photo courtesy of netflix
Television / Culture

The Problematic Lens of Queer Eye

The latest mini-season of the hit Netflix show Queer Eye follows the beloved Fab Five to Tokyo, Japan with the mission of, as the show’s description puts it, “bring[ing] the message of self-care and compassion to Japanese men and women while exploring the country’s rich culture and cuisine.” Though the writers likely intended to suggest that the cast engages in both of these aims concurrently, the secondary meaning of the conjunction “while” (that is, to indicate a contrast rather than a time period) inadvertently evokes the ways in which these two objectives are at odds. 

The Fab Five’s role as heralds of western ideals of liberal empowerment, an ethos crammed full of “self-care” and “compassion,” clashes with their professed intention of authentically exploring another culture; in fact, it precludes it. The second episode of the season exemplifies the ignorant, culturally-tone-deaf behavior of the Fab Five, by which their show is rendered an exercise in exclusion and imperialism rather than diversity and acceptance. 

While this particular season has received a sprinkling of criticism, Queer Eye itself has generally been met with enthusiastic acclaim. Boasting a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the show has mostly escaped disparagement or “cancelling” and is widely held as an exemplar of enlightened self-improvement ethos. For the most part, any problematic dynamics have been overlooked by the public, and the Fab Five have largely not been held accountable for their flawed execution of an ostensibly positive mission.

This disconnect between public response and actual content highlights the ways in which the Fab Five’s superficial commitment to diversity and visibility masks the problematic dynamics of the show. This facade is supported by the notion of the show’s origin as an improvement on a less-progressive predecessor. Netflix’s Queer Eye finds its roots in the 2003 Bravo series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which featured five white cisgender men offering makeovers for their hapless straight counterparts, most of whom were also white. When Netflix rolled out the first season of the rebooted Queer Eye in February 2018, it was read as a more progressive, inclusive improvement on the original, advancing an enlightened portrayal of LGBTQ culture unconstrained by the previous narrow framework. The show signaled its commitment to minority representation by introducing a Black man, a Pakistani man, and a white non-binary individual to the cast, injecting new perspectives into a space that was previously overwhelmingly white and cisgender. Cast member Tam France articulates the show’s apparent ideological shift in the opening mission statement: “The original show was about fighting for tolerance. Our fight is for acceptance.” The show has indeed been altered from its conception, but whether or not it actually advocates for such an all-encompassing, warm embrace of difference is another matter. 

The mini-season We’re in Japan! sees the addition of another member to the central entourage. Kiko Mizuhara, a well-known Japanese model, is invited to serve as a “culture guide” for the Fab Five as they navigate the foreign streets of Japan. The addition of Mizuhara seems suggestive of the show’s desire to sensitively and authentically engage with the Japanese culture. Yet the gesture is a superficial one. Closer analysis reveals that the inclusion of Mizuhara is aligned very little with an authentic commitment to visibility and instead stems from a more shallow pursuit of viewership. 

As the second episode opens, Kiko Mizuhara invites the Fab Five to Shinjuku Ni-Chome, Tokyo’s biggest queer neighborhood, to enjoy cocktails at a legendary gay bar. Asked if she is “fully immersed in the gay scene out here,” Mizuhura responds with a resounding yes. “Nobody really cares who I am,” she explains. “I can be fully, just like, you know, having fun. And this place only plays good disco music, which is my favorite.” Light-skinned, thin, and attractive, Mizuhara  enjoys significant popularity both in Japan and the U.S. The gay bar offers her a space to enjoy herself with anonymity, a rare experience for a celebrity. Yet this singular experience need not bear any resemblance to the motives of the bar’s typical patrons, for whom Shinjuku Ni-Chome is a home base for many milestones in the history of Japan’s LGBT community. 

