“Oh my God, every time we get this far out of Atlanta I just remember, like, the nervousness that I felt on election night 2016,” says Queer Eye’s beating heart, Jonathan Van Ness, in episode two of the new Netflix season. “Just this level of discomfort — like, where are we going? What’s happening?”
The episode finds the Fab Five on their way to overhaul yet another tragic heterosexual’s life in Dahlonega, Georgia, which sounds like firm Trump territory based on the name alone. (Sidenote: it’s in Lumpkin County, and yes, yes it is). Leave it to Jonathan, queen of subtlety, to put a finer point on Queer Eye’s unspoken mission statement: to reconcile queerness, presented in the show as an urban invention, with the “real America” — the straight, white spectre that reasserted itself in 2016.
Watching the merry band of gays packed shoulder-to-shoulder in their car and heading to a small town in Georgia, I was reminded of Queer Eye’s spiritual antecedent: To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar, the landmark film that featured Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo as drag queens on a road trip across middle America to attend a pageant.
In To Wong Foo, the queens’ car breaks down in tiny Snydersville, forcing them to cohabitate with the townspeople while waiting for a special part to fix their vehicle so they can make it to the pageant. While stranded, they win over the locals, who believe them to be women, and they make over the town in a fabulous, empowering queer transformation. It’s one of my favorite films. It has its problems.
Life lessons are learned, women are inspired to stand up to their husbands, and men walk away in better outfits. The comedy of the film is drawn from an old wellspring of entertainment, one that Queer Eye also taps into: the notion that queerness is exotic, embarrassing, and powerful. Queerness is ridiculous for being so incorrectly sure of itself. It’s so potent that merely brushing up against it will change your entire life, wake you to some truer, better self.
“A week ago, I would not have called five gay guys a blessing,” says the firefighter at the end of the final episode in season one. He looks much better than he did at the beginning, our heroes’ fairy dust having worked its magic. “It’s not in our culture, in this area, to consider something like that.” This is what passes for his reconciliation. Other episodes also end this way: Take the episode with the comedian who was living in his parents’ basement and cracked a joke about having spent his weekend with gay men, for example.
This sentiment was present throughout season one, and it reemerges in season two, a delightful eight-episode jaunt that strikes at the soft spots of the human heart with alarming precision. I cried several times, and I am a jaded husk. Episode one, for example, stars a Black churchgoing woman named Tammye who has a gay son and wants to refurbish her community center.
Tammye is so full of love and light that most of the episode is spent giving her hugs, and I cannot in good conscience argue that it’s excessive. I, too, want to give Tammye a hug. At several points in the episode, I felt myself being emotionally manipulated, as I do in many Queer Eye episodes where deceased loved ones’ paraphernalia is brought out and tearful confessions of never feeling confident are made, but the show is so good at the formula that I don’t care. That Antoni is moved to tears by Tammye’s acceptance for her gay son by the episode’s end deserves its victory over my cynicism.
Something the show also has going for it is that, as opposed to the original Queer Eye in 2006, it takes other queer people as its subjects. The second season’s episode with Skyler, a trans man who recently underwent top surgery, is genuinely moving, even if it does have its cringey moments. (Really, Tan? You’ve never met a trans person before?)
Seeing Skyler be celebrated — vulnerabilities and all — and just hang with the guys feels refreshing. When Karamo is present to see Skyler successfully change his gender marker on his driver’s license, it feels like victory. Damn this show, I thought to myself, and bless it. It knows what it’s doing, and I absolutely recommend watching it, even if I don’t think it succeeds in bartering a peace between the polarities of queerness and “real America.” As in To Wong Foo, queerness here is made into a transient force, passing by as some magical creature might. Like Santa, maybe, leaving gifts. Being OK with that is key to enjoying the show.
There is an urge in our drastic, confusing era to look for “the answer” in every piece of art and entertainment created within its context. We ask that new media content grapple, on some level, with the crisis of our polarized world. Queer Eye satisfies that prompt, even if its response (diplomacy, compromise, mutual understanding) might rightly be seen as dissatisfactory to a lot of queer people. Queer Eye will make peace with a Trump supporter, then custom tailor a trans man’s suit.
Luckily for season two of Queer Eye, it packs enough emotional punch in just about every episode to make you forget about sussing out its politics and focus instead on what suit Tan will put the subject in; what quick and easy meal Antoni will teach them to make; where Karamo will take them for an emotional revelation; and how Bobby will build them an entirely new home offscreen. Jonathan, though his skill is grooming, remains an event unto himself. The show also wouldn’t work nearly as well if The Fab Five didn’t really, truly enjoy each other’s company and click as a team; their incredible banter throughout the season is proof positive of that.
“Look at that truck full of American homosexuals,” one of the Fab Five boys says in a voiceover as their pickup, decked out in American flags, flies down the highway in the final episode of the season. “We’re making America great again!” quips another. It’s a passing acknowledgment of the world we live in, and it comes again at the intro of the episode, a tick off the chore list.
Queer Eye doesn’t linger in that space where it can provide commentary. It responds to its prompt, almost out of some sense of duty, and gets it out of the way so it can get to the fun of making someone over and crying over haircuts and reunited loved ones and, yes, empowerment. Maybe Queer Eye isn’t as interested in changing the world as other pieces of entertainment are, especially ones with LGBTQ+ themes. And maybe that’s OK.