Netflix’s ‘Queer Eye’ Doesn’t Do Right By The First Trans Man on the Show
About a minute and a half into the fifth episode of the second season of Netflix’s Queer Eye, I burst into tears. As the Fab 5 settle into their swanky Georgia apartment, they sit down to watch a video introducing their next makeover subject, Skyler. A pre-recorded video shows Skyler, a transgender man and the rebooted series’ first trans participant, on the operating table undergoing top surgery, a gender-affirming surgery. When Skyler wakes up, disoriented and groggy from the anesthesia, he looks down and starts to cry as he reaches towards his now-flat chest. That’s when I hit the pause button, sat in front of my TV, and cried for about five minutes as I remembered my own post-surgery daze.
Four months ago I had top surgery. As I came to – a moment so on-the-nose you’d think it was ripped from a Ryan Murphy series – Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” was playing on a speaker inside the O.R. A few minutes later, after a nurse took me to the recovery room and brought my friend in, I looked down at my bandaged-up chest and started to cry. It was a weird cry that rushed over me like a sudden uncontrollable wave, summoning an intense cocktail of emotions I’d never felt all at once before – confusion, relief, shock, pain, and joy. It was a private and intimate moment I couldn’t imagine broadcasting to millions of strangers who wouldn’t understand what I was going through, why I was going through it, and all I’d gone through to get there.
Watching Skyler’s surgery on Queer Eye left me with mixed emotions. On one hand, after years of never seeing accurate representations of trans people in movies or on TV, I was grateful that a popular Netflix series featured someone I could identify with. I was moved to see a trans man having a procedure similar to one I’d recently had, and on a show I, funnily enough, spent my recovery binging. I was thankful to see him have a platform to talk about the high financial costs and the potential medical complications that can come with surgery, as well as other parts of his experience. But it also left me uneasy that the rebooted show’s first episode about a trans man opened with and revolved around his surgery.
The episode’s attention on Skyler’s surgery only plays into cisgender people’s age-old fascination with trans people’s bodies. It furthers the narrative that all trans people are “born in the wrong body,” and the incorrect notion that surgeries legitimize our identities, that we need them to make us “complete,” as one DMV employee cruelly said to Skyler. However not all trans people choose to undergo surgery or to medically transition, and those that do have no obligation to explain or show the details of it to anyone else.
The image of five cis gay men watching a trans man on an operating table is also particularly invasive, especially considering how Skyler seemed surprised when he learned the Fab 5 watched footage of his surgery, and that he didn’t remember it himself. (No matter the procedure, would you want strangers watching you lying unconscious on an operating table before they even meet you in person?) But the thing that really bugged me about this episode is how Skyler’s surgery, among other things, served as a teaching moment for the show’s cis hosts, turning their ignorance into an ever-so-convenient educational angle for the episode’s narrative.
Tan France – the show’s fashion guru – admits in the opening minutes that he’s “never met a trans person before.” First of all, I highly doubt that’s true. Tan’s remark suggests that you must know a person is trans when you meet them, right? Not right. Many trans and gender nonconforming folks move through the world and pass as cis men or cis women, and regardless of passing, there is no one way to look or be trans. I can bet Tan, as well as any cis person, has likely met a trans person before without knowing it. We don’t all introduce ourselves as trans when we meet you. But the episode piggybacks off that comment to build up to an emotional heart-to-heart between Skyler and Tan. The sequence does give Skyler a chance to tell his story in his own words – the episode is at its best when the Fab 5 halt their chatter to let Skyler talk – but that gets hijacked by Tan’s eye-opening moment. He admits Skyler’s video is what helped him finally understand trans people. Good for Tan and all, but a trans person shouldn’t have to invite cameras into the operating room to help cis people “get it.”
It’s no wonder so many other media outlets have been praising Skyler’s Queer Eye episode as “important” and “inspiring.” Yeah, sure, it is in many ways, and I am genuinely happy to that many cis viewers will walk away with a little more awareness and knowledge. But the thing is, this episode isn’t really about Skyler; it’s about using Skyler and his experience as an educational tool to correct the ignorance across the Fab 5 and the show’s non-trans audience.
There’s an uncomfortable, though unsaid, exchange going on within the episode: essentially that the Fab 5 will makeover Skyler’s life in exchange for some basic trans education. It’s as if they’re saying, “We’ll help you look stylish – according to our cis standards of fashion – and give you an updated home – according to our regulations of how a queer man’s home should look (no rainbow flags allowed!) – and in exchange please enlighten us about trans stuff and why, for God’s sake, you’d subject yourself to surgery!”
