I once found myself drunk and in a lift with Gok Wan. These circumstances could only generate one outcome: I asked Wan – who used to present Channel Four’s fashion makeover programme How to Look Good Naked – if my shoes when with the rest of my outfit. They didn’t, and I knew it. He – most probably out of politeness – said they did. Then the lift dinged open and we went our separate ways, I mildly validated in my choice of standard issue lesbian brogues.
As far as I can remember, this is the only time I’ve ever asked an actual gay guy for fashion advice. Sure, I hadn’t asked him to rate my lewk because he was gay, but because he was Gok Wan, and I was drunk. But it still felt pretty Nineties. Using gay men as sartorial spirit guides is an obvious throwback to a time where queer representation in the media relied far more heavily on stereotyping. Which makes it so surprising that Netflix’s reboot of early 2000s American TV classic, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, feels genuinely modern.
The new show, which has lopped off the “straight guy” part and now goes by Queer Eye, has the same basic premise as the original. Five gay men tropical storm into the life of the kind of straight guy who lives in one pair of cargo shorts and hasn’t brushed his teeth since the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. They put him in well-fitting clothes, teach him about personal hygiene, do up his festering man cave of a house and generally – through a series of pep talks – work on his confidence.
The premise alone doesn’t exactly reek of nuance: “Those hopeless straight bros are too busy doing manly things to look after themselves, they need the feminine touch of some gay guys.” I used to watch the original, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, with my mum in the early 2000s. It was nice that a programme starring five very camp gay men was, for us, standard, daytime, watch-with-a-cup-of-tea viewing. But those were the days of overgrown all girls boarding school bullies Trinny and Susannah clawing other (hapless) women into low waisted bootcut jeans and ponchos, on What Not To Wear. And of women being shamed for their grey hair and wrinkles in the even more horrific Ten Years Younger. Before watching Netflix’s Queer Eye, I just assumed that makeover shows in general were irredeemable relics from a far less enlightened time.
But Queer Eye turned out to be about more than shirts, shaving and haircuts. I mean, it’s still very much about those things and there’s a sizeable and superficial part of me that absolutely loves that. However, take the first episode. In the opening mission statement, the token British member of the “Fab Five”, Tan, says: “The original show was fighting for tolerance. Our fight it for acceptance”. I’d forgive anyone for raising an eyebrow at this. I did, at first. How much “acceptance” can possibly be won by rehashing a premise that basically separates gay and straight men into “manly slobs” and “queens”? I was soon to find out. The first straight guy is Tom, a self-described “redneck” in his fifties. Tom is a grizzly bear in a pair of “jorts” (jean shorts) whose motto appears to be, “You can’t fix ugly”. He’s also the kind of guy, originally from Kentucky but now living in a small city in Georgia, who the less enlightened part of me would definitely clock as “not a fan of the gays.”
But Tom welcomes the Fab Five with bear hugs and a wide-open mind. Two of them take him shopping for a new mattress (the one he already has seems to predate the signing of the Declaration of Independence) and watching him roll around on a bed with two flirty queer men is nothing short of pure delight. All straight men would do well to watch scenes like this and take note. This ease with being affectionate towards other men, along with the tearful displays of emotion from men that sort of come to define the show, are all about detoxifying masculinity.
But the show’s woke-ness doesn’t end there. In another episode, Fab Five member Karamo, who is black, has a truly open and honest conversation with “straight guy” and cop Cory, about the Black Lives Matter movement. This culminates in – you guessed it – both men crying, having reached a new and emotional level of understanding.
In episode four, the straight guy, AJ, isn’t even straight, and watching him come out to his stepmom (the only parental figure in his life) is yet another “tears of joy” moment. What’s more, at the beginning of the show AJ is having something of an existential crisis when it comes to his sexuality. He’s worried about looking “too gay” and clings to his masculinity like a musty old security blanket. After a few discussions with Karamo about the experience of being black and gay, AJ seems at least on the path to self-acceptance. If truth be told, a lot of men who appear on the show probably need actual therapy, not just a small series of high-energy pep talks in front of a camera. But hey, it’s a start.
Queer Eye manages to combine all the brain-dead fun of the original – gay men rummaging through straight men’s hideous belongings while screaming – with an underlying and rather profound examination of masculinity. On top of that, it has a trait that, in these certifiably Dark Times, we can only appreciate: pure, uncut positivity.