Updated on June 18.
It’s 2018—how is there a popular new TV show that portrays gay guys as sassy hairdressers, fashionistas, interior designers, platonic best friends, and underwear models who appear to mostly live off amuse-bouches? A skeptic of “woke” culture might argue that the success of Netflix’s rebooted Queer Eye is a sign of latent hunger for the comfort of stereotypes. A sociologist might say we’re seeing the results of decades of prejudice funneling queer men into trades coded as feminine. A superfan might echo the company line, as once articulated by home-décor guru Bobby Berk: “We’re just five guys who happen to be experts in our field, and who happen to be gay.”
The truth probably combines all three explanations. But as highlighted in the second season that now arrives just four months after the first, Queer Eye is queer on a level deeper than its sanctifying of homosexuals as domestic superheroes. It’d be queer—though not as fun—even without the yaaasing of groomer Jonathan Van Ness and the tight Little Life tees of foodie Antoni Porowski. Queerness, the theorists will tell you, means an assault on normativity: a defiance of cultural codes about how to look, talk, love, live, dream, aspire. Ever-so-gently, the Fab Five test out how anyone can possibly try to construct their “best” selves once the social proscriptions for how to dress and act have been lifted.
This idea hit home for me, oddly, in a throwaway comic moment in the second season, which continues the first season’s blend of cloying contrivance and genuine uplift. Porowski brings the episode’s subject, Leo, a husband/father/bartender who emigrated from Mexico and leaves his clothes strewn around the house, to a high-end Italian restaurant for a lesson on making fresh pasta (this is one among many examples of Porowski imparting “practical” food advice that is actually precious and/or unscalable). The chef tells them that back in Italy, his mother used to feed her kids noodles with butter, parmesan, and ketchup. Ketchup? Porowski cocks his saintly eyebrows. But, he then says, “There’s nothing wrong with that. As long as it tastes good.”
Nothing wrong with that, basically Seinfeld’s euphemism for fake open-mindedness, is an earnest tenet of Queer Eye: If there’s a stereotype that’s dustbinned by this show, it’s of the bitchy gay critic. The problem that a middle-aged handyman needs to face is not that his obsession with Burning Man is juvenile, but the fact that he never finishes any of his projects. An aimless college bro doesn’t necessarily have to give up video games, but if he’s going to wear gym shorts all day he might as well start going to the gym. A couple whose house is bedecked with Hallmark-style tchotchkes announcing their love isn’t gross and tacky, just in need of assistance on the marriage proposal. As the Fab Five bleat every few minutes, the point is to make everyone more themselves. “You’re telling me what I already know, but I need to be told,” one subject says.
This empowering approach is especially effective with Season 2’s two curveball clients: a cisgender woman and a trans man. The former, Tammye, is confident in personality but harried in appearance, and she wants her son who’s gay to again attend church with her. Hers is a double feature of an episode, assisting both mom and son, and what gets physically renovated isn’t a home, but a community center: It’s what she wants. In the episode about the trans man, Skyler, the Fab Five help him adjust his style in the wake of top surgery. It fits Queer Eye’s approach nicely: Skyler wants to refine his identity to fit his own sense of himself, dictates of the wider world—including his family, who hasn’t spoken to him in years—be damned. The Fab Five end up with a remedial tutorial on the trans struggle, which adds to the list of specifically queer issues that the show has found ways to touch on.
On some level, of course, the post-normativity makeover is an oxymoron: Each of the five zhooshers are also necessarily judgers, ewwing and yassing according to their own taste hierarchies that are basically tuned with society’s. Tan France, the clothes guy, wants to make even the lumpiest of his clients look “slimmer” with tapered pants. Is that fat shaming? Berk looks upon the rainbow-pride designs draped around Skyler’s apartment and declares, amusingly, “Flags are to be flown—they’re not décor.” I agree, but who are we to say? Van Ness, who’s both the most enlightened and the most entertaining of the five, likes to joke about the cognitive dissonance involved here. “I really shy away from imparting what I believe has to happen on someone’s look,” he says when talking about Skyler’s red chin-strap beard. “Comma, I don’t want you to look like a leprechaun anymore, so we gotta change it!”
It’s this very tension that makes the show map onto the queer experience as it often exists in the real world. Gay guys may find themselves with the freedom to indulge the tastes that once would have gotten them called sissies, but no one is entirely sui generis in their style nor exempt from expectations of dating and the workplace. The universal conflict between be yourself and fit in plays out in raw and explicit ways in LGBT spaces, where questions about assimilation, monogamy, “passing,” race, and gender presentation don’t really have default answers. In a way, the Fab Five are reenacting this sort of dynamic when they, say, help a youthful hipster mayor of a tiny town hone his public speaking so that he can earn the respect of political good-ole-boys. (Note: The public-speaking lesson involves a rap battle, and it’s some of the most uncomfortable TV viewing imaginable. I never said the show itself had unfailing taste.)
Queer Eye can, it must be said, trend oddly conservative when reconciling subjects’ self-images with cultural demands. Every guy who’s single has to be on the hunt for a mate, every beard must be tamed, and every closet must contain a black shoe. When it comes to cultural divides, the emphasis is almost completely on brokering peace: Some of the gays’ hangups about going to church are presented as a problem in Tammye’s episode, and outside the show, the culture expert Karamo Brown met with the office of Karen Pence to lobby for arts funding.* In a Pride season when an increasing number of straight people are treating “queerness” as a try-on ethos so as to join in the parades, some LGBT viewers will understandably wish for ambassadors less cuddly—and more radical—than the Fab Five. On this point, too, Jonathan is the voice of self-awareness. “Sorry that I’m, like, really putting society’s hideous expectations of hetero couples on you,” he says after mistakenly assuming the hipster mayor, Ted, is married to the woman he lives with. Alas, he nevertheless shears Ted’s face entirely, leaving him looking pretty square.
The Skyler episode, though, puts a fine point on how certain social conventions can be liberating when embraced out of sincere affinity. We see him come out of surgery and look down at his newly flat chest with amazement, and we watch him get fitted for a suit and express glee at his newly “masculine” silhouette. Someone might argue these moments represent concessions to norms about what makes a man a man. But in the queer eye, what’s on someone’s outside matters because of how it fits with what’s inside, and what’s on the inside is blessedly beyond judgment.
* This article initially cited an interview in which Brown incorrectly said he met with Karen Pence. In fact, he met with her staff members, a Netflix spokesperson later said.
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