Antinomies of the Fab Five. | Shorty Awards
Laurie Penny,  July 24

The Queer Art of Failing Better

Queer Eye for the capitalism-damaged and toxically masculine

Antinomies of the Fab Five. | Shorty Awards
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‘What? You just said you have never shopped for a fucking mattress?!’

—Jonathan Van Ness, Queer Eye, Season 1 

Such an effort
If he only knew of my plan
In just seven days
I can make you a man

—Dr. Frank-N-Furter, The Rocky Horror Picture Show

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.

In a culture awash in mawkish reality vehicles dripping with kitsch and nostalgic reboots of shows from a softer world, Queer Eye is both.

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.

Failing with Style

Now and then, I get accused of not being able to enjoy anything good and pure, like a fluffy reality show, without subjecting it to rigorous political analysis. This is cruel and only slightly accurate—in fact, subjecting things to rigorous political analysis is exactly how I get off, and I’m far from alone in that. Like the Fab Five, I’m just lucky that my job is also my hobby.

What the Queer Eye guys seem to be gently teaching their subjects (and, by extension, their viewers) is that it is possible to live well without a woman to take care of you—and if you’re lucky enough to have one offer to do so anyway, maybe you should show her some consideration by picking up after yourself and learning how to apply the business end of a comb. When you put it like that, it sounds simple. But two thousand years of socialization and half a century of profit-oriented self-dealing throw up a few mental hurdles.

This show isn’t about how to win at life, but how to fail with style. It’s about giving straight guys permission to be more gracious losers. It helps that the show doesn’t actually have winners. This is not the ruthless, dick-smacking, alpha-primate pursuit of victory-for-victory’s sake that provides a plot line for most American reality television as well as for American politics, presuming you can still see clear water between the two. No, this is an oddly compassionate exit interview for the middle-managerial caste of straight dudes who are no longer steering a culture that prizes their skill set above everyone else’s.

The whole thing has the feel of a frantic, twelve-step inflected mediation session. Nobody is allowed to say anything terribly critical about anyone else, even when you can almost see the savage read on the tip of Jonathan’s tongue.  (For fans of the original series, he’s the new Carson Kressley. For new viewers of the show, he’s the one with great hair whose job it is to perform High Camp for the camera, reassuring any straight guys watching that he is no threat to their masculinity despite being vastly more successful and competent than them. He’s also the wokest of the gang. I highly recommend his instagram.) 

In 2018, Queer Eye is no longer necessarily “For The Straight Guy,” as it was in the aughts, but being a straight mainstream white guy now seems to come with an elevated risk of panic in the face of basic life-skills like learning to clean your room and deal with your childhood traumas. Up till now, this was the demographic that was always told that if they just hung on long enough, someone else would eventually do it for them. Probably a woman.

Standing Up Straight

This is no longer a guarantee. Unfortunately, when offered the chance to do literally anything else with the years they’ve been given, an alarming number of women now choose not to spend them servicing and polishing the silverware and tarnished self-esteem of the more privileged half of the human race. Women and queer people have one advantage in the adulthood stakes: they have never been raised to believe that at some point someone would come along and clean under the sofas. Now, apparently, straight guys have to learn how to do that, too. Enter, stage left: the Male Gays.

For those who are not necessarily straight or male, the show affords many shocks of recognition. Some of the men selected for lifestyle makeovers in this show are men I’ve known and loved—not as individuals, but as archetypes. Take, for example, the Burning Man lifer from season two, episode four, who prides himself on the extreme survival skills he’s cultivated to thrive off-grid in the desert, but who seems unable to handle himself on-grid for the remaining ten months of the year. I don’t know that guy, but I also know that guy, and I know exactly how hard it is not to grab him by the tie-dye and shake him.

Some of us are lucky enough to be living in exactly the world conservatives warned us was coming a generation ago: where homosexuality is an unremarkable lifestyle choice, where we are as likely to go to a gay wedding as a straight one, where prejudice absolutely still exists, but if you must be a homophobe, we’d really prefer you to do it in the privacy of your own home, for the sake of the children.

