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?

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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