It’s not just the straight guys struggling to be the most fabulous versions of themselves anymore, though their inclination toward cargo shorts and headboard-less beds still ranks them as some of the most unfortunate among us. In 2018, the Queer Eye casts its scrutinizing gaze on all humans.
The first season of Netflix’s Queer Eye revival, which dropped the “For the Straight Guy” title that the original Bravo series launched with 15 years ago, telegraphed a new “for the woke guy” branding for the series. And the second season of the reboot, which premiered this weekend, is taking it a step further: Its wokeness is no longer gendered.
“The original show was fighting for tolerance. Our fight is for acceptance,” said host Tan France in that first batch of episodes, which included a standout installment that centered on the physical and emotional makeover of a gay man. The new crop of episodes, perhaps even more so than that first run, makes good on that crusade, with its landmark trans and first female makeovers.
Why expand when there are still so many straight men with unruly beards who have not yet discovered charcuterie in desperate need of the gays’ help? Perhaps to make a valuable, progressive point in these dark and oppressive times: No matter how you identify or who you love, we are all god’s children. And god deserves to see all his children looking presentable in a nice tailored shirt and a professional dye job. Oh… and also happy!
Almost by design, it’s easy to snark, as we have, about Queer Eye. That’s an issue we raised when the show first came back in February after 11 years off the air and 11 years of evolution in pop culture’s depiction of and society’s relationship to the gay community. The idea of five gay men reduced to stereotypical skill sets like clothes and hair and interior design serving as literal fairy godmothers could ostensibly be, all these years later, debasing.
Are Tan France (fashion), Jonathan Van Ness (hair), Bobby Berk (design), Karamo Brown (culture), and Antoni Porowski (food and wine) changing lives through proper cuffing and guacamole recipes? As with any self-improvement endeavor, it’s a superficial means to a profound end: enriching a person’s self-esteem.
They’re shepherds of the emotional breakthrough that each person they help realizes: regardless of body shape, looks, and gender identity or sexual orientation, everyone should feel deserving of that self-esteem. While categorized by their industry specialties, the Fab Five has a collective expertise: self-love.
That all lives have worth and all people are deserving of admiration and love is an excruciatingly timely concept. If that projection of confidence to the world is facilitated through a nicely trimmed beard and stylish living room, then these five men are veritable social justice warriors as far as we are concerned.
Which brings us to Skyler, Mama Tammy, and, for the same reasons, A.J. from that standout episode of the revival’s first season.
By the time the new season of Queer Eye launched Friday, much had already been written in anticipation of its “trans episode.” Even its opening seconds signal that this is going to be a proverbial Very Special Episode, an especially alarming emotional warning for a TV show that is by design an entire series of Very Special Episodes.
(Any episode is essentially viewed in a quivering state. At any moment, a baseline level of touched hysterics could crash into a full-on emotional stroke.)
Instead of the Fab Five rolling into town in their pickup truck gossiping about the duckling they’re about to swan the hell out of, we see them sitting together on the couch, each teary-eyed and watching footage of a trans man named Skyler undergoing top surgery to remove his breasts.
When we finally get to meet Skyler, about six weeks post-op, he’s elated: the surgery and its documentation is the final thing he needs to go to the DMV and have the gender marker on his official identification changed to male.
Skyler is a trip. He’s pint-sized with a Brillo pad of orange-red hair and a short beard, which took years of hormones for him to grow, to match. He’s 30 but dresses like a skeezy skater boi from 1995, having relied on baggy clothes and a tomboy demeanor in order to disguise his pre-surgery curves.
While desperately in need of a fashion freshening and hair taming—bless Jonathan for calling on the Golden Girls for guidance on styling Skyler’s perm of curls—he’s also in need of an ego boost, an assuredness in his masculinity commensurate with the caretaker role he has in his own tight family of LGBTQ friends, as well as his growing professional career.
And the Fab Five? They need an education. So often during these makeovers, they’re aspirational; they are the food connoisseurs and beauty experts and tastemakers we look up to. In this episode, they’re our avatars. We learn along with them.
There’s a certain amount of sensitivity that must be considered when portraying a trans experience, because pop culture so often ignores the fact that no trans experience is universal. When you’re the show that bridges the gap between the LGBTQ community and the mainstream, as Queer Eye does, the danger is that assumption might hold true again.
