During the first episode of Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot, grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness is chatting with “straight guy” Tom as they head toward a barber chair. Van Ness looks like a Fabio for our age, and Tom looks like if Santa Claus moved to Georgia and didn’t engage in self-care for 25 years.
“Do you want to grow your beard out a little bit?” Van Ness asks.
“Yes, I want a ZZ Top beard,” says Tom.
“Word!” Van Ness says, before teaching Tom how to moisturize and shape his outrageous facial hair.
It’s a major moment of dissonance for anyone who’s ever watched a makeover show. Any observant reality television viewer knows that for a sufficiently shocking makeover transformation, the beard must go. And while they’re at it, those shorts should be replaced with a tie and suit. In addition, the show should wrap with a monologue from Tom about how he’s realized the error of his ways. He’s ready to stop looking like a slob, and ready to look like a man.
Also in a traditional makeover show, his loved ones would watch him walk into the room for the first time, and say, crying, “I hardly recognized you!”
Well, Queer Eye is a makeover show in structure only. It’s really, as the Fab Five quip, a make-better show.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy originally aired in 2003, just five years after Ellen came out on television and a solid 12 years before same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States. The original series strived to bridge the gap between gay people and straight people by having five pretty stereotypical queer men make over pretty stereotypical straight men. The gay men were helpful, the straight men would see that their new hipper look could land them some chicks, and any heavy political questions were brushed aside.
The original was a good show, but the reboot is a great show.
Gone are the small insults and condescending tsk-tsking that come with makeover shows — the segments where the subject is ridiculed, even if gently and lovingly, and educated about how things are supposed to be. In their place are segments in which the Fab Five get to know the person and figure out how to make them happier and more comfortable in their own homes, in their own bodies, in their own lives.
Let’s say that again: The Fab Five make the makeover subjects — not their family and friends — happier and more comfortable.
Queer people are particularly qualified to teach these lessons because there’s at least one thing that all queer people have in common: They’ve had to discover for themselves who they are without the benefit of seeing themselves reflected in their parents’ relationship or seeing themselves on television or seeing themselves in their peers. In fact, if anything, they’ve had to find comfort and happiness and self-acceptance despite a tide of outside hate and misunderstanding and isolation. They’ve clawed through the process of self-love and self-confidence by themselves — and now they’re going to claw a tunnel for the men on this show. Hair products and button-ups and dip recipes may be the props, but this is serious stuff.
Here’s another moment: During the episode when the team makes over Cory, a NASCAR-loving police officer in the Atlanta suburbs, you might expect that the Black Lives Matter/Blue Lives Matter national debate would be kept quiet for the sake of feel-good television. Instead, it’s met head on, the audience forced to survive through some very uncomfortable moments between Cory and culture expert Karamo Brown (who is African-American and also one of the Fab Five standouts). In one scene, in which Cory and Karamo are — almost surely purposefully — on a long car ride together, Karamo approaches the issue unblinkingly, and with a level of compassion that borders on holy. Cory then wows us by responding in kind, with an open heart and mind. It’s the dialogue that the entire country has been yearning for, for years, even as we initially squirm while watching it.
Especially with a queer person who has the patience, experience and emotional bandwidth, these conversations appear to accomplish more than the collective Thanksgiving dinner debates and Facebook threads ever have. More than that, the group doesn’t try to change Cory, they just elevate him. They carefully preserve his wild style and bombastic personality. They even sincerely try to understand the allure of NASCAR — pointing out (and hinting at a deeper lesson) that they are too ignorant of the sport to judge it.
As in so many of the episodes, Cory’s ends with tear-jerking thank yous in which five men tell one man that they see him. That he is a good person. That he is loved. That he’s doing enough.
It’s a makeover show that isn’t so much about creating beauty as it is about recognizing beauty. As such, it’s also a show that goes for toxic masculinity’s jugular, most notably the concepts that men should be utterly self-reliant and without emotion or flair. This show is not about forcing peach linen slacks onto a firefighter, it’s about emotionally supporting the firefighter for a few days until the firefighter reveals what he really wants to wear, but has never had the confidence or freedom to.
In the first minutes of the season premiere, one of the Fab Five says, “The original show was fighting for tolerance. We’re fighting for acceptance.” When you hear it for the first time, before you’ve seen the series, it seems obvious that the statement (and the show) is about hetero society finally, fully accepting gay people for who they are. But as the credits roll on the season’s final episode, the double meaning of the words is crystal clear: The “other” acceptance they are fighting for is self-acceptance. For men to accept themselves for who they are. For everyone to accept their feminine sides, joyfully and without fear, no matter their sexuality. After all, accepting ourselves, one by one, is the only way we’ll ever be able to achieve accepting everybody else.