Man down

Spoilers for the first episode of Queer Eye

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Tom is a fifty-seven-year-old man living in Dallas, Georgia. He describes himself as “just a dumb old country boy from Kentucky.” He is introduced at his favorite Tex-Mex joint, where he has just ordered his usual. “Jumbo Texas margarita with a lime and two orange slices,” he explains, grinning. Tom, who wears “a lot of jorts,” is unbelievably good-natured. His favorite thing to do is to come home, fix himself a redneck margarita (7up + tequila), and sit outside on the back step of his small apartment, smoking a cigarette and watching TV through the open door. He is not a classic schlub; he is clever, jolly, and winsome. He cups his shame in his hands, like a baby bird he rescued from the sidewalk. He never wants to be a bother. “I’m butt-ugly,” he tells the camera sunnily. “You might make me look a little better, but you can’t fix ugly.”

Enter the Fab Five, dancing to the show’s generic electronic dance-pop theme song, which is like one of those tracks they play in the dressing rooms at Forever 21 to get you to spend more money. Queer Eye is a show about how gay men are better at heterosexuality than straight men, and each member of the team has his own specialty: Bobby Berk (design), Tan France (fashion), Antoni Porowski (food), Jonathan Van Ness (grooming), and Karamo Brown (metaphors).

The truth is, it’s not at all clear that queer is the best word to describe these men. Most of the boys are stubbly, tummy-less gym rats in very masc4masc relationships. The Fab Five can be faggy, but only Jonathan is a queen—something even Tom knows intuitively. When Jonathan mock-dons an ugly quilt on Tom’s, striking a pose in the mirror, Tom chuckles, “There you go, brother—I mean, sister.” “Sister’s better for me,” you can hear Jonathan say off-camera.

A bit later, Jonathan jokes that if Tom were younger, he’d marry him. The Fab Five are always padding the hero’s romantic résumé, getting stoked about “potential lady-friends.” In the kitchen with Antoni, Tom confides that he still loves his ex-wife Abby, whom he will see at the end of the week. Antoni moons. “I’m a romantic,” he murmurs in a talking head. “The idea of bring two people together who were meant to be? I think that would be really sweet.” He smiles loose and toothy, like a man under the influence of a scalp massager.

In the Queer Eye pick-up truck with Bobby and Jonathan, Tom asks if either one of them is married. Bobby, driving in sunglasses, replies that he’s been with his husband for thirteen years. “Been together for thirteen, been married for five, because of course it wasn’t legal to get married until five years ago,” he says, pulling the corners of his mouth tight on the word legal in a sign of lingering umbrage. Tom, sensing what may be his only chance, turns to Bobby. “Are you the husband or the wife?” he asks in a low, curious tone.

Bobby cocks his head, surprised; Jonathan, who has been sitting quietly in the back seat, tries to suppress a tickled laugh. “That’s a little sexist, Tom,” admonishes Bobby, nodding his head like an elementary school teacher deciding to make a moment teachable. “Well, I’m sorry!” sputters Tom, grinning sheepishly.

Jonathan takes the mic. “Even with hetero couples I think more and more those lines are blurred.” “Yeah,” emits Bobby, scraping the bottom of his vocal register. “Whatever role you are,” Jonathan continues, “whether it’s like moon or sun—moon being more, you know, feminine energy and sun being more masculine—I think that there’s, like, gorgeous strength to be had in both.” (Jonathan frequently uses the word gorgeous in this expansive sense.) “Absolutely,” agrees Tom.

“But,” adds Jonathan, dipping into a genteel Southern accent, “I’d also like to have, like, a rich, rich lawyer who just is so strong and silent . . .” Bobby starts shaking his head and smiling in defeat: “And he just destroyed everything he just said.” Tom chuckles, and Bobby tries to right the ship. “We both wear the pants in the family,” he tells Tom, with finality. “OK, that’s good,” responds Tom, cheered as always but—surely—even more confused than before.

There are some twenty different theories of gender and sexuality crammed together here, like an orgy in a studio apartment. After Tom’s opening resolution—“Not all relationships have a man and a woman, but all relationships do have a husband and a wife”—Bobby calls misogyny. But why, exactly? Does he assume that Tom assumes that husband and wife implies a patriarchal hierarchy? Or does Bobby himself assume that even the concept of a wife is sexist? Depending on how one answers the question, this is either a liberal or a radical feminist position. In a minute, when he is doing damage control, that position will shift: Whereas he first insisted that the husband–wife paradigm was sexist, he now clarifies that he and his partner are both the husband in the relationship—symbolized here by the immortal Trouser.

As for Jonathan: Even among straight couples, he suggests at first, there are not always clearly defined husbands and wives—a vaguely queer, or even postfeminist position. Then, immediately, he changes it: There do exist distinct, even oppositional masculine and feminine roles—“sun” and “moon,” he calls them yogically—but they are complementary, each with their own unique power. What do we call this? A lightly Orientalist dualism, with an egalitarian twist? Finally, he tells what Tom, Bobby, and Queer Eye viewers have ample evidence to regard as the truth: namely, that the fey, nurturing Jonathan with his swishy hair and girly affect wants a rich, dependable breadwinner with a stable income and nice arms. He wants, in brief, to be wifed.

At the heart of this discussion lies the basic fact that Queer Eye hopes to remain theoretically neutral as to whether heterosexuality is a bad thing, while, in practice, renovating the shit out of it. It expresses this by balancing two, utterly contradictory claims: (1) The only way to be a real man is to turn your shitty life around; and (2) In order to turn your shitty life around, you have to become less of a man. Jonathan is, as usual, the key to this high-wire act, freeing the fag in every man while simultaneously letting the heroes flex their masculinity against his femmy backdrop. In this, perhaps, he is the perfect wife.

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