As a cisgender heterosexual woman, Mizuhara engages in the Japanese gay culture merely as a spectator; her penchant for disco music and chattiness only gains her superficial membership and does not qualify her for making insights into the LGBT experience. While Japanese queers frequent the neighborhood as a source of community and belonging, Mizuhara appropriates the space for carefree recreation. Yet she alone is offered a platform to speak on the LGBT community’s collective experience, to the exclusion of those who actually live it. Her singular, distinctly unrelatable celebrity experience is inexplicably held up as the audience’s as well as the cast’s insight into a culture in which she only engages as a spectator. 

While the show touts queer visibility as paramount to the gay community, here it privileges the voice of a cisgender heterosexual woman to the exclusion of the many queer Japanese that would be able to offer an authentic viewpoint on the issues the Fab Five purport to “explore.” That the forthcoming “exploration” is tainted by imperialism and inauthenticity should not come as a surprise. 

Each Queer Eye episode features a distinct makeover subject, dubbed its “hero” on the show’s Wikipedia page. The show has included a variety of “heroes”, but common themes include indolent men unable to take responsibility for themselves, destructively selfless do-gooders, and timid LGBTQ people whom the Fab Five implore to “let their freak flag fly.” The second episode of We’re in Japan! falls into the final category, featuring a gay Tokyo resident named Kan as its “hero.” The episode’s introductory montage displays a quiet, somber-looking Kan riding the subway to work, clad in basic business attire. Once home, he rifles through his nearly colorless wardrobe, picking out but one solitary Beyoncé shirt, a kernel of hope for his inner gay pride. Bashful and unassuming, Kan is ripe for the Fab Five’s personality overhaul. 

As the Fab Five rush exuberantly into Kan’s studio apartment (they have to awkwardly yell to get his attention as Kan sorts through his closet with his earbuds in), the makeover quickly begins to unfold. One element the show seems unable to shake from its predecessor is the condescension of the makeover team, which, although perhaps toned down in later seasons, still situates the “hero” in a subordinate, vaguely degrading position. The snarky jibes typical of makeover shows such as What Not to Wear and Extreme Weight Loss still lurk in the Fab Five’s overbearing, steamrolling demeanor, as they snicker at Kan’s makeshift vision board and comically trip over his futon. Now their patronizing demeanor is tinged with cultural imperialism, an increasingly problematic dynamic of which they seem thoroughly unaware. Their treatment of Kan’s bed is emblematic of their lack of cultural literacy and over-eagerness to impose western ideals of comfort. Bobby, the design expert, stares quizzically at Kan’s futon, then grabs the mattress and flops down on it with abandon. “Is this what he sleeps on?” he muses incredulously. “Not comfortable.” The futon is the Japanese traditional style of bedding that dates back to the 18th century. Its low, pliable mattress is designed to be efficiently rolled up and stowed when not in use, an optimal design for Kan’s small apartment. On the shopping run that follows, Bobby replaces the futon with a sofa bed, assuring a wary but earnest Kan that “this will be better!” Bobby’ remarks are culturally tone-deaf and shamelessly imperialist. He equates self-help with westernization and erases the Japanese culture with every subtle “improvement.” 

Antoni engages in similar behavior when he critiques Kan’s traditional Japanese minimalist kitchen, snidely telling him it “isn’t the most adventurous kitchen.” “Kan’s kitchen doesn’t give me very much to judge because there isn’t very much in it,” Antoni deadpans in his interview. “There’s one pan, one pot, oh, and of course, some frozen rice in the freezer.” Apparently oblivious to the cultural subtext of his snarky comments, Antoni does not stop once to appreciate Kan’s culture before steamrolling him with critiques, using a western framework that devalues the Japanese culture he purports to explore.

