Queer Eye for the Straight Guy first premiered in 2003. The show featured five gay men known as the “Fab Five,” and each was an expert in an area of men’s fashion and culture. Each week, they traveled across the country to surprise straight men with a complete makeover in an effort to upgrade them. The series’ ability to blend components of high society and gay culture—the latter widely perceived as a subculture at the time—was a provocative recipe for commercial success. Overall, the format and content elevated alternate expectations for television, laying the foundation for almost two decades in which reality television reigns supreme. For better or worse, the Fab Five catapulted the profile of Bravo as a network from a programming abyss to the cultural barometer it is today.
The show sought to move gay America from the fringes of entertainment, create a space for gay tolerance, and bring the country closer to mutual understanding. I am not ashamed to admit, well maybe a smidge, that I downloaded that annoyingly addictive theme song (“All Things,” by Widelife featuring Simone Denny) to my mp3 player and even took heed to a few of the lifestyle hacks provided by the Fab Five. The jury is still out on the show’s positive impact for us as a nation and even men’s style choices. But for me, the show quickly showed itself to be devoid of flavor and full of stereotypes and clichés that did little to advance the LGBTQ community. I stopped watching after season one.
Last week, 15 years after the show first premiered, a reboot called Queer Eye launched on Netflix with a remix of “All Things” as the theme song. I had no intention of tuning in until a few friends nudged me, but I am glad that I decided to watch. Far wiser and more emotionally intelligent than round one, the new iteration is bound to sweep anyone with a pulse into a whirlwind of emotions.
I began the season with episode four, “To Gay or Not Too Gay,” simply because the novice gay is an attractive Black man and I was rooting for him (sh*t, we all should be). This episode, emblematic of the entire reboot, did not disappoint. By show’s end, I was a snot filled, slobbery mess of tears.
In the episode, hairstylist Al nominates his best friend Anthony “AJ” Brown, a civil engineer at the airport, to be coached by the new Fab Five, which is made up of specialists: Antoni Porowski (culinary), Jonathan Van Ness (grooming), Tan France (style), Karamo Brown (culture), and Bobby Berk (interior design). The uneventful opening scene is of the Fab Five swooping in at Al’s sister’s birthday party to surprise AJ with his makeover.
But I was immediately struck by the camaraderie between AJ and his friends and the Fab Five. Gone was the friendly bickering and light roasting that was a mainstay of the original series. Instead, the reboot idealizes the existence of gay community and the potential for men to speak brilliance and love into one another. It’s a game changer, given the negative stereotypes about gay Black men in Atlanta and relationships between men overall.
With the freedom of a child, 32-year-old AJ joyfully rides his bike down the hallway of his apartment building. He seems to have acquired a great home, a fulfilling profession, and the love of an equally handsome and supportive romantic partner named Drey, whom he hopes to marry. These are markers of success, societal dictates, that remain elusive for many Americans in 2018. However, we soon learn that AJ has an even fuller potential stymied by his grief following the loss of his father and a need for a reckoning between his intersecting identities: being Black, gay, and male. His trauma is potent, so much so that it seems at times he himself is unaware of his soul’s missing pieces.
It’s a game changer, given the negative stereotypes about gay Black men in Atlanta and relationships between men overall.
Al describes AJ’s home as “a man cave, because in a cave you can find a lot of different things that don’t belong.” Best friends are often able to see things clearly, and Al recognizes AJ’s presentation as a poignant metaphor for the things AJ values being in contrast to the things that are actually far more inalienably vital to his existence. AJ is not openly gay, and he admits that he dresses his life so that those who see him will not associate him with his sexuality. He carries a disdain for things that are feminine and commonly perceived as gay, hence the episode title. Al wonders aloud why AJ has a tire in his closet; AJ believes that using space precisely as it’s designed may give the impression that he is too concerned with appearances “cause that is how gay people [do].”
AJ demonstrates the complexity we all possess as humans. Tan France first describes AJ as wearing clothes “someone much older would wear,” but his closet also contains a leather belt that hints at a lighter, more flexible side to his personality. After rummaging in his closet, we find out that he is a leatherman, part of gay culture where leather is fetishized or sported as a form of kink or enjoyment.
AJ goes on to describe himself as being “one person when he is at work, another person when he is with his family, and another person all together when he is at home with himself.” His late father, a conventionally stand up guy according to AJ, had a strong influence on his worldview. But he missed the opportunity to share the inner workings of his life with his father while he walked the earth. A consistent theme in American sexuality is that if one recognizes its existence, it will inevitably cause disruption, that life is normal when sexuality is ignored but made abhorrent when it is explored. The Fab Five provide an antithesis for this ideology by helping AJ share his story with his stepmother, a strong support in his life after his father’s passing. Viewers witness AJ go through a heart-wrenching process in which he comes to a better understanding of himself and shares that self with his community.
By the end of the episode, viewers see that the intent of the show is markedly different than that of the original series. Whereas the original sought to create acceptance for gay men in America by showcasing talented gay men, the reboot seeks to create in gay men a better understanding of who they are as individuals, using culture as an instrument.
I would imagine that parents begin to dream about the life of their child the second conception becomes apparent, and many children, including LGBTQ ones, do the work of trying to live within the confines of those dreams. AJ’s insistence on presenting himself as straight was literally the effort of a boy working to fulfill the dreams of his father. The episode creates a standout moment for Netflix by showing that men can best approach those dreams by being their best, truest selves. The result is a heightened possibility for the idea of family, and humanity overall.
Bryan Epps, a Newark native, is an innovative community and institution builder.