How Netflix’s Queer Eye engages with masculinities in a redeeming way, at a time when it is needed. Badly.
When I was a little kid, I remember seeing Queer Eye for the Straight Guy scroll past on my T.V. guide, and feeling a wave of curiosity I knew I shouldn’t feel. I wasn’t entirely sure what the word queer meant, but it called up a vague archetype comprised of fleeting images I’d picked up from media, of bright colors, loud voices, bold movements. The word was alluring in its unapologetic nature, but more than that, it was alluring because of the pretty box it had been relegated to in my mind, the lid firmly shut.
It’s easy for even well-meaning, open-minded people to put queerness in a box. It is all too often understood as an accessory, rather than an energy. It’s safer to not understand queerness, to hold it at a distance where it is neutralized, and stripped of its disruptive power. That’s why I was raised to keep it in a box. I was taught in my religious household to love the queer person in spite of their queerness, to focus on the person underneath this thing they put on that was so foreign to me.
It wasn’t until I moved away to college that queer energy became a huge part of my life. Queerness moves and directs social systems according to its own logic, and being surrounded by queer energy was healing and safe and for me in ways that I didn’t even know I needed. I learned that queerness is so much about finding the parts of human connection that are stronger and purer than what social scripts and templates can offer. Queerness is about creating yourself in a way that is nurturing to you and your community, and I will never have the words to express my depth of gratitude to the beautiful community that helped me to grow myself so much.
Queerness is the most humanizing social force I have ever been exposed to — and I feel incredibly fortunate, because feminine people are allowed closer proximity to queer people without penalty than masculine people are. If womanhood has been limiting, I at least have had the access to tools that help me rethink my way of relating to the world. The reason I am the way I am is because I want everyone to have the space to connect with one another, authentically, as humans. Too often, I have seen men as enemies of that mission, and in doing so, disqualified them from recipients of my empathy, just as I feel they have done to me and to many of the people I love.
“Men are the worst,” goes the constant refrain in my head and with my friends and on my social media. Sometimes it’s sung in a joke-y, Jean-Ralphio voice, sometimes spoken with the flattened affect of someone exhausted by the words they are saying. Or, more accurately, exhausted by coping. Because that’s what this motif that trickles through our lives is — a coping skill.
What else can we say, in response to a steady stream of powerful men revealed to be sexual predators? Or to the men that belittle us, degrade us, steamroll our agency and threaten our safety every day? Or to a nation that has only given straight, white, cisgendered, economically privileged men the rights of full human beings since its foundation? When protestations have fallen on the deaf (or worse — apathetic) ears of the men in power for generations, sometimes the best you can hope for is a sympathetic ear to commiserate— Men are the worst.
Criticizing straight, white, cis- men isn’t breaking new ground, though. In fact, it’s coming to sound a little trite, almost like a necessary tagline in order to qualify your argument as sufficiently socially aware. And moreover, it’s almost like flagging your argument with a warning: men, this content isn’t for you. (Yes, not everything needs to be for men, but then how do we incentivize them to engage with things that aren’t specifically for them?) I want for everyone to feel invited to the conversation about gendered violence and oppression, because we all have significant stake in it. Whether or not it’s apparent, men have a lot to lose in the culture wars, too.
I know that there is an abundance of conservative, masculine people in this country who feel just as alienated from me as I do from them. Masculinity scares me. From where I stand, masculinity looks like an island — one that governs itself on a set of laws that I would never sign myself up for. Distance feels safer than engaging. I know that my voice can’t be rejected if I contain it within my safe, comfortable social circle.
And queerness can absolutely involve masculinity — it’s not that the men of the Fab Five aren’t masculine — it just doesn’t adhere to a rigid and closed version. Masculinity is just one of the resources that queer people use in creating themselves in conversation with their cultural surroundings. It’s not the framework of the house — it’s just a fun accent wall (Are accent walls still a thing? Do I need to stop getting my interior design knowledge from memes about Trading Spaces? Bobby???) The masculinity that the Fab Five bring to the table is inviting, and it breaks down some of the harsh boundaries that men often limit themselves with.
