Netflix releases season 2 on June 15. We’re still not sure what a culture expert is, but could Karamo Brown and all the Fab Five please give America a makeover?
The “culture” expert on Queer Eye has always been the most dubious of the show’s makeover gurus. On the Netflix reboot, which hit screens — small, tiny, and the ones that fit in your pocket — in February and returns June 15, culture expert Karamo Brown took the job to a whole new low. He spent most of the series doing what he loves best: wearing shiny satin bomber jackets and trying to stay out of the way of the more skilled professionals working around him.
He did have a moment, though, in the third episode of season one. The Fab Five were making over Cory, a cop whose penchant for wearing costumes to NASCAR events should be a diagnostic category in the DSM-5. While Cory and Karamo were trapped in traffic, Karamo got to talk to him about the Black Lives Matter movement and the fear he has of police. Cory talked about what it was like to see all cops vilified. Both got to share their points of view and come to a place of understanding and acceptance they might not have gained otherwise.
Karamo got another such moment in the next episode, when the boys were making over a gay man, AJ, who had yet to come out to his family. He and Karamo got to have a talk about what it’s like to be Black and gay in America and, well, it was so intense it made my eyes pour water like Niagara Falls after a hurricane.
Karamo isn’t the only one having these moments of understanding with the men they’re making over. Designer Bobby Berk talked to a devout Christian, also Bobby (no relation), about how growing up gay in the church was very hard on him. Stylist Tan France commiserated with subject Neal about the difficulties of dealing with the expectations of South Asian parents. Hair maestro and outspoken queen Jonathan Van Ness had to convince Tom in the premiere that being ugly is a state of mind. Chef Antoni? Well, he mostly made grilled cheese and looked good, but he did try to teach someone a lesson about how hard it is to wear a Speedo in Mykonos while sporting a six pack, and I’m sure that was very hard for him.
But after all these moments it became clear that Queer Eye is no longer a makeover show; it’s a connection show. When it first sashayed onto Bravo as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in 2003, we were deep in the second Bush administration in a pre-marriage-equality world. The original Fab Five were on a charm offensive showing the world that gay men can be useful because we are witty, have taste and won’t actually try to push the Gay Agenda or convert your children with reruns of Bewitched when you’re not looking.
The four seasons of the original show were all about turning the scrubby shlubs in the square states into card-carrying metrosexuals, convincing them along the way that gays are people too. This time around it’s different. With our rights further along and acceptance of LGBTQ+ higher than ever, the new Fab Five are on a different mission, not one for gay people but as emissaries of the urban elite to the rest of the country.
We could argue the Obama years didn’t need Queer Eye, with all the hope he ushered into the country and Michelle Obama’s toned arms doing the heavy lifting for diversity. But as we plunge into the divisive project of “making American great again,” the divide between the red and blue states feels deeper than ever. Taking five gay men from cities around the country and plopping them down in Georgia was a bold move. It’s less about finding jeans that fit or introducing those with a Y chromosome to water-soluble pomade, and more about forging healing bonds.
The new Queer Eye is actually about bridging the divide. It’s about creating those moments where emissaries of the “fake media” culture of the big cities can go into more conservative areas and find common ground. It’s about showing their subjects that their way of life isn’t all about stealing their guns and forcing political correctness down their throats. In turn their subjects teach the Fab Five, and by extension America, that their way of life isn’t all alt-right rallies and pussy grabbing.
The country has been further and further politically divided for the past decade and now we have a reality show, of all things, bringing us back together. Queer Eye can teach you a lot of skills, like how to make sangria, the proper way to apply cologne, or the importance of a well-placed area rug. But that is really secondary to the real skill they’re teaching us: if we want to change people’s minds, we have to start by listening and sharing a moment. Damn, Karamo might’ve been worth it all along.