Author Laurie Penny brings us this week's Sunday Long Read at the Baffler, an in-depth look at why Netflix's reboot of Queer Eye For The Straight Guy may arguably be the most timely and important social commentary on the Trump era so far, why late-state capitalism is an impressive failure, why toxic masculinity is destroying the country, and why we're packaging it all as feel-good reality TV.
SOME THINGS ARE JUST TOO PURE for this weird and wicked world. That video of the golden retriever failing an agility test. Golden retrievers in general. Political science majors who truly believe they can change the system from within. And Queer Eye.
Queer Eye is a cultural intervention masquerading as a Netflix series. It has rapidly become essential to the well-being of a great many good and decent human beings who had otherwise stopped turning on the television for fear of the horror leaking out of it. I’m only slightly exaggerating: you’ve got to wonder what will become, for example, of the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman—who has now written a heart-wrenching daisy-chain of Queer Eye columns—if the show’s producers don’t make a third season. Which they will. I promise. Nobody panic.
Queer Eye is wonderful and terrible and probably the last significant statement to be made in reality television. The show, a Netflix-produced reboot of the original, squealsome mid-aughts judge-your-jeans extravaganza, instantly launched a thousand memes when it premiered in February, and the new second season has been a huger hit than anyone expected. In a culture awash in both mawkish reality vehicles dripping with kitsch and nostalgic reboots of shows from a softer world, Queer Eye is both. It manages to exceed the sum of its parts by not actually being about what we’re told it’s about. It’s not about queerness at all. It’s actually about the disaster of heterosexuality—and what, if anything, can be salvaged from its ruins.
On the surface of things, it’s a straightforward quest for “acceptance,” supposedly of homosexuality, dramatized via the no-longer-so-outlandish vehicle of sending five gay men on an outreach mission to small-town Georgia with a vast interior design budget and a vanload of affirmations. What it turns out to be, though, is a forensic study of the rampaging crisis of American masculinity. In each new installment of the reboot, queerness is gently suggested as an antidote to the hot mess of toxic masculinity under late-stage capitalism. I am absolutely here for it, as long as we all get paid.
The basic formula has barely changed: five gay men in an SUV descend on one hapless, shlubby, usually straight guy and sort his life out. In seven days, Jonathan Van Ness, Bobby Berk, Tan France, Karamo Brown, and Antoni Porowski give him a whole new look, redesign his home and wardrobe, teach him some basic kitchen skills, and provide scripted space to talk about his feelings with the cameras rolling.
In its aughts heyday, the original Queer Eye was catty and consumerist, with a side-order of snide eye-rolling and dreadful puns. The gimmick, the selling point, was that gay men are actually fun and fabulous and it’s safe to let them in your homes, because they might redecorate. The reboot follows the same beats with a more compassionate melody, and this time the gimmick is different. The gimmick is that heterosexuality is a disaster, toxic masculinity is killing the world, and there are ways out of it aside from fascism or festering away in a lonely bedroom until you are eaten by your starving pitbull or your own insecurities. The men typically featured as the show’s reclamation projects remind me of some of the men who I see on Tinder, sitting on that touring reproduction of the Iron Throne, staring into the middle distance, while in their real lives, and certainly on Queer Eye, they sit on ugly, painful furniture, faux-leather recliners that damage their backs, couches soaked in cat urine.
People on this show are extremely sweet to one another. That is rare enough within the reality TV genre, where “reality” is usually flattened into an exaggerated Hobbesian melee of shark-eyed competition and high-stakes back-stabbing. Most reality shows replicate the ruthless dogma of the age whereby life is made up of winners and losers and the trick is to hammer the other guy into the ground before he can do the same to you. On this show, men do not compete with each other. They touch each other, a lot, and seeing that brings home just how horrifyingly rare that is in untelevised reality. They cry and admit to one other how much it hurts to be alive while a handsome stranger teaches them how to make guacamole. There are no winners on Queer Eye—just better losers.
Fixing a few of these losers is the best we can hope for, I guess. Fixing the system that created these losers, well, that's the reality show we're all living in today.