by Megan Mulligan
Photography courtesy of Netflix
Queer Eye, a Netflix original based on the early 2000s Bravo show of the same name, follows a similar trajectory as the events within the gay community over the last two decades, but is less open-ended. More people are comfortable with coming out, there are acclaimed shows on TV about drag queens and “make-overs” hosted by gay people, and Adam Rippon and other LGBT cultural figures are simply living their best lives.
Queer Eye has a lot of these things (minus Adam Rippon, tragically), but something about the quirky Fab Five and their quest to make drab old men a little less so makes the reboot less enticing and enjoyable.
Bravo’s Queer Eye, formerly titled Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, was originally praised for being the first “feel-good primetime reality TV series,” by critics at Variety. The original show took people down on their luck or living in trash and helped transform them with the help of five gay men, some cleverly-applied hair gel and maybe new curtains.
Netflix’s Queer Eye lacks in a general sense of self-awareness. Aspects of the show feel exploitative, feel contrived, feel as if they’re being constructed to appease the majority of viewers who don’t have gay experiences to connect with the main hosts on.
Similar to shows like Drag Race, the appeal of the show comes from the over-the-top antics and gay stereotypes the hosts exhibit, and unique to Queer Eye is the way they tease but eventually “save” the subject of the week like a flip-or-flop HGTV series.
In both the early 2000s and today, it’s very clear that one of the most popular and widely acceptable ways for multiple gay men to be on-screen together is if it fits a particular niche that straight society holds for them. Here, this happens to be putting LGBT masculine figures in the position of fixating on other people’s appearance and changing them for “the better.”
The show questions social norms and attempts to showcase different experiences as a gay male through attempts at “diversity,” but the show doesn’t venture too far out of the box of the norm of straight viewers, producers or show backers could be comfortable with, and especially the norm that the original Queer Eye set, more than 20 years ago.
The only startling difference from the original appears to be that the actors make an intense effort to be kinder and gentler—a powerful strength in itself but not enough to necessarily break the show out from the reputation of the original. Queer Eye is still yet another repackaging of the gay experience for straight consumption, living their best lives genuinely, honestly, but under the gaze of people who do not share the same oppressions and experiences.
“Generally, though, this is a kinder, gentler Queer Eye, where the cattiness has been toned down and replaced by talk about transformation and how “allowing yourself to be vulnerable is the biggest show of strength,” said Vulture television critic Jen Chaney.
Queer Eye is devoted to celebrating people’s differences, ranging from the hosts’ different experiences as gay people to other minority experiences. In episode two, fashion guru Tan France discusses “wedding dowry” with that episode’s subject; in the next, “culture and swag” expert Kamaro Brown talks about police brutality, deeply and honestly, with a police officer in the Fab Five truck. There are moments of surprising emotional depth that comes wholly unexpected, and feels out-of-place in a show advertised as a redneck flip-or-flop.
In a political climate where transgender people are being excluded from the military or even using the bathrooms of their choosing, where women feel their contraceptive rights threatened, where hateful language is still used, it can be difficult to find media that feels comforting, especially to marginalized groups like the LGBT community.
There are still a lot of struggles LGBT people are working through for acceptance, and these cannot realistically be fixed in a week like the subjects in Queer Eye. The actors in Queer Eye are startling aware of this, especially when confronted with more conservative subjects, but the answers and conversations they have to the same are dry, easily scripted. “We need to sit down and have conversations,” one man says, and everyone seems to cheaply applaud.
So maybe a full-grown man won’t learn to “dress” himself in a day. And maybe he won’t unlearn a lot of homophobia in a day, either. What does work, the show proposes, is taking everything step by step, piecemeal, and doing so with a kind of gentle humor and kindness. But this is what would make straight viewers comfortable, a kind of solution to decades of LGBT strife that seems so obvious and simple—and by playing into the “straight gaze,” this reboot of Queer Eye isn’t much different from the original.