Fashion-based reality TV had become outdated, argues Paul Wrench – until the new series of Queer Eye came along, that is…
In an age where Lady Gaga and RuPaul’s Drag Race are constantly proving that clothing knows no boundaries, much fashion-themed reality tv has become somewhat outdated; no longer can a Miranda Priestly or a Wilhelmina Slater instruct a regular member of the public on what not to wear.
But the new series of Queer Eye on Netflix, in which five gay men help other men lead more dynamic, stylish lifestyles, is doing exactly what television needs to do: dragging fashion shows out of the elitist past and into a more gender-fluid 2018. Here’s why everyone needs to immerse themselves in this show immediately.
“More than fashion”
Firstly, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s not just about fashion. Each of the “Fab Five”, as they are known, brings their own areas of expertise to the straight man’s table. Rather than simply roasting a man for wearing the same beige cargo trousers he’s owned since 1985, then drenching him in Aztec prints and Zara florals, each protégée is given crash courses in interior design and simple cooking.
Take poor Remi’s house, for example: inherited from his grandmother, it hadn’t been redecorated since the Seventies. There’s an over-sized four poster in a bedroom with royal-purple curtains and a forestry scene painted onto one wall; the kitchen is black and gold without a shred of homeliness in sight; and literally everything has ornate feet on the bottom.
In steps, Bobby (the blonde one) transforms the house into Remi’s specifications – a trendy combination of Cuban beach hut and Porsche-driving city boy. The house isn’t just more attractive – it’s Remi’s own, and no longer has his grandmother’s disco-dancing spirit lurking in the corners.
Meanwhile, a young phone app creator hasn’t entertained at his flat in years due to his crippling anxiety, so Antoni (the dimpled one) shows him how to rustle up some delicious grub that hasn’t been ordered over the phone. This isn’t just fashion – these are lifestyle amplifiers that drag these men out of cycles of loneliness and into a state of self-positivity.
Fashion does still play a part in the protégée’s journey to self-belief, but not in the way you might think. Tan (the British one) obstinately insists on building around each man’s personal fashion preferences. Take AJ, for example. AJ works in construction, a very masculine job, and is still deeply in the closet to his colleagues and family members. But, as Tan states, this is okay! AJ can totally rock some body-hugging traditional shirts and wear a colour lighter than navy blue and not look like a mardi gras float.
Similarly, a 57-year-old dump truck driver is still allowed to wear his beloved heavy-duty shorts and sock-and-brown-shoes combo, but Tan introduces him to a range of coloured plaid shirts that render him excited about getting dressed in the morning for the first time in years. And through their new-found realisation that they are sexy, chic and impressive, both of these men take steps in their personal lives that they had been putting off for years. The message is not that fashion must make you look good, but that fashion must make you feel good.
In fact, the primary running theme throughout the show’s eight episodes is confidence; feeling valued and important in society. Toxic masculinity can dissuade men from getting excited about, say, buying a new set of cool curtains or revamping their wardrobe after they put on or lost a bit of weight – and while these men are not proponents of toxic masculinity themselves, they are certainly victims.
“Yassss, you’re so sexy, you’re looking so gooood!”
Karamo (the intense one) is the culture guru, but acts as the therapist of the group. He quickly discovers that a budding stand-up comic hasn’t moved out of his parents’ house because he lives in his brother’s more successful shadow, and coaches Remi, who performed CPR on his dying father, to help him make peace with his death. These protégées are not mere unfashionable nerds; they’re men who have sunken into a cycle of depression, and they need to find excitement and rejuvenation in the little, beautiful aspects of life that keep us going.
And yes, a quintet of queer men is just as sassy and flamboyant as you would expect. But they’re not “bitchy” – they’re actually the nicest guys you’ll see on television. While Karamo provides each man with some much-needed soul-searching, Jonathan (everyone’s favourite) delights in bouncing like a happy kangaroo around his subjects, yelling “Yassss, you’re so sexy, you’re looking so gooood!” while giving them an expert shave. The Fab Five bombard a father who is swamped by six children and two jobs with praise for his hard work and dedication; the dump-truck driver dismisses himself as fat and ugly, but the Five insist that the driver’s beard (which he’s grown out to hide his face) is one of the most magnificent things they’ve seen.
When one protégé does a little fashion parade for the Five, Jonathan declares, “I am not a card-carrying member of the NRA but for those guns, I would pay money, honey!” The show is not just combatting toxic masculinity, but also the toxic bitchiness amongst the beautiful Instagramming fashionistas who have garnered a reputation for judgement and elitism. These guys are ferocious and fabulous, but they are kind, attentive and affectionate too. One man even goes as far as to say that he loves them.
The blossoming relationships between these men and the Fab Five is, for me, the most engaging element of the show. It would have been so easy to head to New York City and find a guy who doesn’t wear the latest trends but still has shiny white teeth, a triangular figure and swooshy hair that you could run your hands through.
But no, this show challenges itself and its audience by heading to conservative Georgia, a state hardly known for its liberalism. And none of the men display even a shred of discomfort at having five gay men fawn upon them – in fact, they welcome it with open arms. One man snuggles up with Bobby and Jonathan in a mattress shop, and the Fab Five end up waltzing with a group of firemen who are evidently having a great time. None of the men feel any fear of losing their ‘man points’ and express heartbreaking gratitude to the Fab Five for reinvigorating their lives.
Watching the entire insightful, funny, feel-good season over one weekend has been a refreshing experience for me – and everyone else who has become entranced by the activities of the Fab Five. The show maintains the fun and fierceness of the original but injects some much needed antidotes for narrow-mindedness, proving that masculinity and style are not mutually exclusive but intertwined, and all the better for it.