‘Queer Eye’ fights past tolerance by teaching self-acceptance

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
Gavin Bond / Netflix/Courtesy

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For queer people, feeling isolated during high school is often a rite of passage. Among many LGBTQ+ people in the early ‘00s, the original “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” became a new sense of community. Viewers picked up tips on everything from how to waltz to how to apply cologne, basking in the rare on-screen representation the show provided. And yet, the series fell short by failing to recognize people who were not white, New York City elites.

While the 2018 reboot had big shoes to fill, it also had a legacy to reframe. The show’s mission statement is laid out in the first episode’s opening sequence: “The original show was fighting for tolerance; our fight is for acceptance.” It’s immediately clear that this is a “Queer Eye” that knew it needed to change.

In the original show, the “Fab Five,” a group of five queer men, make over a straight man in each episode. There’s a food and wine expert, a fashion expert, an interior design expert, a grooming expert and a culture expert. This time around, there’s still an expert with each of those backgrounds, but with two key changes. The show now takes place in Georgia, and instead of the culture expert being the most ill-defined and extraneous role, this culture expert, Karamo Brown, drives the whole show by fulfilling its core mission.

This “Queer Eye” fights past mere tolerance by teaching self-acceptance and preaching its redefinition of masculinity. For LGBTQ+ people, the only way to survive in a society that demands we hate ourselves is to build a capacity for radical self-love. And it’s made evident by the open and honest personality we witness at the end of each episode that this is not a skill these made-over men had yet developed. Now, it’s time people outside of urban, LGBTQ+ communities are let in on our secret.

In helping rebuild its subjects, “Queer Eye” teaches them much more than just how to slice an avocado. They learn how to love what they have on the inside and to feel comfortable letting those people shine on the outside. One step at a time, each expert teaches them how they can express their own personal flair in a different aspect of their life. This process allows each member of the “Fab Five” to connect with the subject on a different level.

When the subject of episode one’s makeover, Tom Jackson, asks Bobby Berk, the design expert, if he is the husband or the wife in his marriage, Jonathan Van Ness, the grooming expert, quips, “Let’s break that down. Let’s unpack that.” By doing so, he helps Jackson understand that LGBTQ+ relationships are not purely modeled on straight relationships — fully embodying the show’s message of teaching acceptance.

Though the show hits the mark in many ways, it forgets that while its mission is to bridge the divide, part of doing so means calling out statements or behavior that fail LGBTQ+ people, women and people of color.

In the third episode, the subject of the makeover, Cory Waldrop, is a police officer. As Brown explains his reservations around police, Waldrop cuts him off, expressing that he, too, gets stereotyped. And then the show moves on. Maybe this choice intended to ensure the show continues to flow, or maybe it intended to oversimplify America’s racial divide, but the show fails to address the fact that the plight of Black people is not to be compared to the plight this cop believes he experiences. By doing so, they let a teachable moment slip in favor of a clean, conflict-free ending.

Despite its shortcomings as it strives to achieve its grand mission statement, “Queer Eye” lays out a robust framework to fight the battles that lie ahead. LGBTQ+ people fight back by demonstrating that men do not need more of the same stubborn, fragile masculinity, but they instead need a newfound embrace of radical self-love. “Queer Eye” may not be the most radical show of 2018, but it doesn’t have be — it’ll still make you cry.

Ian MacGregor is the projects editor. Contact them at [email protected].