I hate reality TV shows. Their contrived drama, their oh-so-spontaneous-not-scripted-scripting. Most of the time they thrive on conflict, aggression and dehumanisation, turning people into objects to be mocked, scorned, sexualised or ridiculed. They hypnotise with suffering, or promise a lifestyle that is utterly unrealistic, promoting a consumerist obsession that devaules what people already have or…
… long story short, I really hate reality TV shows.
There’s perhaps only two exceptions to this. The first is the Great British Bake-Off, which manages to hit the two requisites of a) cake and b) a general theme of people rushing around trying to help each other save their scones.
The second is Queer Eye.
Oh my I feel so manipulated whenever I watch it, and I cry my eyes out regardless and it’s just such a happy place. It’s so beautifully curated to tell such a specific story of self-esteem and hair pomade, of making everything better by believing in yourself, it’s so huggy-huggy-yummy I could vomit, and yet… I’m hooked. Damnit I’m hooked. And yes, from a practical point of view much of what happens every episode is the same-old-same-old. Jonathan (hair & beauty) loves your gorgeous hair no matter what, and just wants to see more of your great big beautiful face. Tan (fashion) loves a print, a French tuck, and wants you to dress age-appropriately. Bobby (design) will paint your kitchen cabinets black, your walls a darkish green/blue with an occasional splat of patterned wallpaper, and throw in some lovely tungsten lighting above a sea of pot plants and candles. Antoni (food) wants you to be more healthy and have special time for yourself and your family through the art of cooking, while loving learning your secret family recipes. And finally Karamo (life… style? Hug-guru…?) wants you to discover that your inner self is just waiting to be expressed, and is wonderful and passionate and full of love for others and yourself. This expression is preferably aided by some sort of physical exercise involving looking at/climbing/tearing down/punching/pushing through walls both physical and metaphorical.
You could write every episode of every season just based on a slither of viewing. Person X gives so much to so many others and is funny and kind, but just trapped inside their shell. Enter the Fab Five, here to help you achieve the dreams you were too scared to dream! Someone will cry. There’ll be (good) screaming at the transformations being unleashed. A quiet heart-to-heart about personal issues and prejudices that can be questioned, reframed, and burdens which you don’t have to carry alone. Some extravert yet weirdly ok hip thrusting. And finally, at least as of the latest season, a bit with a dog.
But in this repeated format is the series’ strength. Yes, most people come out of it dressed in a similar way and living in an environment that was definitely designed by an eye with a particular taste. And yet… so much emphasis is put on the idea of trying, not to force someone into a pre-conceived idea of who they are (except where it pertains to everyone being fabulous), but to try and find who they want to be for themselves and bring it to the fore. Operation ‘Know Thyself’ is a famous ongoing battle for most people most of the time, (see: basically all of literature) and here the program chooses its ‘heroes’ (more vomit) so, so well. Young, gay men and women struggling to find their identity in the face of their sexuality being rejected by the ones they love. Cops, firefighters, gun-lovers, people of faith, people recovering from trauma and pain, or struggling with poverty. Queer Eye never has the guts to quite call out grotesque social inequality or injustice for what it is, nor fully engages with the social reality of life on the sharp end of social and economic rejection – but unlike every other reality program out there it seeks to celebrate people who’s lives are usually looked down on by culture and TV. If there’s a moment in Season 3 where I cried like an actual flipping baby, it was for the Jones’ Sisters – two women working their arses off in Kansas for the love of their family, with more grace, humour and generosity than you could imagine. One of the sisters had a gap in her tooth which she had carried for decades, and which in this one-week of carefully choreographed love-in, was finally repaired. Dental care in the UK is already expensive, even if you can get it on the NHS. In the USA, the reality of the healthcare system makes so much unaffordable, and the program didn’t really engage with that. But it did engage with its direct consequence – with what it feels like to be embarrassed to smile. Cue: bawling sobs of joy at, of all things, dentures. At the reality of what dignity means in our society, and how even the endurable takes its toll.
We live in a world of self-empowerment, and while there are many aspects of this which are true and good, a lot of the time it’s also a bit of a trap. ‘McMindfulness’ is starting to be talked of about the mindful movement, calling out the endless profligation of meditation apps and courses (some of which I’ve used) for teaching people not to engage with compassion and their fellow man as the traditional theological teachings intended, but to simply engage with themselves; to replace one story with another, rather than see the world beyond. Got a problem? Rather than kick and scream, try connecting to your breath. The subversion of a decent idea (sit and breathe) into accepting injustice is a problem that besets our still-changing society. Queer Eye runs dangerously close to this line, selling self-empowerment in a new pair of jeans and self-love in a nice leather skirt, without calling out the systemic injustices that can lead to so many people being isolated by society, either by active discrimination or the power of privilege to keep people from flourishing. But at least it goddamn tries to engage a bit. At least it challenges its subjects – and to a tiny degree its viewers – to think about racism and homophobia. Could it do more? Absolutely. Would it be the same program that makes me cry? Maybe it would.
For all its faults, I do love it, and part of that is for the reason that I think many fans experience – that a bit like tarot card readings, it’s incredibly easy to see something of yourself in its messaging. The kind person who doesn’t look after themselves becaus they’re so busy helping others – who wouldn’t want to self-identify as that? And who then wouldn’t rush straight for the tissues with a cry of ‘I know if I just love myself more, I can love others better!” Yet the fundamental message resonates with me, and I find myself thinking about all the years I’ve spent trying to be feminine without knowing what that means; trying to be a woman in a man’s industry; trying to be a grown-up writer while being young, then finding it sometimes challenging being a woman still seen as a young writer, but with so much experience at my back. As a child I was taught by my family that putting on makeup or going to the gym were acts of gross vanity and self-indulgence; and yet my Mum absolutely has her share of vanity, and if my Dad had gone to the gym he might not – almost certainly would not – have died young. I come from a very privileged background, but have never felt like I deserved anything. Not gifts, or affection, or help, let alone a massage and reassuring head-rub. Self-expression was a vulnerability that could be attacked, bullied. Being a geek girl from Hackney in a West London school where, age 11 I still hadn’t found the 4 other geeks, made saying what I loved or valued just another way to be targetted. Everything has to be fought for and earned, and the freelance mentality of “if you aren’t working 24 hours a day you have failed” only reinforces how hard it is for me to stop, and breathe, and be ok with being kind to myself and learning from my faults and failings, rather than beating myself over the head with them.
None of this is remarkable. This universal sense of “oh look, I matter, and let’s not blame myself for stuff” is almost certainly why Queer Eye’s feel-good brand of McEmpowerment is so successful. But it carefully chooses to celebrate the lives of people who care for others, and walks that fine line so, so well, that I kinda forgive everything. In this day and age, no matter how scripted, no matter how carefully curated and repetitive, the fact that Queer Eye does what it does and the way it does it, fills my heart with joy… and my bathroom with SPF-15 budget moisturisers.