As the Fab Five go about their makeover, the hero’s backstory and life experiences are typically explored as part of their quest to self-fulfillment. In Kan’s case, this backstory is actually problematically foregrounded in a way that showcases the show’s Eurocentric demeanor. Kan has a long-distance boyfriend, Tom, whom he met while studying abroad in London. Beyond his being British and in a relationship with Kan, we know very little about Tom, yet he comes up invariably in discussions ostensibly focused on Kan. Antoni mentions Kan’s boyfriend almost immediately when lecturing him on the importance of being able to cook. “Does Tom like Japanese cuisine?” he inquires. “Is it hard to feed him when he’s here? What do you make for him?” Kan’s self-discovery is framed such that he is striving towards being a suitable partner for Tom, rather than becoming more self-sufficient or physically healthy. Antoni imperiously inundates Kan with the importance of learning about his “homeland,” teaching him to make a traditional Japanese dish and cocktail, all with the purpose of being able to “show up for [Tom],” so that “when Tom comes, he feel[s] taken care of.” He places the Asian man and his culture at the service of the white European, entirely disregarding Kan’s journey as an individual. Additionally, Tom is constantly elevated above Kan in conversation despite the Fab Five’s lack of familiarity with him. “That’s real love,” they chuckle after hearing that Tom is learning Japanese to better communicate with his partner, a fairly basic endeavor. In contrast, Kan’s expert fluency in both Japanese and English is never commented on. At the culminating dinner in which Kan introduces Tom to his family, the cast coos over Tom’s dedication after he staggers through a few poorly pronounced words in Japanese to Kan’s mother. The bar is unimaginably low for the white westerner, while Asians are expected to know multiple languages in addition to English, reinforcing a problematic double standard interracial couples face constantly.   

The structure of Queer Eye is such that each cast member is a designated “expert” in some area. Antoni’s specialty is food and wine, Tan is the fashion expert, Karamo takes culture and lifestyle, Bobby’s expertise is in design, and Jonathan’s specialty is “grooming.” Over the course of each episode, each cast member takes some time alone with the hero to pick their brain for their inner emotional turmoil while, of course, working in how it can be bettered by their particular expertise. The dissonance here is painfully palpable. Watching Bobby pick out tableware and expound upon cool and warm colors and then launch into his analysis of Kan’s sense of alienation in Japan (“you control your happiness,” he delivers with a self-satisfied grin, as if one could simply decide not to be affected by constant persecution) without missing a beat is almost laughable. It speaks to the show’s greater misunderstanding of self-actualization and social oppression as somehow founded on aesthetic. “Guys, our mission this week [is to] show Kan there’s no reason to be fearful when you are flawless,” Jonathan proclaims at the start of the episode. This aesthetic quest for “flawlessness” is interspersed with deluges of self-care and self-help logic, making the gross assumption that a better haircut and some new clothes along with the mandate to “control your happiness” will somehow reverse the cultural messages of homophobia and racism with which Kan is bombarded regularly. 

The show problematically portrays aesthetic improvement and self-fulfillment as closely intertwined, a poisonous notion that thoroughly pervades every facet of Kan’s makeover. Every member of the Fab Five, indeed, the very premise of the show reinforces this horrifically reductive logic that suggests that internal struggles, even systemic oppression, can be solved with their superficial “expertise”. Once again, Queer Eye is encumbered by its problematic predecessors, adhering to the same harmful logic of self-help advocated by weight loss shows when they force embarrassed people onto treadmills and scales under the guise of some comprehensive form of therapy. Sure, a redesigned apartment and a new wardrobe may boost your quality of life, but it is a superficial solution for deeper societal problems. To uphold a superficial makeover as a panacea to life’s ills is at best oversimplified and at worst deeply insulting for those who experience prejudice on a daily basis. 

One of the most poignant moments of the episode takes place when Karamo introduces Kan to the internet celebrity Kodo Nishimura, a gay Buddhist monk and makeup artist. After Nishimura explains his experience prevailing against homophobia and choosing to dress the way he likes, he allows Kan to elaborate on his own suffering. Kan talks about his experience studying abroad in London, where he faced significant anti-Asian sentiment. He describes dating apps in which people will list the condition “no Asians” among their preferences. When he confided in members of the Japanese community, Kan explains, they called him okama, a homophobic slur comparable to “fag.” Kan breaks down in tears in what is a truly devastating scene. “It’s a simple phrase, but after hearing that, I felt like everything I’d built crumbled at that moment.” 

