I was washing my face with bar soap before I watched the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy reboot on Netflix, because I didn’t know any better and didn’t think to ask.
The show features five very confident and attractive gay men, who help sort out the lives of hopeless straight guys in exactly one week. One of the five men will fix up your house or apartment, another will help you dress better, another will work on your hair and grooming, and then Antoni will explain how to make a grilled cheese while Karamo shows up driving a van and looking beautiful. (This is my understanding of how the division of labor breaks down.)
The show is easy to mock online due to the “Fab Five’s” oversized personalities, pin-up good looks and rather ... pedestrian life advice. These are people who look like runway models but will still take you shopping at Target. A man who was carved out of marble and claims to have years of restaurant experience will explain how to make a very basic chili. Experts in hair and makeup will trim your beard for you.
If most reality shows treat every aspect of life like a gunfight, here are five guys proudly carrying knives. There is little evidence that any of them are masters at their particular craft.
Which is exactly the point.
The crisis of masculinity
Queer Eye is the most empowering TV show for men right now, and it’s the perfect answer to all the angry voices online screaming “What about us?” as the #MeToo movement continues building momentum. The path to not being left behind begins with nice trousers, it turns out.
The question of “what about us” assumes men need society to save them. Queer Eye is about taking control of your life and saving yourself.
The show isn’t really about fashion advice or skincare tips, as those things are just symptoms of a much deeper disease. Men tend to be dissuaded from thinking about these things, much less spending time on them. Part of the appeal of Queer Eye is the idea that you can improve your life, in even a small way, by carving off some of the time you spend on our hobbies and investing it back into yourself and your social connections. There’s a reason why so many episodes end with a party or some form of social connection: These men often seem to feel lonely and disconnected from their greater community.
And those are the two greatest areas where the show impacted my own life, and where I think it can do so much good for other men. I’ve adjusted my routine to include a few minutes to make sure my beard is trimmed, my skin looks OK, and my clothes match and are the proper fit. I’ve invested in better underwear and socks, for heaven’s sakes, because those are small changes that improve my whole day. I make sure to schedule more time with friends and family to make sure I get out and spend time with other people.
Which is the interesting thing about this show: Everyone knows these problems exist. The men asking for the makeovers do know something is wrong with their lives, and that it affects their self-esteem. No one signs up to get helped by a show like Queer Eye because everything is going well.
Many of the episodes involve people who don’t buy their own clothes and have little idea of how to handle basic grooming. They need Antoni to explain how to heat up some tater tots. It’s not even a matter of having to walk before you run — these men have never been told THAT they don’t know how to crawl. They know they need help, and their families and friends know they need help, but for whatever reason no one is helping. Queer Eye is providing a service that, ideally, society can be prodded into providing on a much larger scale.
The thread that ties the lives of these men together is that so few of them have ever been told they look good. They have never been shown how to dress or eat or properly clean themselves, or told why doing so is important.
One telling exchange involves Jonathan Van Ness trying to figure out how much time one of the crew’s clients is willing to work on his skin in the morning.
“You will do five minutes?” he asks. The man nods, thinking that’s not much time to give up. But Van Ness knows that it’s significantly more than many men spend on themselves in the morning. These are men who are not used to being told to own their own sexiness.
I can break down nearly every episode of the show for you right now: There is a room or a house that’s fixed up, a beard that’s trimmed, relatively inexpensive clothes with a better fit selected, and then Antoni explains how an oven works. The in-home version of this game would be very simple to put together for yourself. I think everyone should try to do exactly that.
Because Queer Eye is selling confidence more than any complex ideas about how to improve your own life. The Fab Five are telling these men that they are attractive, they are worth the effort to look and feel good, and they can get at least part of the way there with just moisturizer in the morning.
It’s a show about introducing men to the idea of their own self-worth and the value of self-care. This thesis statement underlines how important it is to spend time on yourself before you can expect other people to spend time on you.
You can do this at home!
The show made me ditch the bar soap, and spend a bit of money on moisturizer. I’ve started exfoliating. I can feel a difference in my skin, but it’s unlikely that this has led to any major visual difference people would notice quite yet.
The bigger difference is that I spend a few minutes every morning focused on myself. That starts with skincare, and often ends with picking T-shirts with the proper fit.
These things make me look a bit better, sure, but the real change is how they make me feel. The sense of control and confidence you get from spending a few minutes on your grooming and appearance is hard to explain if it’s something you’ve never experienced, or have been scared to try.
And the show really is mostly about confidence and self-esteem above everything else. Queer Eye addresses a fear of social issues in a superficial way, and a better writer than I am can unpack the issue of five attractive gay men having to come teach a variety of hapless straight guys how to better their self-esteem. But the impact the show could have on men willing to listen and needing to feel good about themselves is hard to overestimate.
Very few, if any, other shows are teaching men how to unpack shitty ideas of masculinity and replace them with better ideas about loving yourself and feeling sexy for your own sake. The Fab Five give everyone they help a boost of confidence, as well as easy-to-follow advice that can continue after they leave. Queer Eye is what actual help looks like in the context of a reality show.
Queer Eye is investing in making men happier and healthier, without asking anyone to fundamentally change who they are. That’s an amazing accomplishment. If traditional masculinity can sometimes feel like a prison, Queer Eye presents us with a nail file, if not a key. It’s time to start cutting our way out.