Excerpt: ‘You Better Work’ by Dion Kagan

Image courtesy of Netflix.

“I went on a big journey with that one,” a gay man in his mid-twenties told me, referring to the reboot of Queer Eye, which was released on Netflix in February. “I went public with my disdain after episode one, and then had to walk my comments back when I watched the rest.” I knew what my friend was talking about—I’d done a version of this myself.

Publicly, I too had expressed my misgivings. I harboured residual hatefulness toward the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy from its mid-2000s heyday, not least for its appropriation of the sex-gender fluid term ‘queer’ in a television show hinged on the conceit of inexorable differences between straight and gay men. (I was at the peak of my queer theory vigilante stage. I’ve mellowed since then.) This time around, my beef was essentially with queer emotional labour exploited for the benefit of (mostly) straight male emotional cleansing; the spectacle of fabulous gays working as the devoted helpers of badly dressed (mostly) straight men. I assumed that the reboot—despite turning its eye on men playing at vulnerability—still strained under the baggage of its forerunner, and I don’t mean Louis Vuitton.

At home on the couch, though, private-me shared in the show’s heart-melting vibes with the queer people in my household. A confused hypocrite, I loved it in spite of myself. I raced through the entire season in a few days, eating up its sunny sentimentality while flicking through topless photos of dude whisperer and babe Karamo Brown, the Fab Five’s ‘culture’ expert, on Instagram. I re-watched some episodes, aware that I no longer considered the Fab Five ferreting around in a straight man’s squalid man cave, screeching about what they uncovered there, unacceptable but, rather, comforting and delightful. I joined a thread called ‘JVN Fan Club’ featuring curated highlights from Jonathan Van Ness’s social media. Jonathan is Queer Eye’s ‘grooming’ expert and the core dispenser of the show’s fiercer form of flirty queer sass. The thread can only be described as haute fabulousness.

So when my young friend reported his ambivalence, I felt like I got it. I’d nodded along while reading lists of ‘Memes you will only understand if Queer Eye makes you cry’, but I still wondered if we should let Queer Eye—in either of its iterations—off the hook. Does basking in the self-conscious ‘wokeness' and earnest pathos of the new series somehow absolve the original of its political sins, recasting it as a straightforward, unblemished object of pop nostalgia? I searched for think pieces with titles like ‘Queer Eye for the Woke Guy’, hoping they’d teach me something about queer emotional labour and why seeing it deployed in aid of sad men momentarily throwing off the shackles of toxic masculinity made me feel a tiny moment of comfort amid a bleak world. It was all just so damn complicated.

In ‘What About Me?', published in The Monthly in 2006, journalist and social commentator Anne Manne identified a culture-wide epidemic of narcissism. Gathering a range of media trends, everyday behaviours, social and political dispositions, Manne’s essay reckoned with the alleged psychosocial malaise of our times: the “increasingly common syndrome [of] the everyday malignant narcissist who has their very own cult of personality... [a syndrome in which] the self has expanded so as to occupy all of consciousness... This is the disorder of an age,” she wrote, “where a self-regarding individualism has seen the self triumph as the measure of all good.”

Commentators of various stripes have described this phenomenon at least as far back as Tom Wolfe’s 1976 New York Magazine cover article ‘The “Me" Decade and the Third Great Awakening’. Three years later came Christopher Lasch’s seminal book on the topic, The Culture of Narcissism, a paean to a lost type of robust individual in the twentieth-century capitalist media age. Lasch, a moral commentator and historian, diagnosed the adoption of an infantilising, therapeutic sensibility: a way of being that undermined agency, self-sufficiency, and individual initiative. In particular, Lasch identified Hollywood, the information age, and the rise of television as sources of this ailment; the influence of these each encouraged people to adopt a narcissistic personality structure, signs of which included a dread of ageing, a fear of commitment, difficulty forging lasting relationships, and a relentless fascination with celebrity and fame.