Kodo hardly bats an eye as Kan expresses his agony, and while Karamo comforts him with the vaguely helpful statement “you don’t deserve to experience that,” neither of them denounce or even make the slightest condemnation of the appalling homophobia and racism Kan described. Instead, they direct the advice to Kan and his insufficient “self-love.” “Those things you’re saying, I’ve heard them too,” Karamo insists. “About my dark skin.” Rather than validating Kan’s experience as nuanced, he redirects the conversation to his own struggle and collapses the difference in experiences among queer people of color. He then launches into a simplistic, insulting advice session that forces Kan to take responsibility for his own oppression: “I still have to tell myself: Someone may not like me, but I like myself. I love myself.” Here Karamo makes the gross misunderstanding of racism and homophobia as simple “dislike,” as if someone had gotten to know Kan and decided he wasn’t funny enough or enjoyable enough to be around. The idea that that the simple act of saying “I like myself” will somehow reverse all the internalized homophobia and racism with which Kan has been and continues to be inundated is hugely insulting and borders on victim blaming. After opening his heart to these people, Kan is beaten over the head with western self-help logic that minimizes his suffering and fails to even acknowledge the injustice of the prejudice he experiences, becoming complicit in the racism and homophobia he describes. 

Late in the episode, Antoni sits Kan down for dinner at a traditional Japanese yakitori restaurant, reminding the camera once again how important it is that Kan be “educated about his homeland.” His role as the show’s culinary “expert” seems to override any sense of humility or cultural consciousness that might be appropriate in light of his own lack of familiarity with Kan’s “culture” – he speaks to Kan as if he were a juvenile entirely unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine rather than a Japanese native and adult. As the two sit down to try the traditional Japanese dish, Antoni initiates one of the most cringeworthy and ignorant exchanges of the episode. “Do you know what nanakorobi yaoki means?” he inquires of a smiling Kan, stumbling through the Japanese proverb with a clumsy American accent. The irony of a foreigner explaining the meaning of a Japanese phrase to a native speaker is apparently lost on Antoni, who proceeds to appropriate this idiom as his own teaching to Kan. It means you’re trying to “find yourself,” he preaches smugly. 

Antoni then invites Kan to speak on his struggle to become a “proud gay man” – invoking this western idea of “pride” as a universal ideal. Kan poignantly describes his internal battle for self-confidence when confronted with the homophobia that still pervades Japan, mentioning the judgmental voices of others that cause him to “slip back into panic mode.” Antoni does not even stop to validate Kan’s pain or condemn these voices—he politely disagrees. “But, the more comfortable we are with ourselves…the better we can walk in public and just keep our head up and not have to walk in shame,” Antoni insists. “Because the voices are always going to be there.” His preachy, simplistic tirade on self-confidence signals a complacency with homophobia and fails to recognize the nuance of Kan’s experience and the ways in which it differs from Antoni’s own struggle against homophobia in his home country of Canada. In Japan, LGBT people still face discrimination at home, at work, in education, and in access to health services, as described in a report by Amnesty International. Whereas in Canada, LGBT rights are some of the most advanced in the Americas and in the world. Being “out and proud” in a country whose politicians and government officials still make explicitly homophobic statements in public versus in a country frequently referred to as one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world are two very different matters, yet Antoni applies his simplistic model of inner confidence to Kan’s wholly separate and likely more difficult struggle. Once again, he sticks so rigidly to his role as an “expert” that he insensitively overlooks cross-cultural difference and offers patronizing advice rooted in his own singular experience. His behavior is a prime example of the Fab Five’s failure to truly “explore [Japan’s] rich culture and cuisine,” so blinded are they by their assumed role as heralds of a universally beneficial ethos of empowerment. 

