Culture

Film & Television

‘Queer Eye’ has its finger firmly on America’s jagged pulse

By Craig Mathieson
The uncommonly caring makeover show returns to Netflix for a second season

One of television’s most compelling conversations this year about race and violence in America begins with two men in a car. The driver, Karamo, is a gay African-American with a history of LGBTQ activism from Los Angeles. His passenger, Cory, is a white former Marine and current police officer from rural Georgia. They have jovially discussed personal histories, hip-hop music, and sports, before Karamo admits that when he was driving some work colleagues a few days prior and they were pulled over by a colleague of Cory’s, he froze in fear.

“I really thought that this was going to be an incident where I got dragged out of the car,” says Karamo, adding that his son was scared to get his driver’s licence because he associated it with police shootings of unarmed black drivers. As the edit cuts between close-ups of the pair, Karamo adds, “We don’t want all black people to get lumped into one category as criminals.” “All police officers don’t want to get lumped in to being the bad guy,” Cory gently replies, before condemning a recent incident of unjustified excessive force in a nearby county.

Grouped together in a wider shot to mark their rapprochement, both men exchange words of affirmation for the groups they represent. “We’re both dealing with the same pain on two different ends,” Karamo says. “It does go both ways,” agrees Cory. “Black lives mattered.” If everybody could talk as they just had, the duo agree as they shake hands, American society would be better off.

That dialogue isn’t from a cable news segment or scripted prestige drama, it’s from the third episode of the first season of Queer Eye, the Netflix reality television series about five gay men who use their respective specialties – including fashion, grooming and design – to improve the lives of their willing if wayward subjects. It turns out that the show about makeovers fronted by the “Fab Five” has the firmest finger on America’s jagged pulse.

Reality television is a contrived product, and Queer Eye is no different – the very act of filming an encounter changes the dynamic between the participants. But across the two seasons released in February and June of this year, the narrative has repeatedly emphasised the common ground and personal connections between increasingly intractable groups in American society. Fans often pledge online how the show leaves them in tears because of the free exchange of untrammelled kindness and caring it depicts, but in the Trump era it’s also a recognition that there’s still a viable alternative to combative divisiveness.

Bearing in mind how heinous and exploitative reality television regularly is, the idea that a makeover series can be a barometer of America’s healing is ludicrous. And Queer Eye is itself ludicrous. The show knows this, both in terms of what’s being done, and how dire the situation must be that such a salve is required, and it carries its ludicrousness proudly.

The show’s original incarnation, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, accumulated 100 episodes in a successful run on cable television between 2003 and 2007 (there was even a short-lived Aussie Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on Channel Ten in 2005). In these earlier episodes, the guests lived in the progressive suburbs of America’s northern cities, but with Atlanta as a HQ, Queer Eye dives into the rural southern counties of Georgia. The very first participant was 57-year-old Tom Jackson, a retired white truck driver who described himself as “a dumb old country boy from Kentucky”. This was redneck America – at first glance Tom looked one YouTube conspiracy video binge away from joining a militia.

Having driven past N. Confederate Avenue, the experts – Bobby Berk (design), Karamo Brown (culture), Tan France (fashion), Antoni Porowski (food), and Jonathan Van Ness (grooming) – descended on the red-faced jorts wearer, overwhelming him with attention and their cumulative energy, but also revealing Tom’s emotional bearings. He hoped to win back his ex-wife via his makeover, and when Karamo told him, “you are such an amazing man”, Tom was crying freely. The show’s emotive benchmark had been set.

“The original show was fighting for tolerance, our fight is for acceptance,” Tan says at the top of that initial episode, and these gay men carry their sexuality as a point of pride. They are both fabulous and saintly – the discrimination and rejection they have faced is presented as a burden they have learnt to carry, which they can now use to illuminate the lives of others. Bobby, who was raised in a strict Christian family and recalls in the second season how as a teenager he begged God to not make him gay, often interacts with religious participants, pulling the story being sketched towards a shared middle ground.

They want to learn from their subjects, and in turn shepherd them. They unpack misconceptions about their own lives and find connections with others, even if it’s a cartoonish bro-down with Cory’s NASCAR-obsessed buddies. At the same time their advice is generally helpful, and the unseen production staff often work hard to rebuild domestic spaces. The exception is Antoni, who has gorgeous facial features but a suspect handle on culinary matters; in the first season he relied heavily on avocado usage.

But there are limits to the show. Queer Eye’s help is always centred on personal circumstances. In the fifth episode of the first season they visited Bobby, a 48-year-old evangelical Christian and married father of six who’d been steadily worn down by working as a draftsman during the day and stocking shelves in a home improvement store at night for extra income. The hosts fixed his haircut, reordered his home, and showed him how to pay attention to his wife, but no one said that working a 15 hour day was untenable. Fabulousness struggles with systemic failings.

Similarly, the show never actually refers to Donald Trump or what his presidency stands for. But that hasn’t stopped a ring of approval (and commercial endorsements) surrounding the quintet. In the second season’s debut – set in the town of Gay, Georgia, population 89 – they visited with African-American matriarch Tammye, who wanted to complete a community centre she’d been working on. They also helped bring her adult gay son, Myles, back into the church community she valued and that had previously rejected him. By the episode’s end she was extolling the Fab Five’s virtues, later telling the experts their work was “God’s plan”.

Elsewhere in the new season they make over Skyler, a transgender man so busy surviving he’d never left behind his teenage accoutrements. The episode began with Skyler waking in the operating room after top surgery, and bursting into tears at the sight of his bruised but flat chest. It was an unexpected but powerful moment, and Queer Eye consistently salts them through the glam attitude and can-do exhortations. Popular culture is a crude form of soft power, but when it works by expertly amplifying a genuine kernel of emotion, it is incredibly effective and entertaining. It turns out a strategy of winning hearts and minds really can succeed.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.

@CMscreens

Image courtesy of Netflix

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