Let’s be clear here. Straight guys in the global north are not the people objectively suffering most under late capitalism’s slow collapse into chaotic neo-nationalism.

The episode featuring Skyler, a thirty-year-old trans man made my breath snag in my teeth for a number of reasons.  It opens with candid footage of Skyler immediately after getting top surgery. But his house is what really got me. At the start of the episode it’s a cozy, glitter-infested, unhygienic fever dream of cat urine, rainbow flags, moldering coffee cups and miscellaneous LGBT reprobates draped over junkyard furniture, like a frat house for unicorns. I have lived in several versions of that exact house. I’ve put money in for a large colorful bowl of lube and condoms as a coffee-table centerpiece, and whatever the Fab Five say, that’s actually a pretty decent hack when you have zero budget and like to throw wild parties: not only is it a statement home accessory, it also ensures that nobody has to skip safer sex for lack of funds. I’ve also owned some of those wonky queerer-than-thou posters—when Bobby gets done with them they’re in frames, and his bedroom looks like Henry Holland got lost in Dick’s Sporting Goods, instead of like someone blew up a teenage skatepunk and called it decorating. Skyler and his roommates are obviously already excellent at homemaking; their place is a sanctuary for their local community. The only reason it looks like some street punks broke into an abandoned Claire’s is that queer millennials are poor. We are just as likely to be directionless, in debt and frustrated by life as your average cis straight millennial, but less likely to place the blame where it doesn’t belong. 

The difference was articulated by Hannah Gadsby, breakout comedy star, in an interview about her hit special Nanette, which is Netflix’s other, far more political banner queer programming this year:

We’ve got a generation of young men who believe that they are victimized, because they’ve been promised the world. That’s a poisoned chalice, because now there’s a gap between what the cultural narrative is and what their experience is. Looking back, I think it’s done me more good than harm to be promised absolutely nothing. . . . That’s why I haven’t responded to the more brutal aspects of my life with violence or bitterness.

Let’s be clear here. Straight guys in the global north are not the people objectively suffering most under late capitalism’s slow collapse into chaotic neo-nationalism. They are just the people whose problems have historically been treated as more important. None of these men is about to be deported, or jailed for trying to exercise basic bodily autonomy. The problems these men have are largely ones that actually can be solved by a basic attitude and wardrobe upgrade, and that’s the irony here. Women, queer people, and people of color are the people who are usually told that the problem isn’t the world, it’s us. We are told that we are to blame not only for the wreck of our own lives but also for everyone else’s as well, because we selfishly refused to flatten ourselves for the comfort of others. Men, by contrast, are perennially assured that the world is theirs, to be made over in their image. Or they were, until recently.

Men Without Women’s Approval

Gloria Steinem has often reminded the world that women’s liberation involves liberated women “becoming the men we wanted to marry.” In order not to be dependent on men, women learned to husband ourselves, and we’ve done a damn good job. Straight men have not been quite so keen to work out how to be their own wives—to provide themselves with all the things that women have been scripted to supply for them throughout the sorry run of Western patriarchy.

One curious repeating bridge of the show’s format is that there’s almost always a woman the hapless straight-dude subjects have to shape up for: a female friend, a potential love interest, a parent or another family member who is involved in this man’s life whose approval of the transformation must be courted and won. Sometimes it’ll be the wife, but most often these men are single. This canny reversal of cultural power is cathartic to watch if you’re a woman who dates men: here are men gleefully doing for one another what some women and girls have spent our lives being pressured or cajoled into doing for them. Here, at last, are a corps of men going through the rigors of top-to-bottom self-invention for our approval. We still have to do it for them, of course, and we don’t get a fanfare and a free kitchen remodel out of it, but hey, every little bit helps.

The crisis of capitalism is also, as theorist Nancy Fraser puts it, a “crisis of care”—of reproductive labor. The work that the world most urgently requires is work that women have traditionally done for low wages or for no wages, and this is work that cannot be effectively automated or subsumed within the profit model. Someone has to do the dishes.

