”[G]ay men and lesbians have not always existed. Instead, they are a product of history, and have come into existence in a specific historical era. Their emergence is associated with the relations of capitalism; it has been the historical development of capitalism—more specifically, its free labor system—that has allowed large numbers of men and women in the late twentieth century to call themselves gay, to see themselves as a part of a community of similar men and women, and to organize politically on the basis of that identity.” —John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (1983)
Earlier this year, after a particularly nasty case of the flu, I decided it was finally time to quit smoking. I picked up the habit in high school, first with after-hours Camels in the baseball dugout, then Marlboro Lights at the swimming hole on spring afternoons, but in the years since, the occasional cigarette had become a pack a day, and the feigned cool of the teenager desperate to seem older had become the fear of the thirtysomething who no longer felt young. Lying in bed, hacking and wheezing, a few days into the new year, I pictured myself shuddering under a blanket in a drafty tenement, suffering the arduous death of a Victorian consumptive, and with that admittedly melodramatic mental image, something inside me shifted. (The old me might say “broke.”) I read Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking, and more “Ask Polly” columns than I can count. I ended a nine-month relationship with a man who said he loved me but never convinced me he believed it himself. I hired a personal trainer. I gave up drinking for Lent. I started running, five minutes, then 10, then 15 at a stretch, in hopes of entering a 5k this fall. I spent $250 on exercise gear I’d’ve once considered an absurd extravagance, deleted the apps on which I’d long depended to meet men, tested a new haircut, weighed the Whole 30 diet. So far, at least—cross your fingers, throw salt over your shoulder, knock on wood—I’ve dropped the most dangerous habit I’ve ever developed—last week marks four months since my last cigarette—but the unforeseen cost, the replacement therapy, has been the development of a new habit, one whose dangers may not exactly round down to zero. I am no longer addicted to nicotine, but I am addicted to self-help.
I kept returning to this notion—that one can be as consumed by the quest for self-improvement as by the need for the next smoke—as I fell in love with Queer Eye, Netflix’s sleek update on Bravo’s splashy makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which aired from 2003 to 2007. The new iteration, with its charming host/experts and tearful moments of truth (an aging divorcé reconnecting with the love of his life, a gay man coming out to his mother), registered as a refreshingly earnest renovation of the arch, bitchy original, the sort of crisp, elegant transformation that design specialist Bobby Berk unleashes on every patio and playroom he encounters. It seemed to fulfill the promise of its own introduction: “The original show was fighting for tolerance,” fashion guru (and perfectly coiffed British bae) Tan France says in the series premiere. “Our fight is for acceptance.”
As it happens, though, Queer Eye is less renovation than refurbishment, less makeover than “glow up”: To watch early episodes of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy again is to be struck by the pair’s similarities, down to Betty Who’s remix of the original theme, Widelife’s “All Things (Just Keep Getting Better).” The black truck with the “Fab 5” vanity plate? Check. The intersecting “Gay St.” and “Straight St.” signs? Check. The “hip tips,” practical advice on everything from statement belts (2003) to French tucks (2018)? Check. These are cosmetic, to be sure, but then again, the Queer Eye franchise—which combines elements of the makeover, real estate, cooking, and life coaching subgenres into a tasteful self-help Transformer in the pitched battle of “old” versus “new” you—is built on the notion that cosmetic changes are the reflection of internal ones, the echo of “grow up” in “glow up.” “We’re not here to change you,” stylist Carson Kressley says in the series premiere of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. “We’re here to make you better.”
In fact, it’s the closeness of the remake to the original, cloaked in the voguish language of “self-care,” that sent up my critical antennae, and forced me to examine my own craze for self-improvement: Why had I, and apparently so many others, remembered Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as one might their adolescence, or an ill-conceived tryst? Why were we faintly embarrassed to have watched it with such ardor, and so eager to see it again, with a fresh coat of paint? I suspect it cuts deeper than the change of venue (from New York to Georgia), or the change of cast (which, Kressley excepted, is vastly more endearing now, not to mention entertaining). It’s bouncing around in same ether that kicked my desire for health—maybe it’s mere vanity—into high gear. With the scam of “body positivity.” With the rise of bloggers and vloggers, not least the gay ones, selling us on the belief that a “better” you is around the corner, if only you purchase the right products, follow the right diet, perform the right workout, land the right guy. For a specific segment of the LGBT population—predominantly white, affluent, cisgender men—the sculpted bodies and carefully curated lives of Matt and Beau, Justin and Nick, Rick and Griff, or even Queer Eye’s adorable anti-chef Antoni Porowski, might, at the margins, be inspirational, or at least aspirational. For everyone else, popular culture—though it arguably allows for a wider range of queer expression than it did when Queer Eye for the Straight Guy premiered 15 years ago—still mostly prizes an unattainable ideal. Which raises the question: Is Queer Eye part of the problem, or its halting solution? Am I?
