I’ve been binge watching Queer Eye on Netflix lately, ever since I ran out of episodes of the Great British Baking Show. I was a big fan of the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on Bravo, where five gay guys make over one straight man, and I’d heard that they were doing a new version of the show a few years back, but I didn’t have Netflix at the time so I mostly forgot about it. And then, when I started watching the new version a few weeks ago, I was worried that it wouldn’t be as kind as the original, or as funny, but it turns out that it’s even better. They’ve expanded the original purpose of the show to include makeover subjects who are male and female, gay and straight, trans or nonbinary or whatever, and they’ve made the show more empathetic and more actively accepting of differences. And it’s wonderful!
I’ve been watching the seasons backwards in time, because that seems to be how Netflix works, so I’ve seen them in Austin, Philadelphia, Missouri, Georgia, and even Japan (!) so far, and I’m loving that they do a deep dive into each state, working with a cross section of people of different genders and ages and ethnicities and ways of life.
And as we go backwards in time, I learn more and more about the difficulties each of the Fab 5 has been through in their lives and how they’ve coped, or not, and what they’ve learned that got them to this point in their lives. I love Jonathan Van Ness, the grooming expert. I never thought I could get used to someone with a beard who wears high heels and dresses, but the look just seems so right on Jonathan, with his/her/their childlike joy and sweetness. It’s clear that they’ve been through a lot, including being bullied as a teenager, but all of that seems to help them be present and generous with the makeover subjects in their own grief and pain.
Then there’s Tan, the fashion expert and Englishman of Pakistani descent, who seems so posh and above it all on the outside but is willing to be vulnerable and talk about his own difficulties coming out to his family, and his fears and excitement about welcoming his first child with his husband. He can also just be silly and playful with the rest of the guys, as long as it doesn’t mess up his absolutely perfect hair.
And Bobby, the interior design maven, has talked movingly about his Christian upbringing and being homeless as a teenager when his family couldn’t accept who he was, and Antoni, the food and wine guy, has talked about his difficult childhood and his broken relationship with his mother, and Karamo has talked about his life as a child of immigrants and a father of young men, and all of it is brought to the table to make the makeover subjects, and the audience, feel more comfortable, instead of intimidated by the gorgeousness and the abilities of the five guys who have come to be of service.
The fundamental theme of this new version of the show isn’t, “you need to dress, act, look, a certain way to have a better life,” instead it’s “you deserve the help we can offer you, because no one can do it all by themselves.”
It’s also a lot of fun, with dogs, and dancing, and playfulness and, oh yeah, there was that one time when Michelle Kwan showed up to help a ten year old girl and her father bond over figure skating!!!!!!!!!!!
So, of course, after watching a few seasons of the show, I started to think about what an episode about me would look like (though I should probably go on a medical mysteries show first, where they could figure out what’s wrong with my health and get me to a place where I’d actually be able to make it through a whole week with the fab five). I don’t know how my neighbors would react if an SUV rolled up and five fairy godparents rolled out and stomped up to our door. We’d probably get noise complaints. I’m also not sure there would be room for everyone to be in the apartment at one time, especially with Cricket barking her head off and trying to bite their ankles.
On each episode, the fab five comes up with a goal that the “hero” (what they call their makeover subjects) can reach by the end of the week: building a man’s confidence so he can propose to his girlfriend; preparing a man for the new baby that’s about to arrive; helping the trans woman feel ready to welcome friends and family to her home and especially to reconnect with her father. But I’m not sure what the goal of my makeover could be. I’d love to have help figuring out my hair and skincare and makeup with Jonathan, and my wardrobe could use a lot of support from Tan, and it would be great to have Antoni help me get back into cooking, and Bobby could redo the kitchen/dining area and make it possible for more than one person to be in the kitchen at a time without playing human bumper cars. But none of that is a cohesive goal, and that’s where Karamo comes in. Karamo’s area of expertise is called “Culture,” but really he’s like a therapist or social worker, there to help the makeover subject find more confidence or recognize what’s missing in their lives. And he’s great at it. He’s the kind of social worker I wanted to become: confident, thoughtful, imaginative, energetic and outgoing. But I don’t know which of my many limitations he’d want to tackle, and I’m afraid I’d fail to live up to his expectations, and I’d end up crying and screaming and hiding under the bed, and the director would yell cut and all of the loving and helping would just disappear.
I wish, so much, that the Fab Five could have come along when I was a teenager; they could have helped Mom get the divorce agreement she deserved, including the house, and then they could have redecorated the house to wipe the darkness away and made it into a place where we could thrive, so I could have started my adult life on an even keel, instead of having to spend decades shoveling the shit out of the way before I could even breathe fresh air.
Because, really, a haircut and a new wardrobe and a nice big kitchen would be lovely, but they wouldn’t be enough. There’s too much structural damage underneath, inside of me, and even a week full of hugs and reassurance that I’m okay the way I am wouldn’t be able to fix all of that. And that makes me so angry!
But as it is, the scope of the show doesn’t allow for helping people like me, with more complicated problems that take longer to address and don’t wrap up so nicely at the end of a week. I wish they could have a “special episode” every once in a while, or a spin off, where they could spend six months to a year checking in on someone, building the relationships over time, and problem solving when the first idea for how to help doesn’t quite work.
Towards the end of many of the episodes I start to feel anxious about what’s going to happen to this person once the five guys leave, because they’ve clearly built relationships and trust and dependence over the week. And that’s when the tone of the show changes and the guys go back to their headquarters and sit on their couch and watch, and judge, a video of how the makeover subject handled their end of show challenge (cooking something, choosing an outfit, coming out to family, proposing to a fiancé, etc.). I think the intention, or at least the impact, of this physical and intellectual distancing by the five guys, is to create more emotional distance for the audience, so that saying goodbye doesn’t feel quite so painful. And I understand the need for that distance, but there has to be a way to create it without being so judgmental, and without making the participants take a kind of final exam at the end of the episode to prove they deserve the help they’ve received.
I wish there could be less emphasis overall on how much this particular participant deserves the help, and more focus on just how much we all need and deserve help and kindness. I think that feeling of generosity to ordinary people shined the brightest in the Japan episodes, where they didn’t know all of the cultural hierarchies and therefore were able to see each individual for who they really were, without prejudice.
It’s unlikely that the show will be coming to New York anytime soon though, given how many other states still need their attention, so maybe by the time they get to me the show will have become even more compassionate and I will have become more ready to embrace all of the wonderful things they have to offer, most of all their kindness and attention.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?