Netflix’s Queer Eye, a smash-hit reality show revamped from an earlier Bravo TV show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, has earned itself a wide fan base, a large influence in pop culture, and now, a chance to travel the world. The first four seasons of the show feature the Fab Five, Antoni Porowski, Tan France, Karamo Brown, Bobby Berk, and Jonathan Van Ness, visiting one person per episode, invading their home in a whirlwind of hype energy, and changing everything from refrigerator contents to personal relationships. The latest release, Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!, aired on November 1, 2019, and follows the original Fab Five, plus a “cultural expert,” Japanese-American model Kiko Mizuhara, as they continue to work their magic—this time on Japanese participants.
Though the novelty of the show’s temporary relocation to Japan was initially appealing to much of its audience, several dissenting voices have emerged, complaining that this season of Queer Eye does more to highlight the cast’s ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism than genuine care for the people they claim to help.
There is a case to be made that all episodes of Queer Eye contain some elements of condescending interference, with the Fab Five often making snide remarks to each other about the person they are there to help. Still, these moments are usually overshadowed by the genuine goodwill underlying each episode—fans often report being moved to tears as they watch insecurity and fear transform into playful confidence with the help of a new haircut and a kitchen remodel.
Unfortunately, an international transplant of a reality TV show based in American culture is accompanied by large pitfalls into which the Fab Five blindly plunge. Advice that is taken for granted in an American cultural setting, such as Karamo’s insistence that a selfless hospice nurse takes some time to “live for herself,” jars with the Japanese culture of group mentality and self-sacrifice.
In his article, “My Culture is Not Your Toy: A Gay Japanese Man’s Perspective on Queer Eye Japan,” Steven Wakabayashi complains that, “this season reinforces harmful racial stereotypes, promotes toxic cultural ignorance, and fails to give voice to the very minorities they [the Fab Five] are looking to serve, specifically the queer Japanese community.”
Though American audiences are likely to miss instances of cultural insensitivity, to Japanese viewers, these mistakes (mispronunciations, ignorance of societal norms, and a sort of American cultural imperialism) are glaringly obvious. Setting aside the arrogance necessary to attempt to improve a Japanese way of life by conforming to Western ideals, the new season also does harm to the LGBTQ+ community, as it assumes that the queer experience in Asia is the same as the American experience.
Natasha Noman calls attention to this problematic assumption in her review of the show, citing examples of the queer community in other countries facing death, rape, ex-communication, and legal persecution as a result of coming out to make the case that, contrary to Jonathan Van Ness’s motivational advice, sometimes the reality of the situation is much more impactful than one’s reaction to it.
Though reactions to the show that berate the Fab Five for their ethnocentrism are justified by many instances of unfortunate naivety, the somewhat shallow good intentions that characterize the show as a whole are consistent in this new venture. Good intentions do not justify the failure to respect a foreign culture, but there are enough heartwarming moments of genuine human connection (as genuine as reality TV can facilitate), to keep the show from complete condemnation.
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