Sorry, ‘Queer Eye.’ Makeovers Don’t Win Us LGBT ‘Acceptance.’
‘Queer Eye’ teases us with the fantasy that homophobia in conservative parts of this country can be cured with haircuts and button-down shirts. If only.
But I would argue that the new Queer Eye feels good in more of an anesthetic than a euphoric way. At a time when anti-LGBT sentiment in this country remains stubbornly persistent, the makeover show’s unremitting positivity feels more like a numbing agent than a dose of pure joy. Yes, it feels good. But is it good to ignore the pain right now?
Queer Eye teases us with the fantasy that homophobia in conservative parts of this country can be cured with haircuts and button-down shirts—and while that’s a reassuring fantasy, it’s also a dangerous one to indulge at a time like this.
“The original show was fighting for tolerance,” fashion guru Tan France announces at the start of the first episode, delivering what is essentially the reboot’s thesis statement. “Our fight is for acceptance.”
The episodes that follow do make good on that promise—but in a carefully-staged way. The show delivers plenty of genuine human connection between the new Fab Five and Georgia men who might have never otherwise spent significant amounts of time with gay people.
As my Daily Beast colleague Kevin Fallon noted in his mixed review of the reboot, “you bet those moments tug at your heartstrings when you watch.” I am not made out of stone; there is an undeniable emotional power in the reboot that’s only heightened by the red-state setting.
But it’s important to remember that everyone who appears on this show—including the police officer who voted for Trump and the Christian pastor—signed up to be on the show. They were vetted, selected, and hand-picked by the Queer Eye production team.
Much has been made of the fact that this reboot dives into Trump country. But this isn’t a show that finds virulently homophobic people and turns them into LGBT allies; this is a show that finds people who a liberal audience might think would be homophobic—who might even say one or two homophobic things—but who are open to the idea of being in close proximity to gay men for the duration of a shoot.
In other words, Queer Eye isn’t so much creating acceptance where there is none; it’s giving some much-needed gay friends to people who are already inclined to accept them.
That downgrades, somewhat, the gut emotional reaction I initially had to these episodes. What comes across onscreen as transformative bridge-building is actually somewhere between that and pleasant shoulder-rubbing.
As one Vulture reviewer of the fifth episode put it, “obviously [Pastor Bobby] has to be cool with gay dudes or he wouldn’t have been on this show in the first place, but it was really nice to hear that he’s down with us.”
Nice, yes, but not quite awe-inspiring or hope-inducing.
As someone who lived in Georgia for five years—and who spent the summer of 2017 in Utah, Texas, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi writing a forthcoming book about LGBT activism in red states—I know that the divide in this country around LGBT issues can hardly be solved with free kitchen renovations.
What’s holding the LGBT community back in this country are not people like Tom, the lovable bearded man in the Queer Eye premiere who asks married designer Bobby Beck the impolitic question, “Are you the husband or the wife?”
The problem is the one third of Americans who, according to Gallup, still believe that homosexuality is “morally wrong”—and the fact that these Americans, by virtue of their geographic distribution and voting habits, essentially control a powerful political party’s stance on social issues.
I’m not saying that states like Georgia are homophobic hellscapes—as I’ve written before, I actually prefer the feeling of LGBT community and solidarity in red states to the open support found in many coastal blue areas—but I am saying that prejudice in the U.S.A runs far deeper than an upbeat program like Queer Eye can afford to show.
The queer people I met on my 2017 red-state road trip have seen more cultural change than LGBT people in New York or L.A. might expect—but it is slow, painful, halting change.
It comes in the form of agonizing conversations with anti-LGBT loved ones, often held over several years. There is no team of lifestyle gurus with Netflix cash who swoop in to change hearts and minds. Progress is hard-earned—and there are no quick shortcuts to the finish line.
This is where you might say that Queer Eye is meant to entertain, first and foremost, not to document the reality of anti-LGBT discrimination in a state like Georgia. Indeed, why not just let my guard down, kick back, and simply appreciate this curated collection of heartwarming stories?
That appears to be what many critics have done so far. Vice called Queer Eye “the least cynical viewing you’ll enjoy this month,” imploring viewers to let it “defrost your frozen-over heart.”
BuzzFeed deemed it “empowering and positive.” EW highlighted the fact that their TV critics cried, with one noting that the experience of watching Georgia guys interact with the new Fab Five “does the soul good, especially in these divided times.” I, too, watched all the episodes and was entertained, and felt my soul swell. I even cried.
But mostly I agreed with Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder, who broke with the pack of critics, writing that “the producers are explicitly inviting (controlled) moments of ideological and cultural friction—all of which must, naturally, resolve in warm understanding.”
Queer Eye never lets us veer too far into treacherous territory, staying firmly on the wrong side of the thin line between optimism and naïveté.
Georgia is a unique state where one of the coolest and queerest cities in the country, Atlanta, is surrounded on all sides by red counties. The state is a potent mix of traditional and modern, conservative and progressive. It is actually the perfect setting for a reality show to navigate the clash of cultural values that will determine this country’s future.
The new Queer Eye could have been a different beast than the original, maintaining the self-improvement fun while allowing room for rougher edges. Instead, it provides a sentimental sugar high, showing us glimmers of tension but always bouncing back lest we get too sad about the state of the world. Watching these episodes feels like bowling with the bumpers up: Nothing can ever go too wrong.
That’d be fine if Queer Eye were just a show about getting rid of straight men’s ill-fitting pants. It’s not. It’s also a show that aspires to be about “acceptance.” And acceptance looks a lot messier than this.