When Queer Eye debuted on Netflix in February of 2018, the reboot of the original Bravo show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy seemed to be everything viewers needed. The turbulent climate of the previous few years was beginning to wear people down, with horrific news stories seemingly being released every day. So, when Queer Eye season one was released on Netflix, many of us could not get enough. Where the ever-changing political world was becoming more hate-filled, the show offered a relief: this reboot was not just about a makeover, it was also about acceptance. The new Fab Five (Antoni, Karamo, Bobby, Tan, and Jonathan) were not only looking to transform the life of the nominee, but to change hearts and minds. The Fab Five wants acceptance and that first season of Queer Eye warmed our hearts. If these men receiving the makeovers—many of whom had never even (knowingly) met a gay person before—could accept and befriend the Fab Five maybe there was hope for our broken country. The show offered solace for the many of us who felt the divisive hate and blatant lies staining our democracy more and more with each passing day. The average viewer and critics alike enjoyed season one of the reboot and the program was picked up by Netflix for three subsequent seasons.
Since the first season, the show has undergone some changes: some of the nominees, or “heroes,” have been women; the third and fourth seasons were filmed in Missouri (whereas the first two seasons were filmed in Georgia); one of the nominees (Kathi) was even Jonathan’s high school music teacher. Over the course of the first four seasons, the Fab Five was not only transforming the lives of the nominated heroes, but they, too, seemed to be transforming in the process. Oftentimes, the members of the Fab Five would get emotional in their conversations with the heroes or at seeing how the heroes had ultimately changed for the better. The show’s message seemed to gradually shift as the seasons went on from acceptance of the Fab Five, to acceptance of oneself.
And that’s where Queer Eye: We’re in Japan! picks up. In episode one, “Japanese Holiday,” we first meet Kiko, the Fab Five’s Tokyo guide. Kiko is effervescent, matching the guys’ tone. Throughout the episode we learn a little about Japanese culture and language from Kiko (though she is not the Fab Five’s interpreter) and she helps the guys interact with the hero of the episode, Yoko. Yoko is a hospice nurse who is in her mid-fifties and she has “onna wo suteru,” a self-deprecating Japanese phrase that means she has given up on being a woman. According to Kiko, in Japan, women are pressured to look a certain way and Yoko has given up on conforming to the societal pressures that Japanese women face. Yoko is completely selfless, tending to the patients in her care constantly: she even offered up her own bed for one of the patients, Yoko sleeps on the floor. Yoko had lost her own sister, who was sick and in the ICU alone when she passed away. Oftentimes in the episode, Yoko breaks down and sobs when she reflects on the many hardships of her life. There is much heartbreak in Yoko’s past, but the Fab Five shine a light for her: they offer sound advice and allow her to be herself and love herself, letting her know that it is okay to take some time to take care of herself. They tell her that since she brings so much joy to others, she deserves to experience that same joy in return.
And while it is not to be said the Fab Five’s work is unimportant, the spark of the earlier seasons seems to be gone. The story is no longer about accepting each other, it’s about self-love. Queer Eye once felt inspirational and heart-warming, but now it feels emotionally exploitative and forced. Even the interactions between the Fab Five and Yoko seem artificial, as the guys talk to Yoko in English, she responds in Japanese, and both parties seemingly understand each other’s language (the off-camera interpreter is cut out, for viewing ease, perhaps). The message of self-love is relentless, and while this may be what Yoko needed, is it what viewers are looking for? The show is now playing on viewers’ sympathies and relying on the misfortunes of its hero, rather than showing us the friendships that can develop between people who seem different but are not so different after all. When Queer Eye began, we needed to feel that maybe people could still connect meaningfully despite prejudices, but what purpose does the show serve now?
Queer Eye is now about the journey to self-love. Maybe that is what its showrunners think we need next. First, they attempted to fix how we interact with each other, now we have to learn how to interact with ourselves. A valuable lesson to learn, no doubt, but perhaps not following the format of the show that first captured our love in 2018. Now the show seems to be much more focused on self-love in the same way that self-care has become a trend. Self-care is thought of by many as face masks, candles, and bubble baths, instead of taking active steps to reflect on actions and how to become a more thoughtful, introspective person. And the first episode of Queer Eye: We’re in Japan! gets the superficial self-care treatment: Yoko is taught by the Fab Five that she can love herself, but no real connections are forged between them and Yoko. In the time after the Fab Five had left Yoko and watch her reveal and gathering party with her friends and family, we do not even get see if Yoko has deepened her connections with those people in her life. This all makes me wonder if Yoko will return to the person she was before: always giving so much of herself to others that she inevitably lets her own life fall behind again. Had the Fab Five made a deeper personal connection with Yoko, maybe she would have seen that real self-care comes from our interpersonal relationships and interactions with the special people in our lives.