Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was a show in 2003 that occupied a funny little time in pop culture: LGBT visibility and eventual acceptance was still on the rise, but it wasn’t yet something that could be harnessed for ratings a la RuPaul’s Drag Race six years later.
The basic premise was that five gay men of a certain speciality (cooking, design, fashion, I forget the rest) would get together and change a straight man’s life just through Gay Magic – or, rather, relatively simple self-care and self-love tips that should make up the foundations of one’s day to day life. The premise expanded to people of all genders and orientations, but the perennial favourite was the middle-aged man in decline. The Fab Five would stop by in the minivan, throw around some slang and put a smile on your face. Which is the point – you don’t need to be fabulously sophisticated in order to feel good about yourself, you might just need help finding out what’s right for you. You can be capital M masculine and still take care of yourself! Queer Eye was very much a novelty – but an endearingly sweet one, the novelty of ‘you know what? The Gays™ and their patented Self-Care™ might actually have a point here.’
And I’m so glad that the formula hasn’t changed one bit in the Netflix revival. I was bored at my grandmother’s 70th birthday celebration (I am not using the word party) and, being somewhat mischievous, I opened up Netflix and selected Queer Eye from the menu. I had nothing else to do and figured that gauging their reactions might be a cute way to spend the time. My grandmother is lovely, she really is. She tries to stay hip. She tries to understand contemporary things, even if Mike Hosking and Leighton Smith are her twin deities, the Apollo and Artemis of the carefully crafted baby boomer bubble. She’s if Jane Fonda voted for Reagan. So, bait laid out, I laid in wait for the hearing aids of the gathering to slowly pick up what was being broadcasted in the lounge.
I don’t quite know what first gathered the attention of those present – was it the long, straightened hair of (I had to Google this) Jonathan, the most unashamedly effeminate of the group? Was it the screeching of the minivan as this new gathering of the Fab Five arrived at the house of Georgia Bearded Man™ (Tom Jackson), the first conquest of the season? Perhaps it was the collective choking on Tom’s innocently self-aware offering of the Redneck Margarita – a mixture of Mountain Dew and Tequila. There is no single siren song that be pointed out here. But they came.
‘What is this?’
‘Who are these men?’
‘Why is his voice that high?’
The questions and queeries started flooding in. Nana and her entourage had arrived. Acutely aware that the gathering of family and friends had started to wear out from the heat and the massive amounts of food on offer, she and a couple of her friends sat in the lounge and tried to figure out what was going on. After briefly explaining the premise, I told them to just watch and see it for themselves. It was something they’d just have to find out for themselves, a Brave New World… transplanted from 2003! And I wasn’t disappointed. They were taken by in the sweetness of Tom, a lonely truck driver who had been stuck in a rut ever since his second divorce, heartbreakingly referring to himself as butt ugly and trying to cover up the fact that he spends most nights naked on his dirty recliner. He also happened to absolutely adore the Fab Five without any sarcasm or cynicism. He just wanted to feel good about himself and maybe reconnect with the love of his life, his second ex-wife Abby. And he was wonderful, he really was. I’m honestly tearing up right now.
The entourage sat enraptured at how these gay men did but the simplest of tricks in order to spruce up Tom’s life. Banning red from his wardrobe in order to not call attention to his lupus, buying some new furniture to replace the fucking RANCID recliner and, my favourite touch, listening to him speak nothing but kindness about Abby. My grandmother, bless her, wondered why so little seemed to do so much. She was in disbelief that any of this meant anything, especially why it was of any relevance to the people watching it. But slowly, the simple message championed by the Fab Five got under her skin.
‘He let himself go… but it takes so little for the man to pull himself in…’
Yes, Caroline! It was The Miracle Worker – the words finally had meaning! Water, Helen! Water! By the end of the episode, Tom had taken steps to reconnect with Abby and looked so pleased with himself. He just wanted some help. Tom wasn’t trapped within the shell of fragile masculinity, too proud to ask for assistance. And that’s the beauty of it all. On its face, the show’s mission statement is that middle-aged modern masculinity doesn’t have to be one of decline. But the point is that no one should settle for decline. All you have to do is ask for help. That’s the ultimate goal of Queer Eye and I hope it’s here to stay.