Queer Eye, a Netflix TV show released in early 2018, has gained widespread popularity as the reboot of Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003-2007). With a luxurious loft in Atlanta, Georgia, as a home base, the “Fab Five” travel around Georgia to help less stylish people (almost always men) redirect and redecorate themselves and their lifestyles. It is no secret that LGBTQ events and activism are largely male-dominated and that sexism continues to be a problem among gay men and LGBTQ people more broadly. In many ways, Queer Eye extends this problem through its stereotypical portrayal of LGBTQ life, embodied in five gay, city-dwelling, and traditionally “successful” men who don’t seem to care much about women. (Indeed, the Fab Five have made over just one woman, Tammye, in an episode that is as much about her gay son, who was also made over. Put more directly, not one episode in two seasons has focused solely on helping improve the life of a woman.) But this is old news. Here, we examine a far less remarked upon aspect of the show: its inherent metronormativity. Five stylish gay men, who serve as emblems of equality and modernity, fly from their respective homes to Atlanta, from where they head to various small Georgia towns to rescue another unstylish and lost soul from the bland, anachronistic [and rural] lives they lead. According to The Guardian:
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.”
Thus, the setting of the reboot itself is a key sign of metronormativity: the more rural and southern Georgia of today is assumed to be more homophobic than the NYC of 2003, which The Guardian describes as “LGBT-friendly.”
Season 2, Episode 2: "Bedazzled
The show opens with the Fab Five laughing and joking in their car before rolling into its theme song, Widelife’s “All Things Just Keep Getting Better.” The song plays as each of the five men takes a turn dancing around, modeling for the camera. This song choice is noteworthy because its title and refrain are evocative of the viral 2010 “It Gets Better” campaign. The campaign began when, after a series of gay teen suicides, Dan Savage (a well-known gay journalist) and his partner made a YouTube video meant to inspire LGBTQ teens to love themselves and believe in a better future.
Although this campaign has been widely celebrated in the years since its creation, it has also been critiqued by feminist and queer studies scholars: Jasbir Puar, for example, argues that this campaign, though understandable in a time of pain and crisis, is politically ineffective and ultimately harmful: the idea that “it” inherently gets better relies on the assumption that people have certain amounts of privilege (such as
being white, being wealthy, or having citizenship status). For many LGBTQ people, things don’t necessarily just “get better.” It Gets Better, then, is an empty promise to many struggling teens and also weakens our collective motivation to work for equality and justice. Waiting for a better future does not ensure a better future.
Queer Eye’s use of this song while showing the Fab Five as carefree, glamorous, and successful extends the message of the It Gets Better campaign, in addition to all of its problems. The theme song fades out with a lingering “All things just keep getting better, and better, and better…” as the Fab Five dance in a close group, smiling and being physically affectionate with one another. This theme song makes it clear to viewers that where the Five come from, it got better; equality for LGBTQ people was achieved, and they can be fully “themselves,” as they often note. By contrast, the places they visit in the show (in rural Georgia) require the presence of the Fab Five to grow and progress and, in short, to get better.
Picking Up Sean
In the fast-paced introduction to Season 2, Episode 2: “Bedazzled,” the Fab Five rush into an antique store in Mayesville, Georgia, where Sean -- their 18-year-old project for the episode -- is in the middle of giving a piano concert for a group of about 15 elderly people. Karamo, one of the Fab Five, apologizes for interrupting the performance as the group whisks Sean away to begin his makeover. The camera then cuts to Jonathan, another member of the Fab Five, who snarkily states, “Even though Sean was entertaining the geriatric people of Mayesville, we don’t have time to waste. We are five gays from big cities, except for Tan, and we’ve got stuff to do.” Beyond acting as if whatever was going on in this small town antique store was less important than what they wanted to do, Jonathan also relies on an urban-rural binary to position the Fab Five as exceptional city gays braving the less interesting, less important, and less LGBTQ-friendly rural.
Throughout the episode, viewers see shots of the local scenery. However, amid all of the barns, fields, weathervanes, cows, and tractors shown, very few shots are notably specific to the town of Mayesville. Viewers see, for example, one shot of several buildings that could be the town’s main street and one large building that could be town hall but is not labeled. Though visually pleasing, these would-be place markers tell viewers little about Mayesville, other than that it is rural. We see little related to Sean’s experience of growing up in Mayesville. The use of stereotypical markers of rural place with a focus on the outdoors is particularly odd in this episode, as Sean is a budding musician and says explicitly that he spends very little time outside. These aesthetic decisions are symptomatic of the show’s metronormative tendencies, which lead to a production of rural place as homogenous and the town of Mayesville as insignificant in its ruralness.
Sean's Music Taste
In this scene, Bobby and Karamo, two members of the Fab Five ask Sean about his music tastes. Sean lists several older artists. When Karamo follows up to ask Sean if he knows any more contemporary artists, he names only Elton John. With a few twanging guitar notes and hints of tambourines (evocative of country music and comedic relief), the scene cuts to Karamo reflecting on this moment while back in their Atlanta loft. With humor and exasperation, Karamo says, “Oh, come on. You don’t know Rihanna, you don’t know Beyoncé? You don’t know Lady Gaga? What 18-year-old doesn’t know pop culture?!” By positioning Sean as odd, old-timey, and even humorous for not knowing popular contemporary artists, Sean--via his musical tastes--become a stereotypical stand-in for the anachronism of rural places.