Queer Eye strips queerness of radical intention and repackages it as the non-threatening support system of heteronormative practice, with the Fab Five offered up as the ultimate Gay Best Friend who exists to improve the lives of (mainly) heterosexual men by providing consumer advice and encouraging re/connection with the opposite sex. This renders the show palatable to a multicast audience who, as a result, travel through each episode with a heterosexist worldview intact, without facing the fear of accusations of homophobia.
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The 2018 revival of Queer Eye has been greatly anticipated and widely commended. Returning to screens in February via the streaming service Netflix (and already greenlit for a second season), the show hosts an all-new Fab Five – Bobby Berk on design, Antoni Porowski on diet, Johnathan Van Ness on grooming, Tan France on style, and Karamo Brown on culture. This Queer Eye operates under the familiar formula of the original series, wherein said Fab Five – a group of cis-gendered, able-bodied, and conventionally attractive gay men – makeover the lifestyles of heterosexual men. Due to the revival’s employment of confessional personal intercuts from the Fab Five, paired with the tendency to encourage participants toward bouts of emotional honesty, it has been suggested that 2018’s Queer Eye offers a subversive and inarguably queer foil to the typical makeover serial. While the show does highlight peer-supported growth (a familiar phenomenon to many in the LGBT+ community) as an important method of self-acceptance, it also situates itself comfortably within the framework of the original, relying on the stereotype of gay men as stylish experts in design and personal grooming, and a tendency toward the more generic neoliberal consumer-driven project of the self. So while the revival is entertaining, and in no way lacking in heart, the employment of what is largely the standard makeover formula brings up a question: what exactly is queer about Queer Eye?
Queerness is understood to be a radical form of identity, reclaimed, defended, and defined by historical struggle and bouts of intellectual activism. Alexander Doty has defined queerness as a range of “non-straight” expressions with the potential to challenge a heterosexist world order (1993, xv), a musing that reaches to include all non-normative forms of sexuality and gender identity, further cementing queerness as a politically charged counterculture. Yet, from the onset, Queer Eye positions itself within the homonormative narrative of comfortable queer domestication, wherein the ideal position for LGBT+ people is depoliticized assimilation within a hetero-dominant society. In “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism,” Lisa Duggan highlights the ability for this phenomenon to uphold heterosexual social structures by pacifying the radical connotations of queerness (179), rendering it both palatable and marketable to a wide audience. By positioning the Fab Five as a network of life coaches, personal shoppers, and interior designers, it fixes them within a hyper-domestic sphere in which the improvement of participants’ lives is realised via refined consumerism, and self-actualisation is nurtured by the selfless acts of gay men. In this way, queerness is stripped of radical intention and repackaged as the non-threatening support system of heteronormative practice, with the Fab Five offered up as the ultimate Gay Best Friend who exists to improve the lives of (mainly) heterosexual men by providing consumer advice and encouraging re/connection with the opposite sex. This renders the show palatable to a multicast audience who, as a result, travel through each episode with a heterosexist worldview intact, without facing the fear of accusations of homophobia.
The encouragement of personal disclosure has been earmarked as a testament to the progressive nature of the show, but the discussions of the self and one’s life intercut shopping trips, physical transformations, and redesigning of the living space, linking growth and revitalisation to consumption. Many of these conversations are carried out under the guidance of an assigned “cultural” leader, with the bourgeois connotations of such a title serving to bracket these conversations into the neoliberal project of the self. The fact that the process of motivation and self-care is highlighted as a cultural concern taps further into the neoliberal tendency to put one’s identity forward as a brand, to market the self to friends, family, and strangers. And while the battle for self-acceptance and a safe emotional environment offered by a group of friends is a known experience to many LGBT+ people, there is nothing innately queer in the process of physical transformation and life admin. Particularly, by displaying homosocial male bonding and the expression of emotions by men as queer/encouraged by queerness, the show comes dangerously close to crossing into the practice of what has been coined as “queering heterosexuality,” a framework that allows cis-gendered heterosexual expressions that do not 100% hold up traditional gender values to be (incorrectly) perceived as queer. Setting aside episode four (“To Gay or Not Too Gay”), in which the Fab Five help a closeted gay man find comfort with himself and the confidence to come out (a concept much more deserving of a serial), much of the work done by the show is a softer version of generic makeover series; decorating the living space and restyling men in the hopes of re/kindling heterosexual romance. Arguably, queerness becomes obsolete in these instances; swap out the Fab Five for five straight men and it would operate in much the same fashion
Ideologically, Queer Eye keeps in time with neoliberalism by offering a hyper-individualised worldview in which “both sides” of the oppressed/oppressor dichotomy have work to do, with those suffering systemic injustice having to make just as much behaviour modification as those whom the system supports. The beginning of episode three (“Dega Don’t”) sees the Fab Five pulled over by a police officer as a joke, played by the man who nominated the next participant. As an African American man, Kamaro is visibly shaken by this situation, and the fact that it was a joke does little to dispel his discomfort. This opens up the episode as a site to interrogate race relations in the USA, but it unfortunately falls into a discourse of both sides suffering “the same pain on different ends.” This assertion works to level the violence of police brutality and the stereotyping of cops as racist as acts equal in their effects, which is grossly untrue. In this vein, the focus of the episode then becomes the dispelling of Kamaro’s own prejudice against white cops, highlighting the officer’s relief to no longer be seen as racist as he deigns to admit he has heard of (but not stood against) violence by members of the force. No challenge is put to systemic injustice as Queer Eye moves in favour of the “both sides” narrative that it staunchly sticks to, with confessional intervals echoing the similar assimilationist insistence that we are all just humans with much to learn from one another, ignoring the effects of deeply ingrained systemic inequality. In this way the series aligns itself with post-gay ideology, a phenomenon that Ahmin Ghaziani has described as an idealised present in which sexuality is no longer an important factor of identity (100). This depoliticised notion of post-gay co-existence goes against the grain of queerness as a highly political, anti-assimilationist, and radical form of existence.
The assertion of a piece of media as progressively queer is a political question before it is a matter of individual taste. Arguably, Queer Eye is a show that is much more in tune with the explorations of masculinity and patriarchal conditioning seen in the 2015 documentary The Mask You Live In (Jennifer Siebel Newsom) than a show that inserts itself into discourse on queerness. By allowing “queer” to become interchangeable with any act of softness, kindness, or self-love, it dilutes the heavy history of the word and ignores the radical understanding behind it. I am not suggesting that the show is subjectively or objectively bad – I enjoyed it immensely – I just would refrain from championing it as an expression of unapologetic or quintessential queerness.
Doty, Alexander. “Introduction: What Makes Queerness Most?” In Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. xi–xix.
Duggan, Lisa. “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism.” In Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalised Cultural Politics. Eds. Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson. Durham DC: Duke University Press, 2002. 175–94.
Ghaziani, Ahmin. “Post-Gay Collective Identity Construction.” Social Problems. 58.1 (2011): 99–125.
Queer Eye. Netflix. 2018–present.
The Mask You Live In. Netflix. 2015.