Several key changes to the Queer Eye format, in this vein, are changes of degree, not kind. Each episode begins, still, with the Fab Five quipping their way through the subject’s vital statistics, then marveling, horrified, at the grim state of affairs they find upon their arrival, only now these interludes are streamlined, self-aware, where once they were almost interminable. Each episode introduces a “mission” that runs more than skin deep—a fledgling artist’s first gallery show (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy); a man’s long-overdue marriage proposal (Queer Eye’s new season)—only now the discussions of the subject’s road to Damascus are a highlight, not an obligatory pit stop. Each episode culminates in two “reveals”—the first for the Fab Five, the second for the subject’s family and friends—only now the series consistently leans into its sentimental aspect. (More than one acquaintance of mine has noted the number of times per episode the new Queer Eye makes them cry.) None of these elements were missing from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, at least not at the start: In the series premiere, grooming expert Kyan Douglas inquires sincerely about the subject’s artistic ambitions; in the second episode, the subject is so awestruck by his transformation that he thanks the gang one by one, finally saying, “This is all your house.” What has changed, dramatically, is the context in which Queer Eye operates, to which the new version’s more emphatic earnestness is keenly attuned: “The gifts that you have? You’re using that for the good of humanity,” Tammye, the devout subject of the Season Two premiere, praises its biggest sensation, the darling Jonathan Van Ness. “I feel like I must’ve have turned into a mirror,” he replies, effortlessly funny and emotional in the same breath. “Because you’re talking about yourself.”
In this, Queer Eye is a much thornier text, and more thickly descriptive, than its feel-good gloss suggests. It is flagrantly consumerist, allowing no beard, no blazer, no bedroom to venture beyond the realm of what’s “on trend,” and yet it gives pride of place to forms of kinship, connection, on which one can’t place a price—literally, in the case of the new season’s second episode, in which Berk’s redesign accentuates a couple’s relationship heirlooms, including a handwritten note kissed with red lips. It is profoundly invested in appearances, generally, and in certain types of bodies, especially—from the emphasis on slimming clothes and unblemished skin to the fact that the Fab Five ranges in type from “handsome and reasonably fit” to “actual underwear model”—and yet it’s also careful to frame this investment as one in the self, and not in our culture’s undue expectations. If I press pause on its unbridled joy for a moment, I’m forced to admit that Queer Eye is, ultimately, an ambivalent TV series, and one that produces ambivalence, poised at the intersection of straight and queer, individual and community, self-consciousness and self-actualization. Watching it, I am forced to question whether my new interest in “self-help” is in fact about my self at all, or about my exes, my crushes, my family, my friends, to say nothing of magazine spreads and makeover show reveals and movie star romances and much more besides. If the progress you make is for (some of) the wrong reasons, does that still count as progress? Or does it become something else?
I suppose it’s this that sent me back to John D’Emilio’s landmark essay “Capitalism and Gay identity,” first delivered as a series of lectures in 1979 and 1980 and subsequently published in 1983. D’Emilio’s argument is not that capitalism is central to gay identity in a consumerist sense—it’s that the spread of wage labor, and the resulting redefinition of the nuclear family as a social rather than economic unit, created the conditions in which homosexual identity (as opposed to homosexual behavior) began to coalesce, first into subcultures and thence into liberation movements. In truth, though, D’Emilio was writing about the very idea of “progress,” in the Whig sense of the term. Writing at a moment in which the political program that gained steam after Stonewall came up against the conservative retrenchment of the Reagan era, D’Emilio’s purpose, in framing “gay identity” as contingent and chosen, rather than permanent and innate, was to remind us that historical “progress,” a notion that similarly coincides with the development of industrial capitalism, is largely a myth—at best a function of the ultimate blind spot, the human lifespan, anything outside the margins of which is likely to become a blur. For D’Emilio, the complacency of “the opportunistic defense,” the “minority group analysis,” and the “civil rights strategy” was a grave danger to the movement. “What we should now be trying to ‘liberate’ is an aspect of the personal lives of all people—sexual expression,” he writes in the essay’s conclusion:
”[W]e have had to create, for our survival, networks of support that do not depend on the bonds of blood or the license of the state, but that are freely chosen and nurtured. The building of an ‘affectional community’ must be as much a part of our political movement as are campaigns for civil rights.”
D’Emilio’s fear that the victories of the 1970s remained tenuous would, of course, come to devastating fruition in the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and though its implications are not yet so dire, the “progress” made in the years between Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to Queer Eye—its “glow up”—might be worth treating with a modicum of skepticism. Netflix’s update, with its mentions of Bobby’s marriage and Tan’s plans for children, with its admirable desire to depict “acceptance,” not “tolerance,” is itself evidence of the remarkable rate of social change, but as in D’Emilio’s essay, the difference between social and historical change, between “transformation” and “progress,” always already contains its own warning: The present relationship between the self, the community, and the polity is potentially fleeting, and our right to exist must be fought for continuously if we are to survive.
“Let’s unpack that,” Van Ness says to their first subject, Tom, in the Queer Eye premiere, when he asks Berk who in his marriage is “the husband” and who “the wife,” and it’s in this spirit—that those we love are capable of withstanding constructive criticism—that I write this. Because Queer Eye, particularly in its latest iteration, is the “network of support,” the “affectional community,” that D’Emilio mentions, to the extent that the Fab Five lay bare their own struggles toward self-actualization, often to people, or in spaces, traditionally closed off to gay men. I only wish, as much for my own sake as any of the series’ subjects, that this process weren’t so muddied by questions of buying and selling, by beauty ideals and style prescriptions, by the concern that “self-help,” and the TV series we construct in its image, free us to celebrate transformation as abiding “progress,” when change—personal, social, historical—is a process I can only describe as vexed. You can, in fact “fix ugly,” despite Tom’s claim to the contrary. But sometimes ugly isn’t all that needs to be fixed.
Seasons One and Two of Queer Eye are now streaming on Netflix. Episodes of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy are available for purchase on Amazon Prime Video.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.