This is not to say, of course, that the subjects of Queer Eye are first-order victims of global capitalism’s concerted campaign to hollow out working-class life. These men are not marginalized, but they are nonetheless living in the margins of the lives they had perhaps expected. There are people with far more pressing problems than simply having no idea that clothes don’t live on the floor. In their own way, though, these men are quietly drowning, and a lot of the people who love this show the hardest have spent years of our offscreen lives trying to serve as—or at least to inflate—the life-rafts.

I have fallen for this in the past. I have been suckered into relationships that swiftly became second or third jobs, where I was expected to fill the role of “girlfriend,” including a full schedule of emotional, dietary, aesthetic, and, in these times, financial support. It can be nice to feel needed, so nice that you don’t notice that he needs you in the same way he needs a haircut. The trouble is that girlfriend work is insecure, badly paid, and ultimately demeaning for everyone involved.

The work that the Fab Five are doing for the luckless, loveless men of Georgia is girlfriend work. It is emotional labor, domestic labor, the work that anyone who has ever dated a straight man will recognize.

Inevitably, when men take on work traditionally performed by women thanklessly and for free—from cooking to prizing open the calcified clamshell of the male heterosexual emotional mindscape—it is regarded as art, rather than duty. The trajectory of Queer Eye would be almost identical if you substituted the Twink Upgrade Action Team for any five randomly selected women on the street, but it wouldn’t work as entertainment; that’s just life. That’s just what women do; we don’t get a cookie for it, let alone our own show. I’m happy to let that go, though, because it’s just so damn satisfying watching men sort one another out for once. 

The Art of Reproductive Labor

There is a reason straight women love this show. It’s the pornography of emotional labor.

There’s an old, bad joke where “porn for women” is supposed to involve soothing images of men doing the washing up and running around with a vacuum cleaner—the joke being, presumably, that women don’t like sex, and men don’t like cleaning, so our fantasies like theirs must also involve watching the so-called opposite sex pretend to enjoy something for our benefit. But let’s be clear: nobody is actually getting off on Queer Eye. In fact, the whole show is curiously unerotic, despite the constant on-screen presence of beautiful, charismatic men explicitly and relentlessly defined by their sexuality.

I watched Queer Eye for the first time with a friend who has spent most of her twenties caring, in one way or another, for successive casualties of twenty-first-century masculinity. When the episode wound up, we both had a little cry. Then we watched some golden retriever videos and felt better. The reason you could get any five women off the street to do this job is not because women are born magically knowing how to dry your tears and clean your bathroom, but because female socialization is a long apprenticeship devoted to developing these skills for yourself and others. The idea that it is natural for any female person to just be good at all this stuff obscures a hell of a lot of work.

In the same way, it is curious that the sole qualification the Fab Five appears to need for their jobs, at least by the logic of the show, is that they are gay. Okay, granted, Antoni doesn’t seem to have any actual culinary skills—he can show you how to make a passable grilled cheese sandwich, barely. But his role seems to be relentless demonstration of the power of self-belief over experience, like a sort of human golden retriever, endlessly failing an agility test. His special skill set is “the confidence of a mediocre white man,” but somehow you love him for it.

The one thing the Fab Five aren’t allowed to do is get angry.

Bobby is the one who does most of what the world understands as actual work, in that while the others are suggesting a shave and some positive self-talk, Bobby has rebuilt your entire house. His style does lean heavily toward chrome, black, navy, and camel-colored leather, rather like Martha Stewart might imagine a rich teenage boy’s bedroom should look, but I don’t see any of the rest of the show’s cast designing a house from scratch. Bobby is my favorite, because even the cleverest editing can’t stop him seeming slightly sad. I would imagine that Bobby at least has an interior design qualification, that someone actually taught Jonathan how to cut hair, that Karamo is some flavor of professional life coach or counselor when he’s not being coerced into cuddling racist cops on television. 

