I was not the biggest fan of the original “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” when it debuted in 2003. My wife and I watched a few episodes but quickly lost interest. Doing the background research for this post I was surprised to learn that the original series actually ran until 2007. I thought it disappeared long before that. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate the show, I found it mildly entertaining. I did not find it compelling though. To sum up my thoughts briefly, the original show seemed to trying to live up to its name too strenuously. Yes, it tried to bridge the culture gap between straight and gay but it did so by really focusing on straight, not “versus” really, but “separate from” gay.
So while we weren’t filled with enthusiasm for the new Netflix series, we were mildly interested – my wife more than me. She actually convinced our daughter to take a break from the Gray’s Anatomy (don’t get me started on that one) ultra-marathon they’ve been on for what seems like months to give Queer Eye a try. They even managed to convince our 14 year-old son to watch with them. I didn’t wander into the TV room until the beginning of episode 3. I didn’t leave. We all watched two more episodes that evening.
Over the next few days I caught up on the first 2 episodes and watched the rest of the season. I laughed, I cried, I was inspired, I cried again. I’m not going to go into too much detail here because not only do I not want to spoil anything for you, but also because I’m pretty sure if I start talking about it, I won’t be able to stop.
So, as briefly as possible, the show is just called “Queer Eye” for a reason. It spends as little time as possible on the artificial binary of “straight” and “gay.” Instead, all five of the hosts, one of whom is Canadian by the way, help people who have been nominated, the subjects of the show, to take control of their lives. As you can imagine, each of the five hosts contribute in some way to each protagonists transformation – though in each of the eight episodes one of them generally contributes more than the others.
Here is where things get interesting. Instead of each episode being focused on a straight guy, and a superficial co-opt of “queer” to dress better, or cook better or have a nicer space, the new Queer Eye uses fashion, grooming, cooking, decorating, and culture to address each protagonist’s self esteem. The narrative is one of charity, self-worth, family regardless of orientation, race, profession, economic situation. Unlike the original, the new Queer Eye isn’t just a celebration of gay culture. Its a celebration of the humanity we all share.
If I have one criticism of the show it would be that it makes it easy for the viewer to slip into some sloppy thinking and generalize that this breaking down of barriers is something that queer culture is in a unique position to offer, that this feature is somehow intrinsic to being queer. I’m not queer so I can’t speak from any experience of having to fight against social norms in order to live a genuine life. I did grow up in a religious (lapsed Catholic) and literate family that believed in the christian values as actually written in the bible; values such as charity, service, humility and the fact that we’re all in this together.
I bring up Christianity to set up another interesting aspect of this reboot. Where the original was set in Boston and New England (and it may have moved around in later seasons but I didn’t stick around to find out), the new Queer Eye is set in Atlanta and surrounding locations. It very deliberately confronts stereotypes involving Christians and cops – and race. The first few minutes of the episode featuring a NASCAR fan and former marine are particularly noteworthy for this. The episode where the “fab five” help a young man finally come out to his step-mom. The scene where he tells her and breaks down saying he wished he had told his dad before he died. I haven’t cried like that during a TV show since Starbuck was shot down on the original Battlestar Galactica. And yes, I know that was all a ploy by the Shining Ones and he did end up joing the Ship of Lights but, come, on, I was 8 ad Starbuck got SHOT DOWN!
Queer Eye is by no means perfect. It is obviously, painfully so at times, over-edited. The final episode with the firefighters and their charity event verges on the strident at times and plays the “hot firefighter” card a little too enthusiastically. But the show is trying to do something different. It’s trying to redefine masculinity. It’s using queer vocabulary and values to undermine the false binary of straight and gay. It does more than crassly attempt to show how these gay men are more stylish, more hip, more together, more everything than straight men. It’s not just trying to erase barriers and prejudice, its trying to raise the discourse. It’s trying to raise us all up. It’s trying to give us something to think about.