I can’t decide which is the best part of Laurie Penny’s endlessly quotable essay in The Baffler about Netflix’s Queer Eye series:
Queer Eye is wonderful and terrible and probably the last significant statement to be made in reality television. The show, a Netflix-produced reboot of the original, squealsome mid-aughts judge-your-jeans extravaganza, instantly launched a thousand memes when it premiered in February, and the new second season has been a huger hit than anyone expected. In a culture awash in both mawkish reality vehicles dripping with kitsch and nostalgic reboots of shows from a softer world, Queer Eye is both. It manages to exceed the sum of its parts by not actually being about what we’re told it’s about. It’s not about queerness at all. It’s actually about the disaster of heterosexuality—and what, if anything, can be salvaged from its ruins.
On the surface of things, it’s a straightforward quest for “acceptance,” supposedly of homosexuality, dramatized via the no-longer-so-outlandish vehicle of sending five gay men on an outreach mission to small-town Georgia with a vast interior design budget and a vanload of affirmations. What it turns out to be, though, is a forensic study of the rampaging crisis of American masculinity. In each new installment of the reboot, queerness is gently suggested as an antidote to the hot mess of toxic masculinity under late-stage capitalism.
Name a more iconic duo than toxic masculinity and late-stage capitalism. I’ll wait, right over here while I watch billionaires self-fund humanity’s second space race.
Oh right. Queer Eye:
The gimmick is that heterosexuality is a disaster, toxic masculinity is killing the world, and there are ways out of it aside from fascism or festering away in a lonely bedroom until you are eaten by your starving pitbull or your own insecurities. The men typically featured as the show’s reclamation projects remind me of some of the men who I see on Tinder, sitting on that touring reproduction of the Iron Throne, staring into the middle distance, while in their real lives, and certainly on Queer Eye, they sit on ugly, painful furniture, faux-leather recliners that damage their backs, couches soaked in cat urine.
Look, I have like seven paragraphs I marked to blockquote here, which might be a new record for “things that aren’t federal indictments.” I’m going to leave this last bit here and call it quits.
There is a reason straight women love this show. It’s the pornography of emotional labor.
There’s an old, bad joke where “porn for women” is supposed to involve soothing images of men doing the washing up and running around with a vacuum cleaner—the joke being, presumably, that women don’t like sex, and men don’t like cleaning, so our fantasies like theirs must also involve watching the so-called opposite sex pretend to enjoy something for our benefit. But let’s be clear: nobody is actually getting off on Queer Eye. In fact, the whole show is curiously unerotic, despite the constant on-screen presence of beautiful, charismatic men explicitly and relentlessly defined by their sexuality. The original series was far more explicit about making straight guys hotter—but the new series does exactly the same, from the inside out, there being nothing more off-putting than a man who can’t or won’t take basic care of himself, at least not for anyone who’s been down that particular road before.
There’s little I love more in life than consuming some book or movie or (gasp!) episode of reality TV, taking away some kind of meaning from it, and then learning what I could have taken away from it by reading what people who are smarter than me took away from it. I can’t say enough good things about this essay.