Even though I am from what an editor of mine called to call “Fancy Kentucky” – aka Lou-a-vul – my suburban- dwelling younger self still got the message that Kentucky was not good enough place to be from.
That is still true.
So rarely is anything Southern portrayed in a positive light that the 2017 testimony of Sally Yates really struck me. It took me awhile to figure out why.
Here is the reason: An intelligent woman with a Southern accent is very rarely part of the national discourse. (Unless it’s fiction, then we are prominent and villainous. And, to be honest, I’m not too mad about that.)
And I had the same kind of gnawing satisfaction while binge watching Season 2 of Queer Eye. I was a fan of the first incarnation way back starting in 2003. But the original Fab Five were a little more snarky than FF 2.0
It may be a reflection of how much society has changed since the discussion of men’s skin care first appeared in prime time but the new guys are so much more open and supportive of the people they help and of each other.
I have found myself moved to tears on more than one occasion. That’s a pretty high bar for a show at least theoretically focused on giving the guy the right style, a recipe for hummus and a well-cut blazer.
So what does Queer Eye get right about the South?
Well, several of the Fab Five have referenced their own rural upbringings in the show. They weren’t always ideal but they are sometimes referenced with positive nostalgia.
All that together serves as a mini-Southern-themed “It Gets Better”.
Apart from that the show’s Georgia background is treated just as that, not a set up for a punch line or an exotic journey into the Land of Sweet Tea.
The show doesn’t shy away from some less pleasant aspects of the South, some church people can be hypocritical, LGBTQ folks can feel unwelcome, but they are often addressed directly.
But it also presents folks as fully rounded. The heterosexual couple that met at Walmart manager training are not defined by that or the fact that they live in a trailer. Instead they are presented by other interesting aspects of their personality like they are vegetarians who are madly in love and who spend time as a couple creating art.
At the same time a middle-aged white guy, complete with a cowboy hat and big ‘ole truck nominates his African-American neighbor for the show because he says the world would be a better place if more people were like her. There is no great message about how they are joining together to push back against the racism that permeates the humid air south of the Mason Dixon Line. They are friends and neighbors.
Why Does It Matter?
In my day job as a health reporter, I see how the perception of the South, in particular, and Appalachia as a whole impacts the willingness of the broader society to invest in the sustained effort it’s going to take to curb the opioid epidemic ravaging the region. The default pop culture and media representation is of the hapless, inferior “other” and allows the startling fact that folks in Appalachia are living shorter lives to barely resonate on a national level.
Now changing that perception is a lot to put on the Fab Five. But getting it right, even while talking about how to do a proper French tuck, should be celebrated.
There have been a lot of journalists wanting to come to Kentucky since Trump was elected. A lot of what has been produced by has elaborated on tired stereotypes. And for several years now, I’ve tried to get a few of the national and international outlets who made Kim Davis the most famous Kentuckian since Colonel Sanders to come back and report on the growing number of small town Pride celebrations. (We are celebrating in my hometown of Georgetown, Ky. on July 21. Come on out.)
Not one bite because it goes against the national narrative that the “fly over” states contain mostly one kind of MAGA ‘Merican.
But Queer Eye at least is a nod to the idea that gay people exist out here in the wilds along with a growing number of vocal allies.
It’s not that Queer Eye is perfect.
This year they hit the fact they were in the town of Gay, Georgia a little too hard. (Wink, get it, Gay, Georgia, Wink, there’s a sign that says “Gay, Georgia.”)
And I’m really glad Jonathan Van Ness, the guru grooming, cut back on the number of “Yass” per show from Season 1. If “Yass” and hair flips had been the foundation of a drinking game emergency rooms would have been overwhelmed with alcohol poisoning.
But I think it says a lot that a show that isn’t actively hostile or demeaning to the place I live is worthy of praise. And I those long-shots of the backroads surrounded by green pastures that look much like my morning commute never get old.