Five gay men dash out of an apartment building on a picturesque Manhattan street. They jump into a black luxury SUV like eccentric intelligence agents. Thumping music reminiscent of a black-lit gay club soundtracks their movements. The SUV leaves skid marks as it speeds off and reveals its vanity plate: FAB 5.
“Fab 5, we’ve got another longhair,” one of the men reports urgently, “Brian ‘Butch’ Schepel, aka Attila the Hun.” He shows a photo of a scraggly blonde man in plaid.
The group reviews more of Schepel’s information: He’s a carpenter and an artist, he’s single, he weighs 210 pounds (but recently lost 15, which they take a moment to applaud), his clothes make him look like a “hunter and gatherer,” and he wants a place to display his artwork.
“We have to get him a gallery opening,” another man says as “MISSION: ART GALLERY OPENING” appears at the bottom of the screen. The SUV speeds off again to locate Schepel and change his life by chopping off his ponytail.
This was the early 2000s, but no, this scene is not from Die Another Day. It’s the opening of the 2003 premiere of Bravo’s reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which a group of gays teach the straight men of New York City how to not be disgusting. Each has a focus: fashion, grooming, culture, food and wine, and interior design. The show broke records for Bravo, peaking at 3.34 million viewers the September after its debut, and received an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program in 2004. It even had fans calling their third-wheel friends the “Jai” of the group — a reference to Jai Rodriguez, the only nonwhite, background member of the Fab 5 — and using the word “tszuj,” inspired by the group’s fashion expert, Carson Kressley: “Just tszuj it a little!” This was the early 2000s, and yes, gay men were consigned to the role of flamboyant materialist.
Flash forward to Jan. 24, 2017, when Netflix announced that it will release a reboot of the makeover series this year. The producers’ statement reads:
“In a time when America stands divided and the future seems uncertain, a team of five brave men will try to bring us closer together with laughter, heart, and just the right amount of moisturizer. The Emmy Award-winning Queer Eye is back and ready to Make America Fabulous Again. With a new Fab 5 and the show’s toughest missions to date, Queer Eye moves from the Big Apple to turn the Red States pink — one makeover at a time.”
The producers are right: America stands divided as it approaches an uncertain future. It’s also true that gay men are brave and laugh and have hearts. But the fact that television producers are still using the words “moisturizer,” “fabulous,” and “pink” to define gay men is flagrantly out of touch. Ten years after Queer Eye ended its popular run in 2007, gay men are apparently still being reduced to neutered sidekicks — portrayed as if they do not have complex interior lives of their own, because they’re too busy improving the fashion habits of gross straight men.
Netflix, which is attempting to launch more reality content in 2017, clearly views the reboot as a step forward for the streaming platform, even though it is a clear step backward for the LGBT community. Perhaps the producers consider the original show’s overt irony to be progressive. An Entertainment Weekly piece published in August 2003, shortly after the show premiered, said: “Suddenly, gay guys taunted on the playground for their interest in ‘girl things’ are using these skills to help their tormentors — and ironically, are ridiculing their subjects in the process.”
Yes, it was entertaining to watch the Fab 5 poke fun at these straight men and the Everlast punching bags swinging in the center of their shabby apartments, but that entertainment came at a cost: The show sets up gay men to return the ridicule of their childhood by fulfilling the very stereotypes that fueled their tormentors’ hatred in the first place. The Fab 5 referred to straight men as their “victims,” like true playground bullies. But even if ridicule were the show’s intention, the Fab 5 weren’t getting revenge on these figurative tormentors — they were improving their looks and their love lives, building up their egos once again.
The show’s stereotyping cut both ways, furthering the deep-seated belief that straight boys are all raised to become oblivious, uncultured men who are preconditioned to avoid all things feminine. What an example to set for them, too.
