As a professional full-time gay man, I’m obligated to write about Netflix’s recent reboot of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I sat down with my husband recently to watch the first episode, and after I did, I had a few thoughts.
My first thought: I hated it.
I’ll back up a bit.
The original series aired on Bravo from 2003-2007: a kitschy and colorful little show in which five fabulous gay men kidnapped a slovenly straight dude and taught him the ways of the Gay Force. The gays would give the straight slob a makeover: a cool haircut, some better outfits, tips on healthy eating and entertaining, even a renovated bachelor pad. They’d then reveal their Cinderfella to all his friends and family, who would cheer and applaud, and marvel at how those magical gays had sprinkled their fairy dust and transformed their pal into a man who was dashing and cultivated — but still straight, Thank God.
The show was popular, even downright progressive for its time. It celebrated gay men and everything they brought to the table even if it was skill sets that were largely affirmations of stereotypes. I remember watching several episodes of the original with my then-wife, long before my own coming-out journey. You’d think I — a straight-living-but-gay-struggling guy who didn’t know a pocket square from a Kleenex — would’ve been deeply uncomfortable watching the show back then. But I enjoyed the show while totally distancing myself from it. My wife and I would joke, probably the way all straight couples joked when they watched it:
Me: Heh, those guys wouldn’t even know where to start with me, right?
Wife: Ha! You’re too hopelessly straight and slob-like for them!
Cut to 15 years later. I’m an out/proud gay man, married to another dude, with a teenage daughter who’s a staunch supporter of equality for all.
While coming out later in life obviously has challenges, one of its more fun aspects has been exploring different parts of pop culture I didn’t really appreciate before — the gay parts.
Over the last few years, I’ve enjoyed watching gay-themed movies and TV shows without having to act like it was foreign territory. I could watch Brokeback Mountain and cry my eyes out freely. (Which I’ve done. Twice.) I could watch old Will & Grace episodes and both raise my eyebrows and laugh heartily at “Just Jack.” I could now comfortably watch old Madonna videos and say to anyone in the room who would listen, “I’m telling you, Britney is nothing compared to her.”
Watching new Queer Eye with new queer eyes
So word of the Netflix Queer Eye reboot made me excited to see it with my own officially queer eyes.
My husband, Chris, who barely remembered the original series, and I sat down for the premiere episode in which the new, sparkly Fab Five went to Atlanta and made over an older, self-proclaimed redneck named Tom.
They showed him what colors look best with his skin tone. How to paint an accent wall. How to make yummy-yet-soooooper healthy guacamole.
Tom played along. He let them play dress up with him and trim his overgrown beard, and even coach him on how to ask a lady friend out on a date. Along the way, they provided him with affirmations to keep him from criticizing himself (the episode is called “You Can’t Fix Ugly,” which is what he repeatedly says to them throughout the episode as they help him discover that even older men can pull off a jaunty newsboy cap.) In the end, he thanked them, hugged them, and cried because they changed his life forever. They hugged back and cried, too; congratulating him, and congratulating themselves on creating a whole new Tom minus the redneck.
It was truly awful.
Chris and I looked at each other.
“You say this was a good show before?” he asked incredulously. I didn’t know what to say.
“I remember it differently.”
“Were the original five guys such stereotypes?”
“I think so. But,” I said, “it didn’t seem so bad back then.”
“I mean, this show is saying that the only things gay men are really good for are accessorizing and interior design.”
“And why do these guys have to sing everything they say?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Do we do that?”
“We definitely don’t do that.”
“I mean … what’s up with that guy with the long hair? He can’t actually be that effeminate in real life, can he?”
“Maybe he’s secretly a straight actor playing a gay person.”
“Yeah. Badly. I know we don’t act like that. Do we?”
“We definitely don’t flounce around like that.”
“Maybe we do that a little bit.”
“We don’t. Barely, if ever. I mean there’s nothing wrong with guys who do. But we don’t.”
“And if we do, it’s only around our gay friends.”
It really did feel like the show was setting gay men back 50 years.
We vowed never to watch another episode.
Re-evaluating my Queer Eye connection
The original Queer Eye show was reasonably groundbreaking in the Early Aughts. It presented its five, happy-go-lucky gay life coaches to a culture that still thought you could catch Gay from a handshake. They may have been a little cartoonish, but for many American viewers, the series broke new ground by putting these guys together with accepting straights and showing them what they could learn from each other.
The next day, I kept thinking about why the new version bothered me so much. I didn’t feel any thread of a connection to this new Fab Five, with their sing-songy prancing around a dumbfounded straight dude who stared at them like they were aliens.
Or … maybe I did feel a connection. Maybe I just didn’t want to admit it.
It began to dawn on me that I had watched the new Queer Eye like I used to watch the old Queer Eye. Back then, I was scared of feeling any affinity toward a gay character on TV — and a great way to hide fear is to criticize, to joke, to judge.
Yes, one of the new Queer Eye guys (Jonathan, the grooming guru) was so queer that we seriously did wonder if he was a straight actor trying to play gay. He seemed to be basing his whole persona on Robin Williams’ performance in The Birdcage.
But the thing is I really do know and love men like that in my own life. Men who have become some of my best friends. And those guys are probably the most authentic, truest-living, happiest people I know in the world. They are men I admire.
Maybe my initial response to the new Queer Eye was being shaped by some lingering discomfort I felt about my own gayness.
I decided to watch a second episode. And it was better.
Upon further review …
The second episode followed the same pattern. Another schlubby straight got the full makeover from the Fab Five complete with haircut, beard trim, apartment renovation, shinier wardrobe and a heartfelt (possibly scripted) speech at the end from the straight guy about how his life was forever changed after hanging with gays for one week.
This time around, the super gay behaviors from the Fab Five didn’t bother me. And the straight guy’s end-of-show speech seemed really sincere. It sorta made me almost tear up a little bit.
Plus, the Fab Five did a fantastic job on his apartment. I love the textured wood paneling they put in his living room.
So I watched the third episode.
And the fourth.
I’m not sure what the official rule is for when viewing becomes binging, but it’s been two days and I’m down to the last episode of the season.
There’s still something about the premise that bugs me a little. I don’t like that audiences will see flouncy Gay Jonathan Hairdresser and think that’s what all gay men are like. I also don’t like the notion that gay men are genetically gifted in certain areas like style, home decor and beard shaping.
But these guys are TV personalities. That means it’s their job to be larger than life. I get that watching someone on TV doesn’t tell you who they truly are when the cameras are off. But watching the new Fab Five present their most authentic selves, twirl into the lives of straight men and their families, and sprinkle metaphorical glitter everywhere with pure joy and enthusiasm can be very freeing, especially to this gay man who may still be working on feeling comfortable in his own gay skin. Maybe they have something to teach me about being more … fabulous.
I wonder when Season Two starts.