Sure, the new and improved Queer Eye is much more about learning from each other and engaging in thoughtful (if surface-level) conversations about identity and politics, while also having some cute makeover fun. That’s what makes the rebooted series a little heartier than the original, and this episode, despite it faults, is certainly an improvement on the horrible 2006 episode featuring a trans man. (I documented the worst moments of that episode on Twitter; take a look if you dare.) However, it’s not Skyler or any trans person’s job to educate others about his experience, or to have to explain his reasons for surgery. He signed up for a home and wardrobe makeover and to learn how to cut an avocado like every other Queer Eye participant; why didn’t he get the same treatment?
This episode mucks up some other things as well. While the Fab 5 may be well intentioned, the language they use only further marginalizes Skyler and the trans community. For one, they continually separate the “T” from LGBTQ to suggest that trans people may not also identity as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer. Whenever Karamo Brown, the show’s culture expert, addresses the camera he continually says “we” when talking about non-trans people. “The decision that is made is going to effect Skyler in ways that we take for granted every single day,” Karamo says of Skyler’s second attempt at getting his gender marker changed on his license. “All he wants is to experience the same life that we all experience,” he says. Who is this “we” you’re speaking of Karamo, because it certainly doesn’t include me and the rest of the trans and GNC community. Simply replacing “we” with the words “cis” or “cisgender” in the episode would’ve made a massive difference, and would’ve removed the implication that there’s an “us” and a “them.” Instead it only other-izes Skyler and presents trans people as outsiders.
And then there’s the issue of how the Fab 5 criticize Skyler’s attire and his home. Now on Queer Eye, the general idea is for five fabulous queers to waltz into an unfashionable dude’s life and rescue him with style tips. But here it’s a matter of the hosts simply disliking the things Skyler likes, and erasing that which is intrinsic to his queer and trans identity.
Bobby Berk, the design whiz, shames Skyler for his rainbow flag-clad home, saying queer pride shouldn’t bleed into one’s home decor. Says who? Then Tan insults Skyler’s clothing, calling his baggy tank top and shorts “whack,” despite Skyler’s roommates saying fashion is one thing he has on lock – “They come to me for fashion advice,” Skyler proudly says. Tan describes Skyler as a 30-year-old who dresses like a teenage skater boy. But did he stop to consider that maybe Skyler likes to dress that way? Or that, unlike cis men, many transmasculine folks didn’t get to experience a traditional boyish adolescence? If he's 30 and wants to embrace his inner teen boy for the first time, so be it. Unlike other Queer Eye episodes, Tan doesn’t really ask Skyler what he wants to change about his clothing (besides a quick mention of Todrick Hall), but decides how to revamp his look according to his standards.
This is also a missed opportunity for the show to explore how clothing can be such a difficult and anxiety-laden area for many trans people. For trans men and women, as well as nonbinary folks, shopping for clothes that express their identities and fit properly, and doing so safely and comfortably in stores where clothing is segregated into gender-binaried sections, is incredibly stressful. Before top surgery, there were types of shirts I could wear and couldn’t wear in order to hide my chest and my binder – tank tops have only just re-entered my life post-surgery, so I get Skyler’s excitement to sport so many. For jeans, there’s only certain brands of menswear I can buy that I know will fit my hips and my short legs. And let’s not talk about the panic I felt buying men’s briefs before I started passing. My experience is only one tiny fraction of what the rest of my community may go through, but what about Skyler’s? His upsetting story about visiting a tailor was an important moment, but we only hear fragments of his relationship to clothing and style.
It’s tricky, because there is a lot I appreciate about Skyler’s episode. It broke the mold of cis-only makeover subjects and touched on important topics like Skyler’s estrangement from his unaccepting family and the many ludicrous hoops the legal and medical systems force trans folks to go through. But it could’ve done better, and it still can in the future.
If Netflix doesn’t already have trans and gender nonconforming people working behind the scenes on Queer Eye, they should change that – it would’ve fixed a lot of these issues. And here’s a radical idea, why not cast a trans person as one of the main hosts? Last time I checked it wasn’t called Cis Queer Eye. If Netflix wants to their show to represent a variety of queer takes on fashion, food, culture, beauty, and design, they’d be smart to hire queer people from more diverse backgrounds. I want a Queer Eye starring a trans woman of color, a nonbinary person, an intersex person, or an LGBTQ person with a disability. Otherwise Queer Eye isn’t nearly as progressive as it thinks.
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