There’s so much ground to cover: gender identity, gender expression, queerness, coming out, transitioning, trans fashion, body, sexual intimacy, androgyny, pronouns, and the divide between the trans and gay communities, despite being united under the same LGBTQ moniker. The episode does admirable work in fleeting, accessible engagement with each issue. While hardly a deep dive, it alerts viewers to their importance so that they might at least consider the gravity of those issues, if not even seek out more information. It’s Queer Eye as advocacy.
It’s especially moving to think about Skyler’s episode in conversation with the season two premiere, which centers on a black woman from Gay, Georgia—seriously!—named Tammy. She’s Miss Tammy to the members of her vibrant community, Mama Tammy to the Fab Five.
Jokes follow the revelation that they are “doing a lady” this episode: “I haven’t done a lady in years!” “I’ve never done a lady!” But that just eases us through laughter into what will eventually be a torrent of tears as Mama Tammy, the pillar of her Christian community who “hugs every single person who comes into the church,” connects with the Fab Five because of her religious devotion, not in spite of it.
Mama Tammy’s son is gay. Given her faith, it’s something that took her a while to come to terms with. But when she did, she couldn’t have done so with more enlightenment, going so far as to ask for her son’s forgiveness. (Antoni’s ugly cry in response to watching this unfold mirrors ours.)
She talks about how seriously she takes a phrase so commoditized it sometimes loses its meaning: What would Jesus do? “You can’t antagonize and evangelize at the same time,” she says. She doesn’t dismiss the hurt that any gay person has felt from people of faith who have scorned them, but she invites them to feel the love of the God that she knows.
Truthfully, we’ve never seen a TV series engage so thoughtfully and deeply with the complicated relationship many gay people have with church and religion. In so many queer lives, the church is one of the most meaningful constants and even havens of childhood, only to then become the symbol of ostracism and hatred when they are able to come to terms with their identities.
There is shame, betrayal, resentment, and even fear, among a host of other emotions, including wistfulness, tied to the church for these people. Mama Tammy allows us to feel all of that and to think about our relationship with God and god-fearing elements of society. That this happens in the same season that empathizes with a trans man who has had not just a church turn its back on him, but his entire family, too, is powerful.
Any makeover is secondary. The show becomes, with these two episodes, about opening our eyes to things we don’t understand, and bridging communities that have been historically at odds.
It’s no coincidence that these two episodes stand out in the new season, considering that the most emotional episode of the first batch wasn’t a makeover of one of the show’s schlubby straight men, but a gay man who, though he had a partner, was not out to his mother.
There are a million reasons why this episode bursts the dam and unleashes every tear stored up in your body. For us, part of it was in how it addressed a long-standing hang-up with the series, stretching back to its first episode. It’s why, while we are certainly fans of the new iteration with this new Fab Five, we were initially frustrated by the revival.
The basic conceit of the show is an inelegant one, one that can simultaneously celebrate a certain unapologetic flamboyance while perpetuating the notion of gayness as something monolithically fey and easily othered.
Last season’s episode with A.J., which included exceptional conversations between him and Karamo Brown about the experience of being an out gay black man in the South, proved this series has power outside of that problematic othering.
This wasn’t the quintet using a West Elm catalog and avocados to find common ground with the straight guy, a generalizing bifurcation of Queer Eye and Straight Guy signaling not so much apples and oranges as apples and fermented shark: two commodities so unlike each other and seemingly incompatible that pairing them together harmoniously is nothing short of a miracle.
That miracle, of course, is what gives the show its inherent dramatic tension. But what Skyler, Mama Tammy, and A.J.’s episodes showed is that authenticity is miracle enough. A.J. had the boys connecting with him from a perspective they each could understand and empathize with. Because of that initial resonance, they could each probe the nuances of his individual experience more deeply.
So much of the fretting surrounding the relaunch of Queer Eye centered on what that arguably dated concept could bring to modern cultural conversations about sexuality and gender. The answer from these episodes especially is inclusivity.
It’s nice to see people from different walks of life learn to understand each other. But it’s just as beautiful to see members of a community come together to support one of their own who needs them.
After two seasons of the new Queer Eye, we’re seeing the revival reach its full potential: being equally skilled at doing both.