Does Queer Eye need a makeover of its own?
Art by Joyce Cheng @_joycecheng_
Don’t get me wrong, I love Queer Eye as much as the next gay. I’ve binged every season. I’ve started French tucking my shirts. I’m buying sulphate-free shampoo (thanks, Jonathan). And I’m a sucker for queer representation in whatever form it comes. But maybe that’s the problem. In a media landscape that suffers from an underrepresentation of queer folks, we’ve learned to jump on whatever queer content comes our way.
When Queer Eye for the Straight Guy first came out 15 years ago, seeing five gay men at the centre of a hit TV show was nothing short of revolutionary. Today, rebooting the show while changing almost nothing about the original structure feels out of touch and a little regressive. Since the term ‘queer’ was reclaimed in the 80s and 90s by activist groups like Queer Nation, it has evolved to become something of an umbrella term to speak about the LGBTQIA+ community. By the current-day meaning of the term, Queer Eye is not all that ‘queer’. The conversation has expanded to include spectrums of difference across gender identity, sexual and romantic divergence, and an understanding of how race, class, ability and gender shape access to social and political capital. With this in mind, is it useful to position five wealthy, cisgender, gay men as the face of queerness in 2018?
Perhaps part of the problem is the lack of queer content on our screens, leaving the shows that do exist with a heavy load of representation to bear. I know that one show can’t be everything. But Queer Eye could be more. And I can’t help but feel bitter about the mainstream attention and critical acclaim Queer Eye has enjoyed, when shows like Janet Mock’s landmark series Pose, which includes the largest ever cast of transgender actors for a narrative television series, received only a fraction of this response. In Queer Eye’s one episode featuring a trans man, in which the Fab 5 makeover Skyler just weeks out from his top surgery, their good intentions are equal to their ignorance. Tan remarks that he has “never met a trans person before”, and Bobby makes fun of Skyler’s personal expression of his queerness (“flags are to be flown, they’re not décor”). E. Oliver Whitney (2018) notices a that “There’s an uncomfortable, though unsaid, exchange going on within the episode: essentially that the Fab 5 will makeover Skyler’s life in exchange for some basic trans education.”
Another jarring aspect of the series is the unacknowledged classism inherent in the premise of each episode. While Karamo’s advice is internal, focussing on confidence and self respect, the solutions put forward by the rest of the crew are all material. The message goes a bit like this: ‘Buy expensive skin care products, buy better clothes more often, renovate your house, and you’ll be the man your family deserves. You’ve been letting it slip with your lack of spending, but we have money and we’re going to fix you.’
It’s gruelling to watch the Fab 5 enter a home where parents work themselves to the bone to provide for their families, only to criticise their furniture and second hand clothes. I’m sure these families would love to have the budget and spare time to maintain the refined and sophisticated image of the Fab 5 but the reality for them, and for the majority of Americans, is they actually just don’t. There is never a critique of the system that creates and sustains wealth disparity, because both the creators and intended audience for this show do not want the merits of the neoliberal American Dream challenged.
This is pretty typical of a ‘progressive’, libertarian American TV Show. Queer Eye fits politically with America’s libertarian left, which strives to be more ‘tolerant’ and ‘accepting’, but fails to meaningfully challenge the systems of power that underpin oppression. In the trailer, Tan France claims “The original show was fighting for tolerance, our fight is for acceptance.” However, the line between acceptance and assimilation is narrow. Is the show trying to make queerness a celebrated and legitimate part of American society, or are they trying to make the LGBTQIA+ community more palatable to a conservative audience?
The whole show is about listening and meeting at common ground. This kind of show is useful, as it’s the best way to help racists become slightly less racist, or homophobes to be more polite to queer people, but it’s weak. It’s an excellent resource to show your religious auntie to help her come on board with gay marriage. It’s the show you watch with your sister’s rude, masc boyfriend so that he feels more comfortable washing the dishes and wearing clean clothes. It’s also a space to feel safe, loved and entertained by a bunch of funny and insightful TV personalities that genuinely want people to thrive. I watch it when I’ve had a bad day at work and need cheering up. But it’s not an emblem for our queer utopia.
It’s important to realise that a show like Queer Eye has a specific purpose. It is a show that trains straight audiences in treating everyone with dignity and respect. The truly self-representative stories that celebrate the diversity of queer culture and unwaveringly demand its legitimacy are yet to come.
Oliver Whitney, E. 2018, ‘Netflix’s ‘Queer Eye’ doesn’t do right by the first trans man on the show’, Screen Crush, <http://screencrush.com/queer-eye-trans-man-skyler-episode/>