Two PlayGround writers - one gay man and a heterosexual woman - go head-to-head to dissect this year's, nay decade's, most important show: Netflix's 'Queer Eye'
20 Julio 2018 16:36
By Rubén Serrano and Anna Freeman
The Netflix reboot of Queer Eye has become an instant fan favourite. What may have seemed like a superficial reality TV show about five gay guys making over straight men has now become the subject of countless op-eds, think pieces and columns - and here is one more. The show has been nominated for four Emmy's. A third season is on its way. We are now living in a post-Queer Eye mediascape. Netflix has introduced us to the mission of five gay men, A.K.A the ‘Fab Five’ (Antoni Porowski, Bobby Berk, Jonathan Van Ness, Karamo Brown and Tan France), who are here to improve the lives of men one floral shirt and avocado at a time.
Aside from being a tear-jerking, funny and flamboyant show, Queer Eye opens a door to something we usually don't see in TV entertainment: the lives of those in society that have been typically drowned out. But, do the gay men of Queer Eye really represent the LGBT+ community? And, why are the issues they are bringing to the forefront so important? Two PlayGround writers - one gay journalist, Rubén Serrano, and a straight female writer, Anna Freeman - go head-to-head to dissect the show that everyone loves, but no one knows exactly why.
Ruben: The show is called Queer Eye; it features five gay men but it’s not queer at all. We cannot say the show represents the LGBT+ community because it only features one capital letter. The ‘Fab Five’ don’t say a word about lesbians or bisexuality, and they don’t know much about being transgender (as seen in season two, episode ‘Sky’s the Limit’) – that’s why we can’t say that they are waving the rainbow flag. Besides, as a gay man, I can barely connect with them. Queer Eye doesn’t offer a diverse representation of the gay community. There is a man of Pakistani heritage (Tan), and a black man (Karamo), so they have passed the racial/ethnic test of diversity. But you can feel the heteronormativity otherwise, especially in Antoni and Karamo. It is thanks to Jonathan that a queer side is brought to the table. The show is just a soft, humble, funny vision of what it means to be gay.
Anna: Queer Eye was created with heterosexual viewers – ie. the majority – in mind. And because of that it was always going to be problematic in its representation of the LGBT+ community. As a straight woman, I have found myself watching Queer Eye, crying, laughing, feeling touched by its warmth, and in all honesty, loving it, all the while knowing that at its core is a watered down version of reality for many gay people. At times, the ‘Fab Five’ touch on the challenges and stigma they have faced as gay men, but it all gets glossed over in comedic soundbites and sassy interventions. I cannot help but wonder if it just conforms to what straight folk want to see; not the reality.
Ruben: The fact this group is called the ‘Fab Five’ is a statement in itself. They represent the classic socialite gay man: they have fancy lives, cool jobs and look great. They have experienced homophobia, but they are not outsiders anymore. These guys have been able to get over their difference of being gay and now they embrace a comfortable position inside the establishment, meaning luxury, high class and privilege over middle and working class gay men. Queer Eye presents the perfect vision of being gay; but not all gay people can afford the lifestyle they have, the objects they buy, and we can’t even think about surrogate maternity (not just because of the economical issues).
Anna: Queer Eye’s unabashed endorsement of capitalism is, for me, one of its biggest downfalls. I know the show’s conception is built upon nice clothes, hipster food and expensive house makeovers, but the ‘Fab Five’ and the producers over at Netflix are so consumed by commercialism that it is hard to differentiate the real from the advert. The extraordinary level of bourgeois elitism in Queer Eye is hard to swallow, but what is even harder to swallow is their compulsive fixation with personal commodification. Off-camera, the ‘Fab Five’ sell themselves so much as personal brands that it encapsulates the worst elements of our influencer culture. Following them on Instagram is being subjected to a bombardment of #happylife advice that is fed to us via capitalism. Each member is making money by selling us a lifestyle and their personalities through numerous brand partnerships, and in that way it is hard to know who or what to trust. I mean, Antoni is the poster boy for Whole Foods now; no surprise as the only he can cook is avocado on sourdough.