Perhaps the most problematic rhetoric of the show is perpetrated by Jonathan, the show’s “grooming expert.” While giving Kan a haircut, he inquires about the “hero’s” feeling of alienation in Japan. Kan responds with an insightful description of the ways in which homophobia is quietly and systematically enacted in Japan. “People don’t directly say things to you in Japan. But there are rules and you obey them. If you don’t, then you’ll become socially singled out.” The social ostracization that Kan describes is no small matter. Yet Jonathan’s proffered solution follows the same pattern as Karamo and Antoni’s, minimizing Kan’s struggle and spewing reductive self-help logic. He discusses the importance of visibility—a hypocritical premise, since the show foregoes queer visibility shamelessly in foregrounding Kiko Mizuhara—then devolves into the most harmful and explicit articulation of their flawed reasoning yet. 

“By you living in your truth, you make it easier…for other people to live in their truth,” Jonathan explains. “Because it’s never the situation. It’s always your reaction.” Just as Karamo insists that Kan’s pain at being called homophobic slurs and racially discriminated against can be solved by choosing to say “I like myself,” Jonathan makes the appalling assertion that Kan’s suffering as a Japanese homosexual is not the fault of the deeply homophobic, racist societies in which he engages, but rather stems from Kan’s inability to “react” adequately—that is, to become the beanie-wearing, flag-waving proud gay man that the Fab Five exemplify. Jonathan expands on this appalling ideology to further cement it in self-help purgatory: “It’s never Tokyo. That’s not the issue. The issue is Kan’s reaction to Kan in Tokyo.” The level of ignorance and lack of self-awareness that would justify telling someone that a homophobic culture is “never…the issue” causing them suffering but rather is self-created is absolutely inconceivable. Jonathan casts Kan’s unhappiness as his own fault, the result of his inability to conform to a loud, western model of being out. He situates the problem within the individual and absolves the culture that unjustly persecutes them. Rather than advocating for social change or suggesting that current models need shifting—or even giving the slightest indication that he disapproves of the rampant homophobia present in Japan—Jonathan inundates Kan with the patronizing logic that once he decides to love himself rather than weep pathetically, he’ll be content no matter how homophobic his home country is. 

His final piece of advice is the nail in the coffin: “And you can kind of get a little bit of the freedom that you felt in London and Vancouver…blow your hair out a little bit bigger, you know?” Latent in the “makeover” enacted by each member of the Fab Five is the suggestion that a gay person’s lack of comfort is the result of their own failure to “glam up.” Get flattering black wallpaper, learn to cook, and blow your hair out, the show seems to say. Then you’ll feel accepted as a gay person, maybe even be able to hold your partner’s hand no matter how overtly prejudiced your hometown. This understanding of homophobia and racism as simple meanness whose impacts can be solved with face cream, new clothes, and the simple decision to love yourself is almost as problematic as the homophobia and racism which it discusses, and in no way does it productively critique these forces to create social change. 

Despite the flaws I outlined, many of which pervade the show’s earlier seasons as well, Queer Eye has enjoyed overwhelming approval from members of my generation in particular. Admittedly, I too am endeared by the affable, outspoken “fabulous” five and their escapades to give hapless individuals “more than a makeover.” Their advice is often superficially sound, and the compulsion to applaud these adorable individuals and their “heroes” is a strong one. Yet something strikes a sickening chord as I watch the Antoni implore the quiet, earnest Kan to “be more of a maestro,” as I see Karamo tear down his homemade vision board. The problematic dynamics of the show are all the more dangerous for their benign appearance, and to accept this show as an enlightened iteration of self-help is to be complicit in its regressive, harmful discourse. The pretension of inclusion and acceptance is a mere façade over this ghastly cocktail of reductive self-help logic and aesthetic upgrades, making it even more dangerous than the makeover shows that never claim to be more than what they are. It is unsurprising that these people who cast themselves as “experts” fall into problematic pitfalls when they head to Japan to enlighten the hapless Asian man and self-righteously inundate him with a narrow paradigm of sexual identity.  Perhaps the show never really departed from its regressive origins, just added a façade of acceptance and an eagerness to solve the problems of others that absolved them from reflecting upon the problems that may lurk within.