When I first saw an ad for the new Queer Eye television show, my primary reaction was one of bemusement. I remembered the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and I liked it a lot at the time. I liked how the show would delve into the lives and backgrounds of the weekly “straight guys” more than other makeover shows. I also cannot deny the original show’s importance in LGBTQIA+ representation, as it was the first reality TV show that brought members of the queer community into the spotlight.
Having said that, when I think about the original show from a 2018 perspective, I cringe at the memories of Carson Kressley loudly objecting to all the Kmart and Gap clothing in the straight guys’ wardrobes, as though not owning plenty of Ralph Lauren staples is a matter of poor taste rather than Ralph Lauren being unaffordable for most people. I also find that apart from the flamboyant Carson, the hosts of the original show are unmemorable as anything other than quintessential examples of the gay stereotype (cultured, well-dressed city slickers with a good eye for wine, home decor, and hair products).
The new version of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy — now just called Queer Eye — was going to be similar to the original, with the five gay men making gentle jibes about how much of a mess the straight guy is before making him over. That was a winning formula for a reality TV show in 2003, and throwing in the extra layer of “gay meets straight” gave the original show the edge it needed to generate an audience.
But the US is a different country now. The LGBTQIA+ community is more visible, tensions between the political right and left are higher than they have ever been, and stories about outer transformations have become less intriguing to us than stories about inner journeys and interpersonal connections.
Bearing all of that in mind, a Queer Eye reboot that adhered strictly to the original formula would have been an outdated makeover show that, apart from being nostalgically charming, would fade away after one or two seasons. That was certainly what I was expecting when I started watching it.
But in the new Queer Eye, the hosts are refreshingly comprised of five queer men who, apart from their ages and sexuality, have notably different backstories. For example, Tan France is a British-born Pakistani Muslim, Karamo Brown is a Black man from Texas and Florida, and Bobby Berk grew up in the anti-gay Assemblies of God church in Missouri. As it turns out, when these men throw themselves head-first into the lives of people leading very different lives from them, it’s inevitable that moments highlighting those differences will start to arise between the Fab 5 and their straight guys (now called “Heroes”).
In Queer Eye, when those moments happen, rather than trying to set them aside or ignore them, the Fab 5 actively engage with them. As a result, what was meant to be an homage to the original Queer Eye has become a poignant, almost painfully relevant show about connecting with and learning from people who are different from ourselves.
Queer Eye grabbed my attention from the first episode, when the Fab 5 meet Tom. Tom is a 57-year-old three-time divorcee from Kentucky who believes he’s unlucky in love because he is “butt-ugly”, and that “you can’t fix ugly”. Tom says these harsh things about himself with a smile, but his insecurity about his appearance is clear to anybody who can read between the lines.
The most transformative part of the episode comes when Tom is in a hair salon with grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness, the loudest, sassiest, and most flamboyant of the Fab 5. As Jonathan cuts his hair and beard, he talks about the limitations everybody has with their physical appearance versus the control everybody has over their confidence. Tom says, “You’re a lot cooler than me, though,” and Jonathan responds with, “No, you’re pretty fucking cool, Tom.”
There is then a beautiful moment where Jonathan tells Tom that “the smell of cigarette wafting off [his] beard is so hot.” There is a pause, then they both start laughing. It’s a small moment, and seemingly inconsequential with respect to the rest of the episode, but it’s an enchanting snapshot of two people with radically different backgrounds who have, nevertheless, connected with each other.
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As enchanting as it is to see these five charismatic men forming friendships with Heroes of all ages, genders, races, and sexualities, Queer Eye’s poignancy starts to really show itself in Episode 3, when white police officer Cory is in a car with culture expert Karamo, who is Black. After chatting about sports, music, and their childhoods, the topic of conversation drifts towards the relationship between Black people and cops. The two men proceed to have a conversation about this very serious topic in a way that I have never seen before.
Instead of the usual hatred and side-taking, Karamo and Cory listen to each other, acknowledge each others’ pain, and conclude that both sides need to sit down and have a balanced conversation if there is any hope for improvement. “The beauty of what is happening,” Karamo says afterwards, “is that I’m open and I’m going to stay open, because I need him to learn from me and I need to learn from him, because right now, our country, it just seems like it’s getting worse and worse and worse. And it has to start somewhere. I’m not saying that a conversation with one police officer and one gay guy is gonna solve the problems, but maybe it can open up eyes to something more.”
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These connections continue to be caught on camera. Episode 4 features a conversation between gay Hero AJ, fashion expert Tan, and cooking expert Antoni about societal expectations for how people of different sexualities present themselves. Episode 5 features a conversation about churches and gayness between devoutly Christian Hero Bobby Camp and design expert Bobby Berk, who was rejected from the church he grew up in after coming out as gay. Episode 3 of Season 2 features Karamo and Hero Leo, a bartender and father of two, bonding over parenthood and a joint desire to be a good father.
And then there is Episode 5 of Season 2, which is arguably the most poignant to date. The Hero is Skyler, a trans man who underwent top surgery (removal of chest tissue) six weeks before shooting. Tan admits at the start of the show that he has never met a trans person before. His big mission, as the fashion expert, is to get Skyler a properly fitted suit. Tan finds a tailor who specialises in fitting trans people, and when Skyler looks at himself in the mirror with the suit on, he cannot stop smiling.
Afterwards Tan asks him if he felt like he wanted to feel. Skyler responds, “I felt like there I was, right there, and I’ve not been able to look at myself in a mirror in a suit and ever say that, ever.” The two of them dig deeper into what being trans has been like for Skyler, including all the pain and misery that comes from existing in a body that doesn’t represent who you are. Tan says afterwards, “I always felt for the plight of trans people; however, I always thought, ‘Is it necessary for you to have this top surgery for you to feel like a man?’ And for Skyler it was, and the fact I didn’t understand that beforehand makes me feel silly.”
The whole episode is noteworthy for the depth in which it explores one trans man’s experience. But the segment with Tan showcases what there is to be learned about other people if we are willing to open ourselves up, admit that we don’t know everything, and listen.
These moments might seem small, but all great changes start that way. It cannot be easy for these five men, who have all been on the receiving end of discrimination to varying degrees, be so vulnerable on TV with their Heroes. But they are, and their openness invites discussion, understanding, and the possibility of change. When we as an audience see that possibility for change on our TVs, we become more open to it as well. This is social justice in the making.
Most of the Fab 5 did not audition for Queer Eye thinking that their show would prove to be the potential vehicle for social change that it is. Karamo, on the other hand, wanted Queer Eye to be that vehicle from the start. In a recent interview he said, “It’s 2018, and what we are as a country, we’re divided… my mindset was already like, ‘Oh we’re going to be politically charged, we’re gonna end toxic masculinity, we’re gonna get in here and fight fight fight!’”
That is what they are doing with every episode. And it is what is keeping me watching.
[Featured Image: A photo of a rainbow pattern of glitter and confetti. Source: Pexels.com.]