It should go without saying, but the queer community has more than one perspective, more than one “eye.” It should also go without saying that some men do identify with the Fab 5, but the problem is not the portrayal of their flamboyancy, rather the show's lack of wider representation. By spotlighting just one personality, it perpetuates the idea that queer people are obsessed with outer beauty and outer beauty only. Furthermore, spreading the image of the perfectly manicured gay man can cause an identity crisis for some who do not reflect this appearance, likely leading them to wonder whether they’re “gay enough” if they aren’t privy to the latest beauty trends or if they don’t hit the gym every day. Is a gay man even authentically gay if he doesn’t look like the models on the covers of bottom-shelf, plastic-wrapped gay men’s magazines?
The forthcoming reboot of Will & Grace will no doubt lean on this same trope like it did during its initial airtime from 1998 to 2006, specifically with everyone’s favorite flamboyant character, Jack McFarland, whose one-dimensional role was restricted to shallow jokes and deprived of on-screen romance. Who eats up these characters? Frankly, straight people do. On the mark of the Queer Eye's 10th anniversary, an Entertainment Weekly writer commented, “They were funny, they had chemistry, and they gave straight women everywhere the hope that their cavemen could be transformed using a few ‘hip tips.’” Like Will & Grace, Queer Eye caters to heterosexual audiences by making the gay community a spectacle to laugh at over a glass of rosé. It’s a guilty pleasure for some straight women who feel as though they’re a beacon of tolerance because they love watching fashionable gay men help clueless dudes who probably remind them of their husbands. When Queer Eye originally aired, it was part of an important revolution launched by Will & Grace that brought gay men into mainstream entertainment, but did so at the cost of their dignity.
As the show swaps NYC for America’s red states, it’s unsettling to wonder what will happen when the Fab 5 interacts with conservative ruralites. If red-state Americans have little exposure to real, out queer people beyond those they’ve seen on television — as the show’s producers would have you believe — it’s discouraging to think that Queer Eye will expose them only to stereotypically sassy fashionistas and affirm the beliefs those conservatives already hold. The hope is that the show diverges from the original by including a more diverse cast of varying orientations, genders, and races, sparking a meaningful discussion between queer and straight people, or, in a perfect world, offering an education about the inherent rights the LGBT community deserves, rather than a lesson on how to tease your hair.
What’s more, the producers seem to assume that LGBT people — and others who are tolerant and accepting of queerness — don’t exist at all in those red states, relying on bright and shiny cosmopolitan gays from the Big City to be shipped in and save hapless, backward straights from themselves. They’re refusing to admit — either to themselves or to their audiences — that other segments of the queer community and their allies have voices worth hearing.
None of this is to say the goal of the original show wasn’t to increase visibility of the gay community, or find some kind of common ground among the Fab 5 and their straight subjects — its accidental goal, at least. Kressley himself said in that same 10th-anniversary piece in Entertainment Weekly: “I don’t think any of us involved in the show realized the impact it would have when we were doing it. All I wanted to do was get rid of mullets and pleated khakis.” The show certainly had an impact on the prevalence of gay characters on TV (and mullets) and, however cringeworthy, brought them into America’s homes, but its premise should remain in the early aughts.
The reboot’s producers are seemingly astute in setting their sights on the red states — especially when you consider that, according to the LGBT Movement Advancement Project, 28 do not prohibit private businesses from firing or discriminating against gay or transgender people — but the reality is more complicated: These red states are not the only places where LGBT people face discrimination. There is a desperate need for healing across the entire country in relation to LGBT issues, but bettering the lives of straight men at the cost of validating their preconceived notions of the gay community is not the best route to mending the cultural divide. Teaching straight men how to buy jeans that fit — let alone how to accept the LGBT population — is not the duty of gay men. We are not their Fairy Godfathers.
In one scene, Kressley grimaces while holding up a pair of his victim’s underwear. “I think there was a car accident,” he says snidely. “I see skid marks.” Considering everything the LGBT community is currently facing, there are skid marks on the road to equality that are much worse — and require much more immediate attention — than a straight man’s inability to properly wash his boxers.
Tom Vellner is a writer in New York. His essays on LGBT issues have also appeared on The Toast, Refinery29, and Thrillist.