expensive wardrobe and a fresh haircut, the hosts delve into the worries and desires that gender roles create. Where a viewer may see a messy living room or someone in desperate need of a shave, the fab five see insecurity or loneliness.

For example, in the fourth episode — “To Gay or Not Too Gay” — the fab five work with strikingly handsome civil engineer A.J. He has a chiseled jawline, thoughtful eyes and, by his own admission, an “above-average body.” (Translation: he’s ripped.) Yet, France observes that A.J. wears baggy outfits that make him look years older. When France takes A.J. shopping, A.J. shirks from bright colors and tight clothes. A.J.’s fashion aversions stem from more than personal taste.

As the fab five learned at the start of the episode, A.J. is gay, and anxious about talking about his sexuality with many of the people who are close to him. He hasn’t told his step-mother that he is gay, and regrets not telling his father before he died.

During the shopping trip, A.J. explains to Tan and Antoni that he fears telegraphing his sexuality to the world by dressing any way other than modestly. Porowski empathizes. He shares that he also chooses to dress in a fashionable, but understated way. In the fitting room, Tan, Antoni and A.J. converse about their diverse interests and experiences as queer men. In the end, Tan recommends terrific, youthful outfits, but also respects A.J.’s desire to dress conservatively at work.

In his review, Goldstein also complained that the original Queer Eye make-betters made “everyone look like a resident of West Hollywood.” While watching the reboot, however, I noticed that the fab five consistently recommend products and habits that are affordable, accessible and in line with their subjects’ tastes.

The fifth episode—“Camp Rules”—focuses on Bobby Camp, a father of six who works two jobs to support his family. Rather than taking Bobby to a haute couture boutique or recommending time-consuming grooming routines, Tan, Antoni and Jonathan bring Bobby to Target. Jonathan goes through the grooming section and recommends products that the whole family can buy in bulk and use.

Bobby says that he rarely buys himself clothes, preferring to save the money for his children. As such, Tan picks out a few outfits from the men’s section, showing him how fashionable he can look without expending much effort. Furthermore, Queer Eye’s message isn’t that high fashion is the ideal, and some people have to economize. Rather, it’s that fashion, grooming, design and confidence come from knowing your worth and loving yourself.

Regardless of their field expertise, all members of the fab five find ways to connect with their subjects. Bobby, for example, seeks to keep and accentuate items from the subjects’ homes that they love, be them a treasured painting, hand-me-down furniture or memorabilia that showcases their hobbies. The central theme of Queer Eye is the idea of the “make-better,” and the fab five consistently stress all of the beautiful attributes that their subjects have always had.

A few episodes into Queer Eye, I felt that the show was not only enjoyable (and it is wildly, giddily enjoyable), but also important. Queer Eye features men being vulnerable and crying on screen. In every episode, the fab five praise their subjects’ willingness to open up and discuss their emotions freely.

Towards the end of “To Gay or Not Too Gay,” culture expert Karamo Brown takes time to talk with A.J. before the party where A.J. will tell his step-mom that he’s gay. Brown affirms him as one black, gay man speaking to another, praising his beauty and his strength. Moments like these evidence the emotional power of Queer Eye. It is a show that is simultaneously a meditation on sexuality, gender, race and socio-economic status in the United States, and a lovely reality show that lets you revel in the fab five’s stunning make-betters.

 

Shay Collins is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at scollins@cornellsun.com.