Why do I find Queer Eye so irresistible? The answer is both heartening and disappointingly basic: the show is teeming with contradiction. Five polished, cookie-cutter gay cisgender men venture into the conservative deep south of the US and are pitted against usually straight men (the ‘heroes’) to make over their lives. Armed with incredible aesthetic sense (and seemingly infinite amounts of money) against physical disarray and emotional baggage, Queer Eye pushes the palatable into where it is least welcome. The Fab Five, as the show nicknames the men, might be dealing with the people and places least likely to welcome them, but they are the most calculated, well-practised versions of what is often hated about them.
It is here that my confusion begins: watching Queer Eye feels like floating in a kiddie pool on a sweltering summer day. It’s not ideal, and you aren’t pushing the envelope as much as you could, but it’s a welcome respite from the burning sun; and if you lean your head back and shut your eyes, you can hardly tell the difference.
For starters, the obvious. The original Queer Eye, in the words of star Tan France, pushed for tolerance for the queer community. This version, he says, is fighting for acceptance. However, it’s disappointing that a show made to represent the queer community has resorted to casting only cisgender gay men. These five men are indeed disarmingly personable: they float on and off screen with cheerful judgement, impeccable taste and an endless supply of comebacks. It’s clear that the casting was a stroke of genius, but it is by no means path-breaking (think Mitch and Cam on Modern Family, or the Kurt and Blaine on Glee).
This was a rare casting opportunity which could have resulted in genuine inclusion in mainstream outlets: a transgender person giving fashion advice while providing insight into their own experiences with clothing, a lesbian providing ‘culture’ expertise – because what does that even mean or have to do with sexual orientation? The interior expert of the cast, Bobby Berk, claims that the Fab Five are simply experts in their field who happen to be gay. If this is true, it stands to reason that these experts could have come from myriad other identities who are deprived of on-screen representation. Here, the trouble with Queer Eye is not in what it is, but in what it could have been.
By no means do I intend to imply that their gayness is somehow insufficient. The Fab Five are undeniably what brings the show to life. The casting clearly worked by formulae, but their personalities range a wide spectrum. Jonathan Van Ness, resident grooming expert, is the closest the show gets to the stereotype of ’camp’ (although this label feels like a disservice to him). He is unabashedly himself, balancing being adoring with dishing out hard truths to the show’s heroes in the familiar tones of a best friend. Food and wine expert Antoni seems to be the obvious other end of the spectrum – soft-spoken and the self-declared “quiet one” in a pack of “type-As”, his graphic tees often carrying more words than the camera allows him each episode.
But it is the details of the cast’s personalities that blur the blueprint their casting was obviously based on. Karamo, tasked with the dubious title of ‘culture expert’, is not interested in topical fixes, and tries to delve into the hero’s insecurities. He puts people at ease by speaking freely about his experience as a black gay man growing up in the south.
In between overhauling impressively cluttered spaces into Ikea catalogue-esque havens, interiors expert Bobby Berk finds time to be open about his childhood as a conflicted church-goer, always unabashed in his criticism of the institution.
The Fab Five are real, flawed humans both on-screen and off, and this is a double-edged sword. Their experience in the LGBTQ+ community is by no means a guarantor of their knowledge of the rest of the spectrum. The show is not as sure-footed when the formula is changed and the person being made over is a transgender man. It is one of the most heart-wrenching episodes: the moments of sheer joy the audience views the hero experiencing as he discovers his body following surgery are tinged with a strong hint of voyeurism.
However, there are stumbles. The episode opens uncomfortably, with the Fab Five watching intimate footage from the operating room of the top-surgery – a fact the hero doesn’t appear to be aware of till later. Later, Tan France confesses some preconceptions he held before the episode in a one-on-one session, and apologises for them. Refreshingly, the cast does not claim to know every queer experience.
Of course, Queer Eye is not immune to the pitfalls of every other makeover/reality show. Ironically, there is little tolerance for deviance from the norm: every beard must be trimmed, every living room impeccably arranged. There is little consideration for the money troubles that lead to situations requiring a makeover, and the fact that it takes unimaginable amounts of money to create the perfect end-results the Fab Five generate.
But despite all this, will I continue to devour every new season that comes out? Undoubtedly. What Queer Eye commodifies best is not queer culture, or that sick urge I am convinced every human possesses that is uniquely satisfied by makeover shows. Queer Eye is irresistible because of the good natured compassion, genuine excitement and love that results between the Fab Five and their hero.
At the end of the very first episode, as I watched a 58-year-old self-professed redneck from the deep south weep over the friendship he’d formed with the Fab Five, not a single part of me was thinking about commercialism, or the lack of trans representation. I was preoccupied with how wonderful it is to be human, because all it takes to feel new again isn’t just a new haircut – it’s five people telling you they love it.
Aparna Shankar is a 19-year-old student at Princeton University. She lives in New Delhi.
Featured image credit: Netflix