I remember being around eight or nine and my sisters and I sitting in our living room watching this show where gay men makeover their straight or closeted brethren. They wouldn’t just be giving the man a haircut and buying him new clothes but giving him a newfound confidence that’s supposedly beyond appearance, queer men teaching other men how to live.
On Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, now titled just Queer Eye in its current Netflix reincarnation, the purpose for the makeovers would, more often than not, come under the guise of feminine courtship. Though there was always something that the “Fab Five,” the show’s recurring cast, knew that their hero did not: the makeovers were never really for a significant other at all, but for the men themselves. The Fab Five were comfortable with who they were. It was as if they understood something about confidence, vulnerability and charm that straight men couldn’t comprehend or weren’t comfortable enough to.
For many years, homophobia prevented me from being able to come into who I really was.
Growing up in Lower Manhattan, I, of course, didn’t fully comprehend what identity really meant or entailed. I didn’t read much, so television was a deciding factor on what was what. It felt confusing to me why all my classmates didn’t go home and watch Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or discuss the show at our lunch tables; how that guy really looked better and seemed so much cooler after he changed his wardrobe and learned to clean up after himself. Those were discussions I’d have loved to have. Instead, we discussed the NFL, the MLB, TV Sitcoms, Nickelodeon shows, possibly even a peak of the HBO narratives that our parents watched on Sunday nights while we were supposed to be asleep. No one was coming in on a Monday morning in fourth grade talking about the Fab Five, definitely not at an orthodox Jewish school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
I kept the ideas that the show stirred in me — about identity, about masculinity — to myself. I pretended to like what others liked so I wouldn’t be the weirdo who sat in with his sisters watching a makeover show.
When I learned that Netflix had remade Queer Eye, I felt compelled to watch it. Tuning in, it all came back — the jokes with my sisters about how we should nominate my father to be made-over, the running commentary on how ugly the guy’s baggy jeans were, his beard that just didn’t work, his creepy smiles, the gaudy shoes. But moving past our superficial commentary, I was reminded that there was something about Queer Eye that to me as a kid was more important. Although I didn’t consciously realize it as a child, the show was premised on man’s great confusion over masculinity and sexuality; our inability to feel comfortable being men, to be intimate with others, to appreciate other men’s bodies, style, appearance — and, moreover, for that to have nothing to do with our sexual preference.
I grew up with two older sisters and an omniscient mother. Homophobia was something that I learned in school from my classmates or in raunchy buddy-comedy movies. For many years, this prevented me from being able to come into who I really was. I wouldn’t do exactly what I wanted in the fear of being perceived as gay. And as an adolescent boy, what others thought of me felt very important.
Queer Eye’s foundation can seem dubious; that five gay men getting together to fix all the most superficial aspects of a man’s life will allow him to live more confidently, the idea that through the drastic change of appearance we can alter who we are. For many, the concept that appearance outweighs reality, that style is more important than substance and that the most fragile aspects of our personality can begin to be changed not by looking inward but through altering how other people perceive will seem problematic. But we all have to start somewhere, and it takes an inner effort to change, even if what you are changing begins with how you look.
Watching the new Queer Eye, I was struck by the importance of a healthy, free-flowing identity that can be both masculine and feminine despite the gender someone prefers to sleep with.
What I enjoyed most is how surprisingly engaging it was to see the Fab Five interact with one another. They looked like they were having more fun than any group of straight men I’ve ever seen. I was even tempted to put up a photo of them in my apartment as if they were a cool band or something. Watching these five men who are all comfortable with who they are having a good time doing what they enjoy is reassuring, regardless of all the annoying and questionable aspects of reality TV simulacrum and on-camera performativity.
I am straight, but for various reasons, my personality is tinged with aspects of what some would consider femininity. I prefer to sleep with women but also know the difference between a cashmere and vicuna sweater. At urbandictionary.com, the closest term for someone like me is probably ‘cake boy.’
Spending the weekend binging Queer Eye, as opposed to what I usually do, watch English Premier League soccer, brought to mind an uncomfortable period of growing up as a boy, not knowing if it was cool or okay to act how I wanted to act. It made me feel lucky that I was able to finally find my way in the world, to live the way I want to. Men would feel much more comfortable if we were not constrained by notions of gay or straight. We’d feel vulnerable but also liberated.
My hope today is that somewhere out there there’s a 9-year-old who has the gumption to go to school this week and talk about Queer Eye with his friends, maybe even have a debate about which member of the Fab Five is his favorite. And most importantly, to have this conversation have nothing to do with who he wants to one day sleep with.
Photo: Tan France (right) with makeoveree Neal on the rebooted Queer Eye. Credit: Netflix.