Queer Eye for the Gender Nonconforming Woman

Jess Guilbeaux on Queer Eye

Let me start out by saying I LOVE Queer Eye. It’s my absolute favorite feel good content, and especially lately when my feed is nothing but heartache and pain, I find myself recovering with the Fab 5. When the world feels like it’s falling apart, it’s nice to know I have one healthy outlet for sobbing on my couch in my pajamas after a long day of working on my couch in my pajamas. That being said, I would like to take a little closer look into the ways in which the Fab 5 work with female guests: the good, the bad, and the (dare I say it) ugly.

When any man, even a gay man, chooses to make a woman over, I think we have an obligation to be critical to some extent. Most cosmetic companies are owned by men. Men financially benefit most from plastic surgery. The male gaze has defined womanhood for centuries, and that definition has been marked by qualities that diminish women–submissive, meek, quiet, feminine. But there’s no correct way to be a woman. Women can be loud, wear their hair short, and explore all manner of interests beyond those of care-taking and child rearing. There are infinite ways in which to be a woman, but only one picture has been lauded as correct, and it was given to us by men. So when any man wants to help a woman “find her feminine side,” I’m immediately suspicious. That’s all men have ever wanted from women.

Abby, The Anxious Activist

While I love Queer Eye, this season’s episode “The Anxious Activist” rubbed me the wrong way. While I don’t know or care to guess the sexual orientation of Abby, the young subject of the episode, she was a gender non-conforming woman. You could peep hairy armpits when she was trying on clothes, she acted uninterested in makeup, and her whole world revolved around working to protect the environment. Tan’s conversations with Abby were particularly cringe-worthy. He insinuated that she wasn’t performing femininity because she didn’t think people would take her seriously if she was feminine; something she never indicated and only half-heartedly agreed with when put on the spot.

Abby's gender nonconforming makeover

When he asked her to identify the last time she felt pretty, she said, “I usually don’t think about if I feel pretty or not.” To me that’s a very healthy statement! She cares more about being taken seriously in professional settings than she does about being perceived as pretty. But Tan leans into this asking her to envision successful women, naming women who wear heels (something Abby reported feeling uncomfortable with) who wear full faces of makeup (which she also identified feeling uncomfortable with), and who wear feminine clothing, (something distinctly lacking from her sense of style). I feel that in this episode, Tan and Jonathan specifically fail Abby by equating success and professionalism with femininity. When left to her own devices, she completely ignored the makeup purchased for her, and wore the most comfortable clothes in her new wardrobe.

I love Queer Eye and the Fab 5 and I felt disappointed by this episode. Despite her anxiety, Abby is a badass activist seeking to make the world a better and safer place. She’s doing important work and doing it well. She in no way asked to be feminized. She emphasized wanting comfort, professionalism, and confidence. Rather than leaning into the many ways in which she could have explored those themes without conforming to societal expectations of femininity, they offered her heels, contouring, and catchphrases about how powerful women don’t have to leave femininity at the door. We already know that. It ignores the day-to-day experiences of women who are visibly gender non-conforming to pretend that somehow they’re the privileged ones.

Jess, Black (Lesbian) Girl Magic

Jess Guilbeaux's make over

So let’s talk about where Queer Eye got it right. In season three’s “Black Girl Magic,” the Fab 5 made over Jess, a Black lesbian woman who they, thankfully, actually call a lesbian. Jess had a heart wrenching story of trauma, adoption, and rejection as a result of her sexuality. What I love about this episode is that at every turn Jess’s preferences are respected. She refers to herself as a lesbian, so the Fab 5 do too. She expresses wanting a more androgynous look, and Tan delivers. When she says she is uncomfortable in dresses because she was forced to wear them to church, Tan immediately backs off and doesn’t pressure her. He allows her to take the lead in defining her own style. Jonathan helped her to embrace her natural hair and didn’t cover her in pounds of makeup or try to contour her already beautiful face. And Karamo’s refrain of “strong, Black, lesbian woman” really embodied the validation she needed to hear from someone else.

I love moments like this in Queer Eye and I’m not going to stop watching, but we have an obligation to criticize what isn’t working. I was so proud of Abby for saying that she didn’t think about whether she was pretty or not. I want more women to focus their energy on comfort, confidence, and courage. I think the Fab 5 have the potential to bring that out of women on the show the same ways they do men, episode after episode. I’m hoping for fewer cringe-worthy moments and more acknowledgement of the many ways in which women can be women.