This stuff is difficult. It is skilled work. Women and gay men are not born knowing how to do it. Sucking dick does not, as far as I’m aware, bestow a Matrix-style human upgrade of self-love mantras and personal grooming skills, although I’m sure there’s a high school somewhere where that rumor is making the rounds. 

Money Shots

The one thing the Fab Five aren’t allowed to do is get angry. That appears to be the trade-off for permission to enter the homes and lives of their test subjects. The show is relentlessly, exhaustively upbeat. 

There’s a queasy equivocation, the constant implication that both sides need to compromise and unclench their grip on their prejudices in order to reach that magical place of acceptance. Issues of race, gender, and poverty are painfully smoothed over to force the material into a neat forty-five-minute box tied off with an uplifting message and a tasteful bow. Most grueling of all is episode five of season one, which stars a Christian father of six who works two low-wage jobs, usually sleeps two and a half hours a night and, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have a lot of time left over for personal grooming. He tells the Fab Five that he considers the state of his too-small house evidence of “not being enough” for his wife and children. It should be apparent even to the most unblinking neoliberal believer in the power of positive self-talk that the deficiency is not in this man’s soul, nor his self-confidence, but in his salary. His deficiencies have a dollar value, and culture has convinced him that that is his fault. 

Money is the silent sixth member of the rescue squad. The services that the Fab Five are offering are worth more than most of these men could possibly afford—there are thousands of dollars of new clothes and furniture on offer here, and frankly, that’s no shabby way to advertise tolerance.

It’s easy to hand out the hugs when today’s lucky refugee from the warzone of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is a gentle, closeted engineer with a shedful of bondage gear who wants to come out to his stepmother. It’s easy when the task of the week is to buck up a failing comedian living in his parents’ basement who walks around with the air of a ground-dwelling mammal who the modern world has run over, reversed, and run over again. Those saucy smiles are harder to sustain for a Trump-loving small-town cop.

That’s how you get Karamo in a car trying to pretend that his misgivings about spending time with a white police officer who owns a MAGA hat are a prejudice exactly as irrational and immoral as the cop’s feelings about gay black men, telling us that everyone can learn something valuable from each other if we all just sit down and chat. All the conversations in this show are staged, of course, but this one feels like it was drafted by frantic consensus in a writer’s room where they had one night to throw together an episode that Piers Morgan might enjoy.

Bigotry and self-loathing often come from a similar place, and the show is at its best when it pushes back on both. The first season errs a little too far in the direction of indulgence. Tan France, the show’s fashion consultant and token Brit, can do whatever he wants as far as I’m concerned, because he has already performed his act of service to a generation that has never known whether to leave our shirts hanging out by introducing us to the French Tuck (which Americans will inevitably repurpose as the Freedom Tuck). But of the five stars, France is the most—forgive me—straight-laced. In every episode he insists to whoever it is he’s trying to get to dress a little less like they ran through a thrift shop covered in glue that he has no intention of “taking them out of their comfort zone.”

That’s a pity, because that particular comfort zone is often the problem. Many political roadblocks would be more navigable if the general public did not so often mistake their comfort zone for the moral high ground. There is a lot to be said, particularly right now, for asking certain people to take a little day trip out of their comfort zone and into a place of productive discomfort. As Sarah Schulman notes in The Gentrification of the Mind:

[W]e currently live with a stupefying cultural value that makes being uncomfortable something to be avoided at all costs. Even at the cost of living a false life at the expense of others in an unjust society. We have a concept of happiness that excludes asking uncomfortable questions and saying things that are true but which might make us and others uncomfortable. . . . If we want to transform the way we live, we will have to reposition being uncomfortable as a part of life, as part of the process of being a full human being, and as a personal responsibility.

Fear Factors

The notion that life begins at the end of your comfort zone is so thoroughly unoriginal that it can be found printed in ugly fonts on top of generic sunsets on office walls around the Anglosphere. What is less well known is that for a great many people, survival has always meant living outside the comfort zone of the sort of people who put up those posters. There is a mass exodus from the collective comfort zone of the white heterosexual patriarchy, which means that it’s now a lonely, confusing place to be. The only thing worse than being marooned in your own comfort zone is being forced to live in someone else’s. Almost every queer person knows what that’s like. Almost every woman knows, too.

