Queer Eye: Representation without tokenization

Tuesday, August 7, 2018 - 2:40pm

Queer Eye

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Courtesy of New York Post

The Netflix reboot of “Queer Eye” has quickly become a standout among the bevy of reality TV shows are broadcasted in the U.S. Based on a show by the same name that aired from 2003 to 2007, the Netflix series follows five gay men, each with a different area of expertise, who “make over” a different person each episode. It boasts a 93 percent rating by critics and an average audience score of 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. In addition, the show recently scored four Emmy nominations and was renewed for a highly anticipated third season.

As an avid fan myself, I’ve found perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the show is its inclusivity, which is unlike the typical vapid, superficial scraps of diversity often claimed by shows that decide to cast one or two Black people in offensively stereotypical roles. As an Asian American woman, there are many times when I find myself disappointed by the media’s half-hearted attempts to “be inclusive.” However, “Queer Eye” turned out to be a pleasant surprise because it has a diverse, representative cast without the tokenization that frequently underlies most media attempts to promote “diversity.”

Even without examining the series’s inclusivity, it’s not difficult to see why the show is so loved by its audience. The new “Fab Five” consists of five fresh faces whose charms and tangibly sizzling team dynamic is hard to ignore. There’s Jonathan Van Ness, the quirky and unapologetically exuberant hairdresser; Antoni Porowski, the food and wine expert with an enviable collection of graphic tees and an insatiable need to smell everything; Bobby Berk, the interior designer whose home decorating prowess creates heart palpitation-inducing results; Tan France, the fashionista whose style is as immaculate as his perfectly arched brows; and Karamo Brown, the life coach who has the uncanny ability to help people spill their hearts out to him in an inordinately short amount of time. On the surface, the show is a feel-good guilty pleasure valuable only for reality TV show junkies.

However, the Fab Five all hail from different backgrounds, which adds an intriguing tone to the show. France is a Muslim British man of Pakistani descent while Porowski is Polish-Canadian and multilingual. Brown is a Black single father to two sons and, like Berk, grew up deeply religious in the South. Van Ness is from the Midwest and has a flair for politics that somehow both contrasts and perfectly complements his vivacious personality.

With shows such as “Queer Eye” whose entire premise relies heavily on one aspect of its casts’ identity (in this case, their sexual orientation), it’s easy to create a false sense of representation that caters to audiences looking to check off the “inclusive” box on their list of items that make a show unproblematic. It’s also easy to simply gather a cast of individuals with marginalized identities and stop — usually, this is enough to quell any criticism about a show’s inclusivity, even when such choices reek of tokenization.

“Queer Eye” is different in that it presents a safe space for its cast to bond over their shared characteristic — their sexuality — and thus use that bond as a base for them to also connect through their differences. None of the men are ever prompted to “talk about their struggles” or “fight against” stereotypes. Instead, each member gets to showcase his own individuality without the weight of having their identities unwillingly exploited. When the Fab Five do decide to open up, it happens naturally because of the low-pressure environment created by the seemingly frivolous basis of the show.

In the Season 1 episode titled “Dega Don’t,” Brown and the receiver of the Fab Five’s efforts, former Marine Cory Waldrop, who is currently a cop, have a conversation about the harrowing effects of police brutality on both Black people and police officers worried about being tarred with the same brush as their racist peers. While the clip of the conversation is short, it’s heartfelt and both men clearly have respect for each other. Furthermore, Waldrop revealed in June that he still speaks regularly with Brown. It’s clear their discussion left a lasting, positive impact on both of them.

In the episode “Saving Sasquatch,” France and makeover guest Neal Reddy connect over their respective Pakistani and Indian backgrounds when France spots Reddy’s dowry suitcase. This prompts France to then speak about some Pakistani marriage traditions in the subsequent interview clip. While these are only two moments in the two-season series, such scenes exemplify the way in which the cast communicates to the audience that keeps their identities from being forgotten or invalidated while still feeling organic. As a result, the cast is able to simply be themselves rather than whitewashed characters, tokenized caricatures or stereotypes.

Another reason why “Queer Eye” is able to strike that perfect balance between a tone of diversity and solidarity with its cast is due to the chemistry that exists between the cast members — they all seem to be best friends. They constantly interact with each other on social media and are all affectionate with each other in a way that doesn’t suggest there’s an odd man left out. Furthermore, while fans might have a cast favorite, each of the Fab Five members has a distinctive personality that prevents them from becoming lost in the group. The cast members are not referred to by fans with vague descriptions that tokenize them as “the Black one” or “the Muslim one,” which is what tends to happen when a famous figure is not a white, heterosexual man. No, they are Jonathan, Antoni, Bobby, Tan and Karamo.

As I patiently wait for season three to come out, I hope that people look to “Queer Eye” as an example of a show that demonstrates it is possible to simultaneously promote differences and unity in a comfortable, non-exploitative way on a public platform. The series’s seemingly silly premise of providing makeovers masquerades what it really is: a genius, socially forward show that challenges the uncritical diversity trope that perpetuates tokenization.