There are numerous moments in Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot, where a man is confused by an incredibly basic part of fashion or style.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone as it’s a well-known cliché that men are incapable of looking after themselves, and throughout the show candidates struggle with moisturising, fitted jeans, and making a grilled cheese as if they’re alien concepts. In the past, these men might have feared that this basic level of self-care would make them look ‘gay’, as they sometimes said during the original Queer Eye series. But now, they object to these slight improvements in a different way. They never really thought that they deserved nice things.
This is the enduring message of Queer Eye in its revamped form. For the uninitiated, the show follows five gay men who are experts in fashion, food, grooming, culture, and interior design as they attempt to makeover a man’s life in a week. The idea is that a sharp dose of fabulousness will shake these men out of their rut and inspire them to be the dynamic, charismatic person they’ve always wanted to be. While the original series had a bitchier tone (the jokes were often on straight men’s incompetence), the reboot takes a more sympathetic approach. The ‘Fab 5’ understand that these male inadequacies – their uncleanliness and their lack of sophistication – are not their fault. After all, they are only products of that ever-present villain of the 2010s: toxic masculinity.
It’s no coincidence then that Queer Eye sets itself in the American South for this series, deep in the heart of Trump country. Nor is it a coincidence that many of its candidates are visibly working class. While the show isn’t necessarily political, it comes with an underlining political subtext, which is made clear in the show’s opening montage. “The original show was fighting for tolerance, our fight is for acceptance,” says fashion expert Tan France. “My goal is to figure out how we’re similar, as opposed to how different we are,” concurs food expert Antoni Porowski.
Queer Eye attempts therefore to be a lot of things at once. Primarily, it’s fluffy reality TV. On this front, it’s an unqualified success. But it’s also a commentary on the state of modern America, discussing gay rights, religious intolerance, and Black Lives Matter. It acts as an olive branch to hyper-masculine men and, perhaps less successfully, Trump’s America.
So it has two messages. Firstly, that there is much more that unites than divides us. And secondly, it offers an enticing promise, that we can all be fabulous if we put our minds to it. The Fab 5 are aspirational figures: charming, beautiful, successful self-made men. While candidates on Queer Eye may be initially uncomfortable with their overt sexuality, they all want to know what their secret is. The joys of self-improvement have been sold religiously to women for decades, but Queer Eye is a rare moment where that message is aimed at men. What makes it even rarer is how effective it is.
Queer Eye’s message is intoxicating and inspiring but I have misgivings about its nuances. The show offers a lot of smart advice that applies to all men. For example, it’s obvious that these men should make an effort to buy clothes that actually fit them properly but someone had to tell them. Similarly, the show’s advice about confidence and self-esteem is empowering. But Queer Eye also has an uncomfortable blind-spot; one that has been adjusted but not corrected from the original series, on the issue of class.
Like the original series, Netflix’s Queer Eye draws a clear line between consumption and fulfilment. Although much of the advice given to candidates is free, the makeover experience is not. As well as providing basic self-help, the Fab 5 also give candidates a new wardrobe, grooming products and house redesign. When candidates come to view their newly refurbished home, decked out with brand new appliances and furniture, they are overwhelmed and often moved to tears. ‘Do you like it?’ interior design expert Bobby Berk asks. The question is mainly rhetorical. Of course they like it. They’ve just been bought a new house. Crucially, one that they never could have afforded.
The show’s experts will also often make strangely oblivious comments about their relative privilege. When ex-Marine Cory explains that he normally takes his wife on dates to Walmart, culture expert Karamo Brown is shocked. Why doesn’t he take her out to a museum? Or go to the theatre or an art gallery? Fair advice, if it wasn’t for the fact that Cory lives in Winder, Georgia, a city that has one museum, with the main attraction of three original 1910s jail cells.
Karamo is shocked again in the show’s final episode, when firefighter Jeremy Holmes explains why he’s trying to raise £3000 for training for his department. “If you’re risking your lives, why are you not getting the funding so that everyone can be trained equally and properly,” Karamo asks. Unfortunately, no one has told him that money hasn’t exactly been abundant for public services in recent years.
The show’s most uncomfortably tone-deaf moments come in an episode with Bobby Camp, a 48-year-old father of six who works two jobs to provide for his family. At no other point is the issue of money clearer to why a candidate has let himself go. Bobby goes to work 9-5, then comes home, immediately turns around and goes to work at a home improvement store where he stocks shelves. Anyone wondering why the man doesn’t have a lot of time for himself shouldn’t have to look very far. Nevertheless, the Fab 5 repeatedly tell Bobby that his problem is that he needs to believe in himself.
When Tan asks Bobby why he doesn’t buy himself any nice clothes, Bobby tells him that he doesn’t really think about himself first and that if he’s going to buy anything it’ll be for his wife or his children. The elephant in the room is that Bobby isn’t stylish because he can’t afford to be but that point seems to be completely missed by Tan. Instead, he tells him a story about how he once let himself go and ended up losing his partner of 5 years. Now, he makes sure that he dresses well. The implication is that Bobby should do the same.
In a sense, this is fair advice: looking after yourself is often a matter of taking time rather than money. But so often those two factors are crucially linked. Bobby can’t take time because he doesn’t have enough money and his whole life is spent working his way to financial stability. No pep talk, no matter how inspiring, is going to change that, nor is his new house and new wardrobe. It’s no surprise that it’s been rumoured that Bobby has since sold his new refurbished home and moved elsewhere with the money. A similar thing happened with another candidate, AJ from episode 4, who allegedly sold his newly-renovated flat and moved in with his partner.
The new Queer Eye has made major improvements from the original series with how it deals with class difference. The goal of the show is not to make every candidate into a ‘metrosexual’ and there is a sense that cultural difference, whether it is ethnic or class-based, is respected much more. The show’s experts do try to tailor their advice to the sensibility and financial status of their candidates. Queer Eye doesn’t want to fundamentally change its candidates, it only wants to coax out the person they’ve always wanted to be, but conspicuously, that person is usually richer than before, with a fancier house and wardrobe.
This is why, despite being sold on Queer Eye as entertainment, I’m sceptical about its revolutionary power. The show promises to fix masculinity for the many men who have been let down and undersold by it. That’s a noble goal and one that I applaud but in the show, it also comes with a price tag. As the saying goes, ‘teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’ and Queer Eye buys its candidates some fine fishing equipment. But what about those who are stuck without a boat or rod to fish with?
Queer Eye is wonderful television. It’s funny, sharp, and genuinely heart-warming. Likewise, Drake’s ‘God’s Plan’ is a great music video, where the rapper celebrates his wealth with acts of impromptu philanthropy. But neither are particularly groundbreaking. They argue that your route to success and fulfilment comes at the hand of a wealthy benefactor, the same argument that TV game shows have presented for decades. And like in game shows, the moments that are inspiring about this TV show are not manipulative. I do believe that these people are going through life-changing experiences, but they are somewhat misleading.
Ultimately, Queer Eye is a force for good and much of its advice on emotional openness and positivity is valuable. The show’s most inspiring moments are also free, when a Fab 5 member reminds a candidate that they are beautiful, even if they don’t feel like it. But it’s underlining message, a new-age reinvention of the American Dream, that you can achieve any level of fabulousness if you just believe in yourself enough, is funded by the show’s deep pockets. At its best, Queer Eye feels like it could change the world. Great TV can often do that but this show only scratches the surface of what makes men unhappy. Queer Eye remains a brilliant reality TV show – one that is more positive and hopeful than almost any around. But, its suggestion that you can buy your way to confidence leaves an uncomfortable aftertaste.
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Words by Conrad Duncan