The truth is that it’s frightening outside the comfort zone of most straight, cis, able-bodied men who were told they deserved the world. It’s frightening, because that’s where queer rage lives, where women’s disappointment lives, where failure on the terms that you’ve been handed is almost inevitable. But it’s also where joy happens. Where communities are built. Where men are allowed to cry and take care of one another, and you are allowed to throw out all of the things that hurt you: the old furniture, the broken bed, the worn-out expectations of a world that never wanted you anyway.

This, I suspect, is why gay men tend to hate this show almost as much as straight women love it. (The one gay man I know who is a fan lived as a straight woman until recently.) Queer Eye actually does very little for queer people. The things it is saying about queerness are so far from new they’re probably being sold for seventeen dollars a pop in a vintage boutique; insisting that gay people are, in fact, people is hard to parse as a political breakthrough.

It’s so out of its time that it’s almost offensive. The central problem is that if you frame “acceptance” as the major challenge facing the twenty-first century gay communities, there’s not a lot of airtime left for other problems that they’re actually facing.

As I write, same-sex couples in the United States may be about to lose the right to adopt children. Transgender people are under attack across the Global North. Conservative homophobes, having accepted that right now openly condemning homosexuals tends to backfire, have identified the trans community as the vulnerable part of the LGBTQ “alphabet soup”—the weak link that can be used to break the chains of sin shackling the degenerate West. Acceptance is no longer the major problem. The task is to reassert human rights.

Entertaining straight people is a low-priority for millennial queers.

Culture has largely moved on from insisting to straight people that gay people are cool and fun, every single one, and that maybe they should be allowed human rights on that basis—and thank goodness, because we’ve had quite enough of gay men and women having to court jester the whole damn world just to be allowed to exist on something like their own terms. We will have come a long way when there’s more room in culture for gay men who are not consistently charismatic and fabulous—or who, if they are, don’t feel obliged to sprinkle that same glitter on people who despise them. 

Entertaining straight people is a low priority for millennial queers. Not one of my rather large number of gay male friends has ever done my eye-makeup or taken me shopping. Instead they taught me how to wash pepper spray out of my eyes and converted me to communism. This was a very important makeover for me personally, but it would not make for cozy viewing at the end of a long workday.  

Dressed for More Than Success

What Queer Eye in its modern incarnation makes clear is that for a great many straight men, their designated comfort zone is a miserable place to be. Given permission to step outside of it—permission to fail with grace and dignity and a new sectional into the bargain—they all fall into line with something like relief. 

The queer art of failure, as Jack Halberstam writes in his book of the same name, “turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable.” Halberstam imagines queerness itself as an alternative to the punishing model of success imposed by the straight world. Instead of striving relentlessly for the brutal, homogenous perfection, the queer art of failure “quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art.”

The Fab Five spend much of their time reassuring the “heroes” in each episode, as so many of us do in our everyday lives, that there’s nothing suspect about taking a bit of care of yourself and your surroundings, nothing gay about letting go of self-hatred and trying to live in a world where you’re not always the hero. In a braver world, it wouldn’t take an expensive TV makeover to get there, though maybe it’d still be worth a fun theme-tune.

It is not queer people’s job to save straight people from the sinking ocean liner of heterosexuality any more than it is the job of women to save men from lifetimes of loneliness and rumpled jean shorts. All of us have enough to do manning the life rafts for ourselves and for each other.

Give a man a makeover and you fix him for a day; teach a man that masculinity under late capitalism is a toxic pyramid scheme that is slowly killing him just like it’s killing the world, and you might just fix a sucking hole in the future.

Laurie Penny is a writer, journalist and critic from London. She has contributed to The Guardian, The New Statesman, the New York Times, Time Magazine and many more. She is the author of six books, the latest of which, Bitch Doctrine, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

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