Queer Eye, despite its titular directness, is not about queer perspectives. If we were to time travel back to 2003, and if we were to speak of the original, campy, tolerance-seeking Fab Five, then perhaps the title would better describe the series’ contents. But it’s 2019. All that is produced within this culture of easy-to-binge television, with Netflix at the epicentre, is crafted within the context of a capitalist agenda. Thus when Queer Eye is criticised, which it certainly has been within the LGBTQ+ community, it tends to be for how it leans towards a rather marketable presentation of queer culture, one in which outsiders can dip their toes as they please, for its radicalism and queerness is softened to translate a movement hesitant straight audiences can root for and enjoy.
With series such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, there is certainly growing popularity of this new strand of reality television that simultaneously tempts a heterosexual audience while accessing and exhibiting queer culture. But where the original Fab Five were fighting for tolerance in a society where LGBTQ+ exposure was (and still is) limited, they represented just one version of gay masculinity, one that is now seen as performative and stereotypical; the “bitchy” gay with a quick-witted tongue who rolls off double entendres. Of course, it goes without saying that this personality is just one stereotypical version of gay masculinity, but it was a rather lonesome representation of queer culture in reality television. Perhaps this stereotype was easy for the mainstream to cling onto, and perhaps exposing this one version of gay masculinity generated the rhetoric often exchanged between straight women, who long for a stylish, complimentary and unthreatening ‘gay best friend’. Maybe that is being cynical. Of course, the original Queer Eye did represent a nascent enterprise of queer culture on television, and that is undoubtedly significant. However, although it does contribute to the still small queer reality tv canon, it is easy to see why many members of the LGBTQ+ community were not entirely thrilled at the announcement of its revival, even if the revival inadvertently promised to compete with its parent-show and right its wrongdoings.
Now, a year on from its regeneration and in a world that seems far removed from the political and social specificity of the naughties, Queer Eye exists with an entirely different cultural and political gravity, and this is largely due to how it is consumed. Its first episode voices the nature of this consumption; the new Fab Five, serving as a microcosm for the LGBTQ+ community, apparently no longer need to fight for tolerance but for acceptance, and therein lies an affectation that illuminates its update. Queer Eye now exists within and feeds upon the modern commodification of queer culture. It situates itself on the other side of historical oppression, where tolerance has supposedly been sought and queerness is no longer Other but marketable. Though the optimism of its intention, to shift from seeking tolerance to acceptance, is progressive, we as a culture are simply not there yet. In actuality, transgender persons are unable to fight in the U.S. army and only eighteen states ban conversion therapies on minors for sexual orientation and gender identification. These statistics are plucked from a vast scope of phobia and violence, and are, of course, specific to the United States. There are multiple and various systemic and social oppressions towards the LGBTQ+ community everywhere. You don’t need statistical evidence to see it or experience it.
Queer Eye’s productivity then is its focus on the trivial. If one was to shuffle up and select any of its episodes, it’s pretty safe to expect 45 minutes of beautification, and a gentle, albeit poignant, unpacking of the psychology and emotional baggage of a straight man while, as Laura Penny describes in her 2018 article The Queer Art of Failing Better, ‘a handsome stranger teaches [him] how to make guacamole’. Queer Eye operates as a leisure activity that unifies a handsome gay man and his straight subject and audience. It is certainly charming television, and I think many of us would be lying if we said that we didn’t love watching Jonathan Van Ness whir around a helpless straight man, fixing his beard. However, it is equally easy to see how cautiously Queer Eye presents queer culture and its underlying political activism, and by the 45-minute mark, everything is wrapped up in a neat little bow.
There are particular moments throughout the series that render deep discomfort, and it’s due to the sanitisation of how the series itself is marketed. It seems that according to executives, a series that follows queer men cannot be popular if it is socially critical, and Queer Eye demonstrates this limitation. In her article, Laura Penny explores an instance in season 1 episode 3 “Dega Don’t” wherein Karamo Brown, as the only black member of the Fab Five, has a conversation with Cory, a police officer, about police brutality and its personal impact on his family. Karamo explains how his son is too frightened to apply for a driving license because of the high risk of violence, or fatality, for his skin colour. When following the motion of dialogue, one begins to see that there is a kind of balancing act, compositionally as Karamo and Cory are sat side-by-side, forward facing in a car pretending to ignore the dashboard camera, and rhetorically, as the balancing slowly seeps into the subject matter. There is an open-armed approach to the subject of police representation, and Cory describes his resentment for how he is seen as violent just because he is a cop, and this, as we are lead to believe, is an apparently comparable trauma to experiencing police brutality. After minutes of shared compassion, Karamo finishes on a ‘we just need to keep talking from both sides and see past our differences’ trope as an antidote to the conversation, and to systemic violence. It is a tense moment that ultimately leads to nothing. It is a balancing act between resisting critical commentary on a state institution and keeping the episode light-hearted. It is wrapping up critique in a neat little bow.
However, there are, of course, many moments that outweigh the like of which I’ve just described, interactions that are genuinely open-minded and capture a sentimentality and unity between straight and queer persons without compromising queer identity. In each episode, there is always a process of coming together, and it is always a far greater distance for the straight man to reach this ‘middle ground’, to a place of queer acceptance, where the Fab Five await, open-armed and cheering his arrival.
Perhaps it is because Queer Eye is so therapeutically positive that its moments of sanitisation and political glazing are evermore concerning. As mentioned before, if Karamo were to rightfully critique systemic racism within police institutions it would entirely shift the tone of the series. Then, perhaps Queer Eye, and more broadly reality television, is not the place for those conversations to be had. Yet if a series is centred around the spread of queer positivity and seeks tolerance and acceptance, and especially regarding how small the queer reality tv canon still is, it does carry a certain responsibility to acknowledge the relational status between its subject and its audience. In other words, queer reality tv is an easy access point to queer culture for straight audiences. But, as the queer television canon grows, beyond the genre of reality television and within, perhaps this will become less of a criticism directed to Queer Eye, for it will carry less responsibility to vocalise politics, because frankly, in amongst the violence regularly inflicted upon the LGBTQ+ community, and in spite of the appropriation of queer culture by faceless corporations, perhaps it is perfectly acceptable for there to be an apolitical space of self-care and makeovers. If Queer Eye is about anything, then, it is precisely that acceptance. If we are to overly criticise Queer Eye I think we actually divorce ourselves from reality, not via the escapism it generates out of its softness but through a cynicism of its absent politics. It is imperfect, but it is also reality tv. It flags a movement in the direction of far politically richer exposure for queer identities in the mainstream, and it’s certainly a wholesome start.