‘Queer Eye’ — Making Over America’s Backward Culture

Issue 233

Peter Rugh Mar 9, 2018

Early on in this Netflix reality reboot we’re told that the first Queer Eye was about tolerance. This new series is about acceptance.

Not that the early aughts original, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, wasn’t a bit of a television coup in its day. For those unfamiliar with its premise, in each episode a team of trendy experts known as the Fab Five run to the rescue of a living, breathing fashion emergency. By the end credits their straight subject is looking good and feeling confident. Shallow as it was, the show suggested that straight America might actually have something to learn from some of the people it has marginalized.

However, as critics pointed out at the time, making straight people handsome and self-assured shouldn’t be a prerequisite for their tolerance. The revamp bypasses this sticking point by dropping the “for the Straight Guy” bit of the title, though with one notable exception, the new cast continue to focus their primping and grooming on the straight men among us.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating to watch how the new Queer Eye uses its makeover premise to confront cultural divides, going further than the original ever did — literally. This Queer Eye is set in Atlanta and surrounding rural and suburban Georgia, whereas the original was based primarily in Manhattan.

Queer Eye uses its makeover premise to confront cultural divides.

In episode three, “Dega Don’t,” the Fab Five are pulled over by a police squad car on a back country road. Karamo Brown, the show’s culture expert, who is Black, is visibly shaken. We eventually discover that the officer who stopped the group is playing a prank on them. He is a buddy of the Fab Five’s makeover target, Cory.

Later, Brown has a heart to heart with Cory, also a cop, not to mention a Trump supporter. Brown tells him he didn’t think the prank was very funny, given the threat of violence people of color (and he might have added queer people) face from law enforcement in this country. The conversation winds up being rather circular, but maybe that is to be expected. Two strangers from entirely different backgrounds aren’t going to magically see eye to eye, no matter how good one makes the other look.

Another notable example of Queer Eye confronting cultural divisions comes while the show’s design expert, Bobby Berk, helps a conservative Christian makeover target, Bobby Camp, set up a garden in his backyard. While the pair plant kale together, Berk tells Camp of the shame and isolation he felt as a gay youth raised in an evangelical church setting. Evidently, Camp takes note.

“Growing up the way we did,” Camp tells the Fab Five at the end of the episode, “homosexuals were not accepted. And they still aren’t in a lot of church environments. But in the Camp family, they are. In our hearts they are.”

One cultural schism the show mostly papers over, however, is class. Bobby Camp has six children and is trying to hold down two jobs. His wife also works full time. Is it any wonder then that he doesn’t have a lot of time to spend perfecting his image? The Fab Five make concessions for his case, taking him shopping at Target, for instance, instead of one of the more high-end shops they typically drag their makeoverees to. But it is hard to imagine Camp returning to get the $100 haircut he received during the taping of the episode.

This is a flaw that ran through the original Queer Eye and is present in much of the self-help industry: the idea that anyone can look and feel good, all it takes is for you to go out and spend a few thousand dollars on yourself. That equation leaves much of the general population out of the mix. Inversely, numerous examples of people who wear the most stylish of clothes, live in the glossiest of homes and also happen to be deeply miserable abound. The show pays lip service to the idea that how you look isn’t as important as what’s inside, emphasizing that the makeovers the Fab Five perform are about building self-confidence. But where the show is strongest is when it explores another crucial element of happiness: community.

When Anthony, “the straightest gay guy in Atlanta” comes out to his stepmother in episode four, the stakes couldn’t be higher. It isn’t just about Anthony being comfortable in his own skin, though the Fab Five help with that. Anthony risks losing the connection he has to the person he loves most in order to show her who he truly is. His friends and his boyfriend are close by in case his coming out goes south, providing a kind of communal bedrock for Anthony’s courageous honesty.

The Fab Five themselves are out and open and have an infectious amount of fun turning around the lives they enter into, but Anthony’s story illustrates how far we still have to go as a culture in 2018. After acceptance comes solidarity. Next, liberation.

Queer Eye
Netflix, 2018

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Photo: Not many makeover shows address police brutality. This one does. Here Karamo Brown (right) offers Officer Cory a little more than fashion advice. Credit: Netflix.

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