It’s possible that there’s a more weep-inducing evening than a marathon of “Queer Eye” on Netflix, but I don’t know what it would be. In episode after episode, five gay men fix their emotionally and sartorially flailing clients with a relentless onslaught of kindness, compassion and French-tucked shirts. A friend and I spent last weekend trading emoji as we caught up on the recently released third season. The elderly barbecue pitmaster who finally got her teeth fixed? Two wailing emoji. The young lesbian, Jess, whose story line included a reunion with an estranged sister? Wailing emoji infinitum.
The Jess episode in particular was an example of what I think is the show’s most meaningful contribution: a thoughtful examination of gender and how it impacts us as we move through the world. What it means to be masculine or feminine, male or female or neither. What it means to be ourselves, and how other people’s notions of what that should look like can hold everyone back.
Jess, disowned by her adoptive family when she came out, began the episode by describing her style and identity as a “lumberjack lesbian.” She gravitated toward flannel and denim; feminine clothes, she explained, reminded her of “church,” and the suffocating roles she’d been confined to while closeted. But midway through, the show’s fashion expert, Tan France, invites her to try on a sleek black dress. Jess looks at herself in the mirror, talking through how it feels different to wear a dress she’s chosen, rather than one she’s been forced into. “I love this,” she says.
Recently I called France — an English designer who now lives in Salt Lake City — and Jonathan Van Ness, the show’s hair and makeup expert, who first gained fame via the Web series “Gay of Thrones,” to talk about gender, fashion and “bending the knee” to binaries.
Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Q: The “Queer Eye” cast recently toured the U.S. Capitol, and Jonathan, you were wearing an amazing flowing skirt.
Van Ness: Growing up as a teenager in rural Illinois, I would have to wear what I wanted at dawn or in the dark of night — I would be terrified to go out and wear what I wanted to wear in the day. The older I get, the more I feel like I’m non-binary or gender nonconforming; I’ve definitely never felt comfortable in traditional masculine clothes. The pressure of that really started to wear on me in my 20s, so I’ve really tried to get rid of the shame. For me, it’s really about celebrating clothes that make me feel good. I think I’m feminine. I’m masculine. I’m both.
Q: It seems like, when you outfit your stars, you work hard to separate “masculinity” from “being male” and “femininity” from “being female.”
France: It’s a conscious effort I make. I try to be as hyper-aware as possible that just because someone is female, the thing that will make them feel best is not necessarily a pair of heels. And with men, especially straight men, it’s a different beast because they’re trained from a very early age that there are things men do and don’t do, and these are the things that are going to encourage your masculinity.
Q: You say “straight men,” but I’m thinking of an early episode where a gay man you’re working with is afraid to wear a pink shirt.
France: Within the gay community, there can be negativity around presenting femme — and I hate that, because I am quite feminine! I think there are reasons we may want to present as more masculine: We don’t want to disappoint our parents, or we’re still grappling with internalized homophobia. There’s no easy answer to this.
Q: The Jess episode was interesting to me because she begins the show certain that she’s not feminine and the only other option —
France: — And the only other option was lumberjack? Just because you don’t fit into one box doesn’t automatically mean you must fit into another. She is multifaceted! As far as I’m concerned, you tell me who you want to be and we’ll find a way to do that. I want people to have every option available to them.
Q: A lot of the work you do seems to be about encouraging people to think beyond binaries.
Van Ness: I think the way gender binaries are so entrenched and enforced in our culture — it’s everywhere.
But, bending the knee to the binary — for men, it increases toxic masculinity and it enhances the “boys will be boys” culture, instead of saying kindness and creativity and sensitivity can be really strong, and vulnerability can be really strong. And what it does to women is it keeps women underestimated; it makes it harder for them to come to the forefront.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.