"She’s a liar,” proclaims Jonathan Van Ness, one-fifth of the Fab 5 who comprise the central cast of Queer Eye, Netflix’s reboot of the mid-2000s show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
Jonathan, an LA-based hairstylist and the show’s grooming expert, is referring to a sulfate-heavy moisturizer found in the cabinet of the show’s first makeover recipient, Tom. Even though Jonathan is quite literally referring to the fact that this product, which promises to moisturize, is probably drying out Tom's skin, I like to think he’s actually decrying our binaried, cisgender, hetero-patriarchal masculine culture, which stunts the emotional development of young boys and disproportionately favors straight white men. She’s a liar!
How, one might ask, can that conclusion be drawn from three words, 11 minutes into the first episode of an eight-episode series? For starters, you need to understand the magic of Queer Eye. The show takes five openly gay men, each with a different specialization, and strategically drops them into the lives men who aren't necessarily living up to their potential, and need a gentle shove in that direction.
The reboot follows the same basic outline as its predecessor, though in this iteration, they’ve dropped “for the Straight Guy,” from the show’s title in a bid for inclusion (they make over a fellow gay man in Episode 4). And yes, it’s somewhat formulaic: Antoni (food) looks adorable as he teaches his pupil some achievable tricks in the kitchen; Tan (fashion) attempts to get him into some variation of a patterned short-sleeve button-up; Karamo (culture) has a long talk with him, resulting in an honest conversation and cathartic tears; Bobby (design) renovates his living space and paints something black to keep it “modern;” and Jonathan (grooming) basically holds it all together as the comedic heart of the show, while providing necessary grooming and wonderfully attainable beauty tips.
That is, essentially, what happens on the show. However, what Queer Eye actually does is methodically combat toxic masculinity within today's exceedingly volatile political climate. Because while they are primping, painting, and preparing multiple avocado-heavy appetizers, the Fab 5 are actually exemplifying and encouraging positive, healthy adult relationships based in authenticity, empathy, and vulnerability. The Fab 5’s relationships with each other, their subjects, and, by extension, their viewers, are demonstrative of the ways all people should interact with one another. They're celebratory, joyful, empathetic, and respectful—characteristics all too often squashed out of young boys before they have the opportunity to apply them to their own lives.
Last week, Michael Ian Black wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead. Black wrote of the numerous ways American society has failed its young boys, adding his voice to the many others speaking out about the reasons young men are disproportionately responsible for gun violence in America:
“Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others. They are trapped, and they don’t even have the language to talk about how they feel about being trapped, because the language that exists to discuss the full range of human emotion is still viewed as sensitive and feminine.”
Young boys are frequently told to suppress feelings like compassion, empathy, and vulnerability and replace them with aggression and stoicism. Even though the subjects of Queer Eye, all adults, have the vocabulary to express their feelings, there is a hesitation to use them pre-makeover—a hesitation that, in many ways, prohibited them from expressing their truest selves, and forced them to hide behind a wall of suppressed emotion. This is where the Fab 5 come in. Their behavior and encouragement provide an opportunity to break down that wall, an antidote to the culture of toxic masculinity that Black is so critical of.
“You can’t selectively numb feelings.” says Jonathan in Episode 2. “If you try to numb the vulnerability, you also numb joy, happiness, connection.” These words reflect the major theme of every episode of Queer Eye, a show that is just as much about an internal transformation as it is about an external one.
“I feel amazing, I feel sexy, I feel confident, the Fab 5 really opened me up to emotions I didn’t know I had,” says Cory, a police officer and the subject of Episode 3. And open him up they do. When we meet Cory, he’s a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided romantic partner, wearing basketball shorts and flip flops to nice restaurants on date nights with his wife. By the time the credits roll, he’s bragging to her about matching a pocket square to his tie. He’s finally reciprocating some of the effort his wife exerts to look nice for him, and this is a big deal. It is not just that he’s color-coordinating, but that he’s doing it as an expression of care for his wife—it’s an external manifestation of an internal behavioral shift.
Cory and every person made over by the Fab 5 inevitably ends up crying at some point during their transformation (as a viewer, I average about two to three cries per 45-minute episode). However, it would be reductive to equate tears with emotional depth and development, as if this is somehow moving the needle when it comes to toxic masculinity. Instead, the tears are a physical manifestation of the Fab 5’s most impressive talent: their ability to encourage their subjects to consciously reflect on their emotions, and reject the shame that might stem from that.
