Earlier this month, a strange thing kept happening whenever I tried to watch a serious, Zeitgeisty, dramatic TV show: I’d put on screeners for the new Queer Eye reboot instead. I watched with the dedication of someone who was unquestionably soothed, even as I actively doubted whether the show was any good. But in 2018, especially as a woman, it is fascinating to watch a series about men trying to fix masculinity. So I kept watching.
The problem with Queer Eye — and the allure of it — is clearest in the third episode, when the Fab Five’s opening intro gets interrupted after a cop pulls them over. They’re in Georgia, and Karamo, a black man and the Fab Five’s “culture” specialist, is driving. The whole carful of men gets nervous, but Karamo’s entire body language changes. His face tenses, and you can see the shift from “I’m being a reality-TV personality” to “I’m being pulled over by a cop” in his hands and his shoulders. But in the end, it’s all just a setup. The cop who pulled them over is the one who nominated his friend to get a makeover.
That police stop will get a lot of attention for the new Queer Eye, because it’s such a glib treatment of police violence and the experience of black men in America. The episode’s real crux comes later, though, when Karamo rides back from a makeover session with Corey, the cop who’s the subject of the episode. After some “We’re not that different” chitchat, Karamo says, gently, “You know, when Henry pulled us over, I immediately — I started freaking out. I thought that this was going to be that incident where I got dragged out of the car.” Corey listens, they appear to come to an understanding, and it’s edited as a Black Lives/Blue Lives summit that reaches a peace (even as Corey pulls out a “both sides” card). Karamo then comes in with a voice-over to tie it all in a bow. “I’m open,” he says. “I’m not saying a conversation with one police officer and one gay guy is going to solve [our country’s] problems, but maybe it can open up eyes.”
Fast cut to Jonathan, the grooming specialist: “The name of the day today is glam!”
If there’s a thesis statement of the Queer Eye reboot, it’s in that scene: Maybe a conversation between one police officer and one gay guy really can open eyes. Despite first impressions, Karamo and Corey have a real discussion about the issues that the episode’s wildly misguided opening sequence ignored. But that thesis also includes what follows: “The name of the day is glam!” in reference to homemade exfoliants. That, right there, is the bigger project, the bigger problem, and absolutely the bigger appeal of the show. Queer Eye wants to wrap Black Lives Matter, toxic masculinity, self-care, prejudice, and how to choose a good patterned shirt all inside the safe, affirming cover of a reality-TV makeover series.
The original Queer Eye operated with the following set of assumptions: that straight men need help, that gay men hold the answers to straight men’s problems, that gayness is a guarantor of a more fashionable and attractive life, that gay men know what women want, and that the problems of straight masculinity can be addressed through simple grooming, culinary, and home-décor fixes. Underneath all of that, of course, the original series made a deeper proposition: that straight and gay men could understand and appreciate one another, if only straight men had an opportunity to learn from gay men, and if Americans could watch them do it. Its spoken intent was to make straight men better on an individual level; its unspoken idea was that a broader cultural betterment might follow.
On the new Queer Eye, that idea becomes explicit. To its credit, the series also tries to imagine what broader cultural betterment would entail: exfoliants and conversations about privilege, celebrations of self-care and attempts to reframe a man’s idea of “self” within the world. But the show’s attempt at true cultural subversion lies in the much simpler fact of its basic premise: Within the space of an episode on the original and the reboot alike, the Fab Five have power over the situation. They dress the subject, and they push him to do uncomfortable things. They are the teachers, and hidden inside the premise is a frisson of winking rebellion: What if this traditionally marginalized group of people actually were in charge? What if theirs was the prevailing American vision of masculinity?
Like many reality shows, Queer Eye creates an alternate reality as a sort of thought experiment: What if straight men actually did need to learn how to groom themselves in order to succeed in life? What if a man’s ability to have a romantic relationship actually did improve when he learned how to make a caprese salad? Just as with other reality shows, though, the alternate reality of Queer Eye is not the real world. The Biggest Losers often gain back the weight, and the recipients of Extreme Home Makeovers get burdened with impossible taxes. On Queer Eye, once the show is over, the straight men can go back to wearing cargo shorts and hitting the “like” button on Blue Lives Matter posts whenever they want. If you actually think about what might happen beyond any given episode, the makeover genre of reality television is a far cry from feel-good.
But I kept watching the new Queer Eye episodes anyhow, and I did so with the same self-soothing impulse that my preschooler feels when she reaches for her lovey. However edited and polished the show might be, the thing that makes it so watchable — and so safe — is how confidently it crams the subtleties and dangers and cruelties and privileges of American manhood into the familiar shape of a Queer Eye episode. The message of the show is that “fixing” an individual man is a plausible route toward undoing systemic prejudice, and that one man’s rough edges can be smoothed away with a topical treatment of sugar bound together with coconut oil. Of course I kept watching that: Queer Eye offers style, utility, and the alluring promise that all sorts of messes — especially of the male variety — can be contained. In episode three, Karamo talks about the beauty in openness, but the charm of the series is that each episode reaches a triumphant end. It’s a variety of storytelling that gestures at a potential future beyond the show, but we’re not supposed to imagine that future too closely.
In spite of my misgivings, I’m glad I kept watching Queer Eye, in part because any attempt at masculine self-reflection is worthwhile right now, even if it’s packaged inside a show designed to create perfect endings. I’m particularly glad because it means that I watched what’s far and away the best episode of the series, the episode-four makeover of A.J. A.J. is gay, but he’s uncomfortable with people seeing him that way, and he wants to come out to his stepmother. The slyly topsy-turvy power dynamic is suddenly shifted: There’s no winking awareness that a marginalized group is bossing around the patriarchy, which makes the stakes both lower (the Fab Five don’t have to become standard-bearers for gay culture) and much higher (unlike in other episodes, this could seriously change A.J.’s life). The abstract dictums about loving oneself and the importance of self-care become pointed and specific, and the Fab Five talk about their own experiences in coming out and deciding how to shape their public selves. The scene where A.J. comes out to his stepmother is so intense that it feels too private for TV; there’s a shot where you can see all of the hair standing up on his stepmother’s arm.
Like the rest of the show, A.J.’s episode has some shout-outs to the broader world, and the stated hope is that watching A.J. accept himself will help other gay men do the same. But unlike many of the straight men on the series, the undeniable sense of a real change in A.J.’s life makes the gesture toward the broader world feel unnecessary. What makes Queer Eye so appealing and so frustrating are its attempts to stuff the wide world of masculinity into an hour-long makeover show. In the few moments when it scraps all of that to focus on a single man, the message becomes “Screw the world, just be yourself.” That message is much easier to believe.