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Netflix’s surprising Queer Eye revival dismantles toxic masculinity with self-acceptance

In a new social context, can a show that formally emphasises differences between straight and gay men have the same radical power?

Some turn-of-the-millennium TV shows already seem impossibly dated. Trinny and Susannah’s decidedly body-negative What Not To Wear and the rigid gender roles at play in Wife Swap would be conspicuously out of step with today’s TV landscape, which is at least superficially more progressive. So, too, might Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003-07), in which five gay men gave a makeover to one straight man each week: so it may surprise you that Netflix has revived it in the year of our Lord 2018.

Our collective understanding of gay rights, the wide spectrum of sexuality, and what it means to be part of the LGBTQ community has significantly evolved since Queer Eye was on TV (the show shortened its title in 2005 to “broaden its scope”). The mainstream understanding of the word “queer” itself has undergone a huge societal shift from derogatory slur to elastic, self-affirming label. The original Queer Eye was revolutionary for its positive portrayal of happy gay men. In a new social context, can a show that formally emphasises differences between straight and gay men have the same radical power?

It can. The new, irresistible “fab five” dismantle toxic masculinity by preaching strategies of self-acceptance they had to learn the hard way. It keeps the emotionally manipulative early Noughties format, with a lighter touch. Beards are groomed, not dramatically shaved off, as men are taught to love themselves as they are. And questions of LGBTQ acceptance are discussed without judgement along the way: when one subject asks “who is the husband and who’s the wife” in a gay marriage, his heteronormative assumption is met with a cheerful “Let’s unpack that!”

The result is a warm, hopeful, infectiously entertaining show. Bring on series two. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game