In Episode 1, when Tom wants to gloss over the emotion he experienced while talking about his ex-wife, Antoni doesn’t let him off the hook so easily. “What's going on there?” Antoni asks, encouraging Tom to open up about his feelings. Tom ultimately reveals he's still in love with his ex, and wants to change his life in order to spend the rest of it with her.
Episode 4 features another particularly salient example of this, when Tan walks the partially-closeted AJ through some of his hesitations about being presented as “too feminine.” “Why is there a concern about that?” Tan asks, inviting AJ into a conversation about his biases rather than just accusing him—a call in rather than a call out. As a result, we see AJ begin to break away from those biases rather than hide further behind them.
There is also a playfulness present on Queer Eye which permits its subjects to delve deeper into their relationships with the people around them. The Fab 5 demonstrate healthy, affirming behaviors with each other and their subjects through physical touch and affectionate language, which in turn opens up these men to do the same. Think about the last time you were overtly encouraging of another person—really, truly singing their praises, enthusiastically, without being patronizing. If I had a Jonathan shouting “Gorg!” at me every time I walked through the door, I’d probably be a lot happier, and the truth is, nothing is stopping me doing that for someone else.
And the problem isn’t that we don’t know the words to use—it’s that we are too ashamed to use them. When they are used, the transformation is tangible: in Episode 2, client Neal goes from being uncomfortable with physical touch—literally running away from the Fab 5 in the episode’s opening moments—to hugging each of them individually at the end. In Episode 8, an entire firehouse of men take ballroom dancing classes together.
Sure, to those of us in coastal blue bubbles, it may not appear to be a lot, but to the men in these tiny Southern towns, it feels sort of revolutionary. Additionally, by freeing their clients from the constraints that have held them back, the Fab 5 create an opening for the people around them to experience a more fulfilling life together. When I saw my dad cry for the first time, I realized it might be okay if I cried too. I think the same will follow for the families on this show.
Initially, I was hesitant about Queer Eye. Its narrative centers around attractive, successful, (seemingly) affluent gay men, three things that, when combined, can be used to excuse problematic behavior, like when gay men try to normalize touching women without consent because they're not sexually attracted to them, or when Kevin Spacey came out in an attempt to assuage the reactions to his sexual assault allegations. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by the show, specifically because the Fab 5, both on- and offscreen, don't pretend to be infallible.
Antoni comes to mind here, as he has been no stranger to critique since the series aired. However, it appears as though he has taken it all in stride—a lesson to all who don't take criticism so well. Plus, in contrast to the original series, constrained by the dictates of the time, Queer Eye feels freer this time around. Whereas before, the cast was perhaps relegated to adhering to roles they were assigned to play, we get the sense now that the Fab 5 is able to exist as themselves. And they’re accomplishing exactly what they set out to do: promote not just tolerance, but acceptance—without having to compromise who they are.
Now, of course, nothing is without fault, and Queer Eye certainly has a few of its own. It's the Stepmom of digital series, the perfect rhetorical device: you feel exactly what the show wants you to feel, exactly when it wants you to feel it. And yes, even while subliminally undoing toxic masculinity, the Fab 5 often laud too many things for their masculine appeal (Tan, Bobby, and Karamo are repeat offenders). However, I think it’s safe to say that Queer Eye is one of the most wholesome shows on television right now, and it has found the perfect home at Netflix, a space where its progressivism can be highlighted and celebrated, rather than toned down for traditional network television.
Obviously, the ultimate goal is the complete destruction of the gender binary and the elimination of both masculine and feminine as identifiers that influence what traits, clothes, styles, or behaviors are acceptable. But, for the time being, Queer Eye feels like a wonderful step in the right direction.
“Men, you are buying super baggy pants. It’s time to solve that problem,” says Tan during Episode 5. Of course, he’s just telling men it’s time to take a look in the mirror and start buying clothes that actually fit their bodies. But metaphorically, I think he’s saying, “Hey, guys, we’re contributing to a systemic issue which is quite literally harming not only ourselves, but the people around us. It’s time to shed this dangerous outer layer and open ourselves up to the spectrum of human emotion. This will, in the long run, free not only us, but the people around us from a violent and oppressive belief system.” And honestly, one way to begin that process is to mirror some of the behaviors the Fab 5 demonstrates. As any Queer Eye viewer can see, a little empathy has the opportunity to bring us closer to the people around us. A little vulnerability goes a long way.