From burning toupees to breaking boundaries: why Queer Eye is TV's most political show

The 2003 Queer Eye was bold in its very existence – but it’s come a long way. As the new season of its reboot returns, its founding team discuss its evolution

Fabulous French tucks, zesty green goddess dressing and twirling as a means of transport from A to B: after a successful first season, Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot is back with more of the same, but better. The Fab Five, as they’re known, may set their sights on a subject’s surface, but somehow the transformation always goes deeper. Season two elicits its first tears (on screen and off) within 15 minutes. And they don’t stop flowing for another seven episodes, through a struggling dad finding self-confidence, a transgender man seeing his new body for the first time, and a rootless fiftysomething finally appreciating the love that’s been in front of him all along.

But who knew this reboot would mean this much to so many? Queer Eye stands out as uniquely warm and welcoming television with a correspondingly wide fanbase. You love it, of course, but so do all your friends, your dad and your occasionally homophobic uncle.

The format remains essentially unchanged since the show’s first 2003 to 2007 iteration, then titled Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. A team of five gay men hustle-bustle their way into the life of a (usually) cis heterosexual man and make over all aspects in preparation for a big life event, such as a marriage proposal or work promotion.

When the reboot was first mooted in 2017, even those of us who remembered and liked the original struggled to summon real enthusiasm. That’s not because it wasn’t great television – it always was – but because it was also very much of its time. As the series’ original “culture vulture” Jai Rodriguez told the Hollywood Reporter shortly before the reboot’s 2018 launch: “In 2003, being out was political.”

Back then, gay people were visible in mainstream American culture, but only just. Ellen DeGeneres had come out six years earlier on her self-titled sitcom and Will & Grace had just aired its fifth season, but Queer Eye for the Straight Guy offered something different. It allowed the kind of conservative Middle Americans who’d never knowingly met, let alone hung out with, an openly gay person to get to know five of them. And, crucially, they were not fictional characters created for the amusement of straight TV audiences, but real people.

The show’s original food and drink expert Ted Allen fondly remembers the outrageously good fun of “throwing a hideous sectional sofa off of a second-floor apartment balcony, piece by piece …burning a straight guy’s toupee on his barbecue grill”. But the show’s legacy is what he’s most proud of: “I hope some gay kids’ parents learned something and I hope some gay kids, and adults too, maybe felt a little more hope for happy, successful lives when they saw us being embraced by the culture.”

Queer Eye.

That cultural embrace was evident from early on. Long before RuPaul’s Drag Race gave us “Yass Kween!”, everyone was “tszujing” up their lives thanks to original Queer Eye’s fashion expert Carson Kressley’s frequent use of the Polari slang term (meaning to tweak, finesse or improve). Now, new grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness is popularising the application of female pronouns to inanimate objects (as in his podcast: “Brexit: What is she?”) as well as contributing the catchphrase “struggs to func” (an abbreviation of “struggles to function”).

The new Queer Eye’s definition of mainstream infiltration is also a lot more wide-ranging than before. While the original Fab Five took on missions within the comparative safety of metropolitan, LGBT-friendly NYC, the Georgia-based reboot has set itself a more difficult challenge of “turning red states pink, one makeover at a time”. As the reboot’s fashion expert Tan put it in season one, episode one: “The original show was fighting for tolerance. Our fight is for acceptance.”

To that end, the new five reveal more of themselves than the original five did – and could likely have got away with. They talk about their husbands, their children, their upbringings as well as confessing their own areas of ignorance.

“The show needed some updating,” says show creator and executive producer David Collins. “As part of that, we asked our Fab Five to really share themselves. They then took their experiences and applied it to the show heroes and that, in turn, gave everyone permission to open up and be vulnerable.”

On a national level, the relationships that the show creates act as bridges between Trump’s America and the rest of the country, but they’re also rare TV depictions of genuine, platonic friendship between gay men and straight men. Maybe Queer Eye’s focus on teaching lost or misguided men how to moisturise, cook and properly organise a home was always about detoxifying masculinity. The difference is that, 15 years on, with “toxic masculinity” prominent in the zeitgeist, straight culture is finally fully receptive to these teachings.

“The new show is obviously more emotional, which I love,” says Kyan Douglas, original grooming expert who now appears on US daytime TV institution, The Rachael Ray Show. “And product integration feels less heavy-handed … I think it’s a great show.” Indeed, while the new-gen Fab Five are all obviously talented in their respective fields (with the possible exception of food and drink man and avocado fan Antoni Porowski, bless him), the core of their skills is emotional. Tan France is a brilliant stylist, but his true artistry lies in challenging timid people to change their entrenched habits without insulting or intimidating; culture expert Karamo Brown doesn’t often recommend local galleries or curate Spotify playlists, but he does frequently steer shallow conversations into deeper waters with the same sure hand that he steers the gang’s van around rural Georgia. And Jonathan Van Ness is great with a set of clippers, but a genius at using gentle flirtation to boost an insecure man’s confidence; he sees the hotness in everyone. Such is the tear-jerking power of these moments that fans have nicknamed the show Crying Eye.

The show also deflects some of the criticism that had been levelled at the original – for instance, the idea that it promotes a stereotype of gay men as cultured but vain – by delving more deeply into issues within the queer community, as represented by the Fab Five themselves. In season two, they discuss Porowski’s relative privilege as a straight-presenting white guy, compared to the more camp Van Ness, or African-American Brown and British-Pakistani France. And the show’s depiction of queerness is more diverse still, with the gang making over both their first woman and their first trans man, as well as venturing into other sometimes marginalised communities, from Mexican immigrants to ageing hipsters.

Is there still work to be done in that area? Of course: “Queer people want to see themselves in media and, unfortunately, a lot of great content gets picked apart for not representing every colour of the flag,” says Collins. Yet, as the second season launches on Netflix, that stated goal of “acceptance” now seems not only platitudinous but oddly unambitious: Queer Eye’s vision for the future of American masculinity isn’t merely acceptable; it’s the gender revolution we’ve all been waiting for.

• This article was amended on 25 Jun. The original piece incorrectly stated that the new series of Queer Eye had made over first trans woman, when it was a trans man

Queer Eye season two is available on Netflix


Ellen E Jones

The GuardianTramp

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