Queer Eye offers such a welcoming and safe space to engage with people across political and social divides. It’s easy to be skeptical that a makeover show could be a force for good — after all, the thesis statement for TLC’s What Not To Wear was basically, “Surprise! Your friends all think you dress like sh**!” — but Queer Eye sets a tone different from any show I’ve seen before.
The moment I knew that this show offered something very special was ten minutes into the first episode, “You Can’t Fix Ugly”. The Fab Five had been running around Tom’s house, making quips about his collection of jorts, his worn out armchair, and his drink of choice, the “redneck margarita”—a drink that combines all the health benefits of mountain dew with all the fun of tequila. In general, the *going through the house* section is sort of a scattered energy, where the guys good-naturedly poke fun at the ways their subject has been letting parts of their personal life get out of hand, highlighting stand-out features and asking questions along the way.
They had reached the bathroom, where Jonathan was going through Tom’s skin- and haircare products, saving only a few combs and pairs of scissors among a wreckage of rejected soaps and lotions, one of which, by Jonathan’s analysis, contains a chemical that “cleans the…engine in a car.” Jonathan focuses in on Tom and observes that he has some dryness on his cheeks, and Tom replies genially, “Oh, that’s my lupus.” Jonathan focuses in on Tom; “Okay, so let’s talk about that a little,” Van Ness continues, totally undeterred by the news of Tom’s autoimmune condition. “One thing I know about lupus, is that it’s all about SPF, like we’ve gotta protect that skin from those UVA and UVB rays, because sun actually can cause inflammation and flare-ups in people with lupus.” His energy never lost its motivating sparkle, and his eyes looked directly into Tom’s as he gave this self-care advice. This was the first moment I knew that something special was going on. This was more than a makeover — this show is about personalized care that straight men often aren’t taught how to give themselves.
Lupus is not especially common, and like many other autoimmune disorders, can be really isolating. Seeing that Jonathan had background knowledge on Tom’s health issue — and more than that, reframing his skincare as healthcare — really helped me get on board for the transformations this show is bringing about. Of course Tom deserves to have the skills to care for his body, and the fact that he needed to have that affirmed by Jonathan shows that men need this kind of support in their lives, too.
What appeals to me the most about Queer Eye is that it requires a certain amount of vulnerability on the part of the people getting the makeovers. The participants are from diverse backgrounds — not all are white, not all are men, not all are straight or cis — but the commonality they share is that they need the kind of care the Fab Five are equipped to bring into their lives. And plenty of participants hold identities that are politically at odds with some of the identities that the Fab Five hold. In “Dega Don’t,” Karamo and a former police officer discuss police brutality against the black community. In “God Bless Gay,” the season 2 opener, Bobby opens up about how rejection by his church community hurt him as a young man, and connects with a mother and son who have similarly struggled to reconcile Christianity with loving queer family members. In “To Gay or Not Too Gay,” the Fab Five help a man come out to his step-mother, his closest family member after the loss of his father. The Fab Five engage with their clients’ lives, and give them tools to reach towards their goals. Their approach is about so much more than appearances or trends— it’s about human connection and having confidence in yourself.
Queer people shouldn’t have to prove that they are useful in order to establish their humanity. But, being vulnerable enough to admit that you need help, and having five kind and caring people come into your home and believe in you — that’s a powerful way to connect to someone. By-the-book masculinity don’t allow much space for vulnerability. There isn’t really a template for talking about fears or insecurities. In “Unleash the Sexy Beast,” Tan says something so powerful — “Men have body issues, we are just as insecure about our bodies as women are, we just don’t talk about it as comfortably as we should.” For anyone to champion body positivity as a feminist issue, it has to include men’s bodies, too. That was something I needed to be reminded of.
Maybe if straight men were given more space to care for themselves, they wouldn’t rely on the people around them to do all that emotional labor. Men have so much to gain from feminism and queerness and the power that comes with embracing nuance, rather than strict, limiting rules for how to be successful and good enough. Just as I had to learn that queer people don’t deserve to be put in a box, I’m now learning that the same applies to straight men. I’m willing to risk extending them more empathy, because that’s the only way to show them why it’s important.
Thank you Bobby, Jonathan, Antoni, Karamo, and Tan — you all do a whole lot to help people, and it’s not just the people you’re making over.