Ruben: The most inspiring thing Jonathan and the others do in the show is helping straight guys love themselves and play with masculinity. Being a man doesn’t mean you have to drink beer, be the best in your job or be an untidy slob. The ‘Fab Five’ display with their feathers and their knowledge (sorry Antoni, not you) that you can wear printed shirts, have your beard trimmed and erect a pergola in your garden and still be a man. These are not weaknesses. That’s the success of Queer Eye: they question what it means to be a man. However, on the other side of that coin, they can send the wrong message to men about women. A man doesn’t need to have a leather couch, ten checked shirts or a dream kitchen to get his wife’s or any woman’s attention. Those things are a plus, but not a must.
Anna: What makes Queer Eye worthy of critical analysis, for me anyway, is how the show approaches the notion of manhood and its fragility. Toxic masculinity is quite literally killing millions of men – and women - around the world. Typically, suicide among men is twice that of women. So the most admirable element of Queer Eye is the interrogation of masculinity by the ‘Fab Five’ and how they try to rewire how men on the show perceive their own vulnerability. Something that is evident when watching the show is that each man is struggling with their mental health in some way, and they are finding it difficult to connect with those around them. There is much discussion throughout about failure, isolation, societal pressure, inferiority, and each member of the ‘Fab Five’ appears to grasp the magnitude of these internal conflicts. And if it all ends, as it usually does, in a whole load of tears, even better.
Ruben: Each one of the ‘Fab Five’ knows a lot about a particular area (fashion, grooming, design, culture and food/wine), in fact, they are experts in these fields. Queer Eye reinforces one of the most profound clichés about gay people: that they are really good at giving advice about physical appearance because they really care about it. This is so reductionist. Yet, it is true that we, as gay people, have had to learn to love ourselves in a violent environment where we have experienced rejection and prejudice. After embracing our identity, we can decide to empower ourselves and sometimes we do that through finding a passion or a hobby, such as fashion, writing, maths, to name a few. Being comfortable with yourself doesn’t mean you have to be ‘cool’, but it’s about truly loving yourself. This is a lesson Karamo, Jonathan and Bobby give us if we listen carefully.
Anna: ‘The original show was fighting for tolerance. Our fight is for acceptance,’ the opening episode of the Queer Eye reboot boldly claimed. But how much acceptance is too much acceptance? The thing that makes these men - or should make them - so brilliant is their difference, vitality, energy. I can see why they have received criticism for wanting to subscribe to the safe clutches of middle class heterosexuality in the way they makeover the men on the show. ‘You have to have be clean shaven or women won’t like you’ is just one example. Why not let the men have long flowing hair, wear dresses, and have a plaited beard? Now, that would be progressive. Furthermore, the flamboyance and ‘extra-ness’ of each member of the ‘Fab Five’, although personally one one of my favourite elements of the programme, does reinforce an age-old stereotype of what being a gay man is.
Ruben: Putting the extravaganza of the show aside, Queer Eye introduces an interesting political dialogue that we don’t always see in TV. Listening to Karamo’s story about how difficult is to be a black gay man in a straight white society is a really important subject for us to understand. The same goes for Bobby, whose family is ultra-religious and disowned him when he came out during his teenage years. He had to grow up hearing that being gay is a sin. These stories matter, and we need to appreciate their poignancy so we can change society for future gay and LGBT+ generations. We also find out that Tan will become a father via surrogacy, which brings to light an important debate that we, as a community, still need to have: is having children through surrogacy a right of the LGBT+ community? Should we buy babies? Under what conditions are women providing this surrogacy: altruism or economic despair? Can a working-class gay couple afford this?
Anna: Is it too cliché to say that Queer Eye is the heart-warming show we all need during a time of dark political instability? Yes. But there is truth in that, to some extent. I think it is interesting to ask what Queer Eye’s place is in society in 2018. For all its shortcomings in representation, there is a subtle yet necessary politicisation of its cultural power. You cannot simply explain away Queer’s Eye’s explosion in popularity as the prey of reality television junkies. This is a moment, and it matters. As an antidote to Trump’s America, in particular, I am not ashamed to say that it warms my cockles to see non-white, progressive, and yes, somewhat out of touch, people occupying an important space in public conversation. When role models are falling from grace all around us, and we are increasingly subjected to the psychotic ramblings of toxic demagogues, how refreshing is it to see five gay guys tell you all you need is a bit of love and self-care?
Love it or hate it, but let’s face it, we really need this show.