The new sixth season reveals an even more self aware show about universal love.
“See, liberals can be fun,” Jonathan Van Ness cheekily quips as the Fab Five wash a cowboy’s hair for what seems like the first time in a very long time in a new episode of Netflix’s Emmy-winning LGBTQ hit, Queer Eye. It’s a moment reminiscent to Bravo’s original Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, a show in which the main conceit was fabulous queer men making over a slovenly straight man; the gays help the straight become less encumbered by toxic masculinity, and the straight person, awash with gratitude, decides not to be a homophobe anymore. It was a revolutionary show for 2003, but like most things, within its time capsule, it had its problems. In hindsight, the show mildly perpetuated stereotypes, and it could be criticized as fetishizing, othering and mocking — but that doesn’t negate the show as a pioneer of queer representation. And thankfully, the Fab Five of Antoni, Jonathan, Tan, Karamo and Bobby, who picked up the torch in 2018 for Netflix’s rebrand, have brought the show up to speed. Now, instead of the early 2000s’ messaging of “we can all get along,” the sentiment feels more like “we can all accept each other for who we are” — a subtle but poignant difference. In 2022, it is a message that is as heartwarming as it is powerful, making the show far more than makeover reality TV.
What the new Queer Eye also changes dramatically is the type of people that they help — this iteration broadens the scope to include literally anyone, even a group of economically challenged teens trying to throw a prom in the pandemic. It seems like an obvious update, but it truly is indicative of their message of acceptance. It proves that they’re not asking anyone to justify or explain who they are, or why they deserve help. That’s the beauty of the new Queer Eye, especially this new season (which all takes place in Texas), in which there are many moments where other shows would have probably stooped to awkward identity conversation — asking a teen if he’s gay, or a high school teacher if they are non-binary, or making a young transgender woman painstakingly discuss her transition. Instead, the Fab Five simply allow their new friends to open up about whatever feels comfortable, but never directly asking them to define themselves by society’s standards. They ask them what they want, not who they are — because one doesn’t need to justify the other.
That doesn’t mean they don’t cover important topics on identity — but they don’t overproduce them for television. In the same aforementioned episode, the cowboy, whose name is Josh, initially bristles at the Fab Five’s help. He lets them know that he’s a conservative Republican, and the usual slapstick intro where they pick through what they have to work with, is instead an uncomfortable moment where they’re not sure if they should leave. Tan finally nips it and asks, “Are we feeling like we can make this work? We’re going to understand who we are? We’re going to understand each other?” But then he also makes the point to ask the rest of the Fab Five if they’re feeling good about the job too. Everyone agrees to progress, and what unfolds is an endearing, genuine moment of growth for all of them — especially after Jonathan explains non-binary gender identity to Josh, and Josh says he hopes to be their “first Republican friend.” None of it would have happened if they hadn’t all just let each other be who they were without forcing some metrosexual change, or brow beating him for homophobic ignorance.
There are other moments that make this season feel like something special, because of the show’s willingness to celebrate the truly wide variety of people that make up the real world. A woman who works with autistic children doesn’t want to change her hair too drastically for fear of the reaction her students might have; Jonathan’s embrace of the assignment feels like growth, since the vibe of the original show was to transform people no matter what because the gays know best. Another person who runs a foundation to provide shelter for the unhoused wants to have green hair, and Jonathan confirms that there’s nothing unprofessional about that, but that he might be using it to hide from other things. Tan is consistently doing the lord’s work in helping people who are terrified of changing the way they dress realize that subtle clothing changes can make you feel like a more confident person. His directness is also a joy as he knowingly pushes racks of clothing at people that are perfectly curated with things that won’t be too abrasive of a change.
Antoni, as usual, is doing the least in just making sure people can cook at least one dish for themselves, but the charm and heart that he does it with makes him just as important. Bobby continues to do the most by completely making over spaces, with the utmost attention to both functionality and personal touches. But it’s Karamo who really shines this season, having truly stepped into his role as less of a cultural guru and more of a therapist. He’s not just showing people what an art gallery is anymore — he’s helping them open up about what holds them back. One stellar moment is when he redefines coming out as queer with Angel, a vibrant 22-year-old trans woman who the Fab Five are helping. He says, “I don’t subscribe to the word ‘coming out’ because the act is actually letting someone in. And when you say ‘coming out,’ you’re actually giving the other person the power to reject or deny you.” That kind of sums up the season — no more rejection or denial, henny.
Queer Eye has been a sensation since it debuted in 2018. Its saccharine queerness felt like an antidote to our scary times. The show catapulted the Fab Five to megastardom, while also launching a million memes about everyone joint crying to the moving episodes. But in the now six seasons since their debut, with a few special episodes as well, they could have easily jumped the shark. The meaningful cry sessions of acceptance after completing the makeover process could have devolved back into cartoonish makeover television. But this season has proved that Queer Eye is going to continue to elevate. They’re not just making over someone’s life; they’re allowing people to learn to accept and love themselves by accepting and loving them through the process, and demanding the same in return. Ultimately there will always be the appeal of the reveal of a before and after on the show, because as Jennifer Coolidge said in Single All The Way, “The gays just know how to do stuff.” But what they’re proving this season more than knowing what boot looks good with a dress, or how to optimize bathroom storage; they know how to just let people be themselves— but just with a little bit of help.