Manne’s Monthly essay echoed aspects of Lasch’s diagnosis several decades later. For Manne, signs of the alarming narcissism “deeply woven" into our culture included the growing number of self-help books for dealing with the narcissistic boss, the narcissistic co-worker, the narcissistic lover, parent or child. A skewering of narcissistic personality traits among some of the “sharpest observers” in contemporary comedy was another telling sign: Ricky Gervais’s David Brent in The Office; Chris Lilley’s private school “hottie,” Jam’ie, a “brilliant creation,” upon whom “the eyes of Middle Australia, one sensed, were riveted with a certain amount of appalled recognition.” These examples pointed to a society “marked by a radical individualism obsessed with the self... a self on display, measured by externals and appearance, in pursuit of success and material prosperity more than care for others, of popularity and notice more than respect.”

As an example of an increasingly prevalent reality TV formula revelling unapologetically in this self-obsession, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was another of Manne’s targets. She first mentioned the series to develop this now familiar critique of the lifestyle makeover show as a fantasy of aspirational self-transformation, a project of self-betterment characterised by shopping, grooming, renovating, and other conspicuous forms of consumption. There is something quasi-spiritual about these shows, she argued:

The language of morality, of rebirth and transformation of the self, is a striking theme... The tone, too, is upbeat, even elated. In Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the exuberant Fab Five, High Priests of the Consumer Culture, discover a straight guy who just doesn’t Get It, someone who has let himself go: a bit hopeless, a bit fat, with a decade-old hairstyle. They descend fast. Their mission of mercy is urgent. They run up the stairs, burst through the door on the Drab One, rifle through his things, gasp over poor colour schemes, decry his personal hygiene. There is a lot of rubbish to get rid of—the sad detritus of a life not lived well—and not a moment to lose...

At the end, when the beard is shaved off, the hair is freshly cut and the oral hygiene attended to, the curtain is lifted. A new self emerges from the chrysalis. A better self. When the made-over person is unveiled... there is... applause, weeping... “Oh, my god!” they say, over and over, as if a purifying ritual has just been performed. A soul has been renovated.

Manne returned to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy later in the essay, this time more enigmatically, to single out one image from the show that “bothered her”:

It was the image of Carson [Kressley] skipping down a road. Skipping is the gesture of an elated child. But what could be wrong with elation? Or, for that matter, our present love affair with all those upbeat emotions; all that positive energy bouncing around?

What was it about this sight that so bothered Manne? How did this particular image of an ecstatic, enthusiastic homosexual become the troubling emblem of the new culture-wide narcissism? Carson Kressley, with his signature camp presentation, was the Fab Five member who became the most famous and most enduring celebrity from the show. He continued as a pedagogue of learning-to-self-love in the American remake of the British series How to Look Good Naked, and then Carson Nation, on the industrial home of popular therapy culture, the Oprah Winfrey Network. How did this kind of gay man—arbiter of intimate and outward forms of self-styling, but also childlike (facile? superficial?)—come to personify the misguided spirits of an entire age?

One of the problems with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was that, in it, popular culture had concocted the most crass and unapologetic example yet of the helpful homosexual whose job it was to patch up the crumbling façade of heterosexual romance. Hollywood and TV had already trawled out such figures en masse during the nineties: hairdressers, wedding planners, and sassy gay best friends whose presence was worth tolerating in exchange for the minor social services they performed: art directing and renovating the dysfunctional, decrepit corners of the straight world.

Though it has a much longer history, potentially stretching back to the invention of modern homosexuality itself, this kind of social role for gay men became especially conspicuous around the turn of the century. In the nineties, gay men had small, sentimental roles in the marriage plots of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), The Birdcage (1996), and My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) where they acted as aids to the advancement of heterosexual romance. Before they began demanding weddings of their own, gay men in popular culture were outspoken campaigners for the future of the family, sidekicks and chaperones to the likes of Julia Roberts and other post-feminist heroines who needed to reorient their misdirected priorities away from their careers and back toward domestic bliss. By the time Queer Eye for the Straight Guy rolled around in 2003, we already understood that to art-direct a floral arrangement or organise a raucous hens party was a specific kind of helpful role reserved for gay men, one among a slim range of roles that could justify his social participation.

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #38. Grab your copy here.

Dion Kagan is a regular host on culture podcast The Rereaders and his book, Positive Images, is published by I B Tauris.