With the return of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Adam Lawler wonders if it’s a throwback nobody asked for.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, along with Will & Grace, were two of a multitude of 2000s shows to feature openly LGBTQ+ people in lead roles. In the show the “Fab Five”, each with a different area of expertise, give a straight man – whom they see as lacking in some way – a makeover, or a “make-better”.
With the focus square on the five gay leads, the show felt like a refreshingly different take on the innumerable reality shows clogging up television schedules. Even though it was bogged down with the failings of the genre, it was nice to see representation, and the immediately high ratings garnered on the show’s debut in 2003 showed that there were people willing to be entertained by something like this. The show ended in 2007.
“If the show was criticised for its portrayal even then, what place has it in the current cultural landscape?”
At the time, however, the show drew criticism on its stereotypical view of sexuality, specifically of gay men as fashionistas who are likely to make a catty comment on your slobbish bedsit as they fawn over whatever Britney Spears is doing. With the announcement that Netflix is reviving the show, the question is, if the show was criticised for its portrayal even then, what place has it in the current cultural landscape?
We are no longer starved for LGBTQ+ representation as we once were: there is an increasingly wide spectrum of shows that revolve around LGBTQ+ people —Transparent, in which a father reveals he is transgender and has to figure out what it means to be queer after hiding for so long, Empire, where Jussie Smollett plays one of the heirs to his bigoted father’s record company, Looking, a gay version of Girls that capitalises on trendy millennial ennui (millennui?), and Orange Is The New Black, a show about women under pressure that scans as diverse.
The sci-fi drama Orphan Black, although it loses points for casting its main gay character as a rent boy (what other employment can gay men have, after all?), makes up for any indiscretions by making Felix one of the main leads – and one of the only other actors that feature alongside Tatiana Maslany’s portrayals of various clones – while making him a fully developed, three-dimensional character.
In one episode, he has to pretend to be in a relationship with a straight character who hams it up like a proper stereotype. That’s until Felix steps in to correct him with statistics that, unknown to us or otherwise, five to ten percent of our male friends are gay: “the point is you can’t tell, so don’t act gay.”
“Not only are shows like this unnecessary in 2017, they feel agonisingly backwards”
They also hold hands without invoking the gay panic trope that was so favoured by 1990s and early 2000s shows. It is progressive flourishes like these, accomplished with such grace and ease from shows encompassing every genre that render series like Queer Eye completely obsolete.
Not only are shows like this unnecessary in 2017, they feel agonisingly backwards. Perhaps this is a good thing in the sense that it feels so retrograde that it highlights the immeasurable progress we’ve made in representing LGBT issues since it aired. Shows like this could only work now if they were framed as a sharp critique, or on the other hand, a tactful update that eschews the more dated concepts for something brand new.
However, Queer Eye’s central idea was always iffy at best, and so it’s unlikely that such an inherently flawed concept can be updated with any kind of tact.
For all the furore around 1990s shows like Friends, to look back on them now can be an uncomfortable experience. It was clear at the time that Joey was an awful, misogynistic womaniser as it remains clear to this day, while we watch and side-eye our dads for laughing whenever he leers at a woman. However, it’s the show’s attitude to LGBT people that most induces queasy feelings.
There’s the way Chandler is always confused for gay because he has a “quality,” or the utter freak out between male characters who hug or touch in a manner that’s not distinctly macho, or Ross’s treatment of his ex-wife and her lovers, jarring for a show about cool young people in New York. Ironically, the creators of Friends recently put their names to the comparatively progressive Grace & Frankie, a Netflix exclusive in which the central storyline is that the husbands of two older women leave them for each other.
There were many shows like Friends. They play with our internalised bigotry, set our collective backwardness to film in a way that is cringeworthy, yet heartening in retrospect, from a comparatively enlightened future. With attitudes like the ones displayed then, it was clear that groundwork had to be set, barriers had to be broken down gently, removing one brick at a time to ease audiences into the idea of gay people being on TV.
This is why Queer Eye and Will & Grace were the way they were; they needed to be entertaining enough to propel themselves into the public sphere, before even attempting to push forward. They opened the door for today’s television. Regardless if they speak to our needs in today’s political climate, they were completely necessary. Now, however? Not so much.