Netflix’s Queer Eye is basically a perfect show. Say what you will about Antoni’s guacamole or Tan’s obsession with collared button-up shirts as quick fixes for both a boring closet and low self-esteem, this show is charming as hell, and touching in a way that’s surprising for a makeover show. There’s something really powerful about giving someone a simple haircut, reminding them to moisturize, and looking them in the eyes and telling them they’re good-looking when they’ve resigned themselves to feeling unattractive and undesirable for years.
A green stick is still just a green stick, and a French-tucked shirt won’t pay anyone’s bills or find them a date, but one of Queer Eye’s strengths is showing the way something so simple can transform the personal narratives many of us create about ourselves, the kind that keep you stuck working a dead end job, wearing the same baseball cap every day for the last ten years, or sleeping with your girlfriend on the same mattress she used to share with her ex.
Queer Eye operates on the basic principle that when you look good, you feel good, and they’re right. Clothing can be an outward indication of how we’re feeling, changing the way not only others see us, but how we see ourselves. Studies indicate that a well-tailored outfit with a few tasteful pops of color can potentially lift a bad mood—so can a clean, orderly living space free of clutter and chaos. Dressing up and doing some household organizing can fix a momentary slump, but many of Queer Eye’s contestants are grappling with deeper, more complicated issues long before the Fab Five show up. As the “More Than A Makeover” tagline suggests, this show isn’t about clothes. In many ways, it’s a show about living with depression. The problem is that chronic depression doesn’t typically respond to a haircut, new clothes, or even a constant stream of love and affirmation from five adorable, beautifully dressed and impossibly charming men.
As a depressed person, there’s nothing more annoying—and more depressing—than being told that if I just tried a little harder, if I just pushed myself or took care of myself for once I might start to feel better. The kind of self-neglect many Queer Eye contestants seem to have fallen into didn’t happen overnight, and can’t be written off as a simple lack of style. Not every Queer Eye contestant is depressed. Some are just a little clueless, and others just don’t know how to dress or that you’re not supposed to buy a used mattress from some guy on Craigslist.
The kind of self-neglect many Queer Eye contestants seem to have fallen into didn’t happen overnight, and can’t be written off as a simple lack of style.
The kind of self-neglect that shows up on Queer Eye, though, isn’t just the result of a bad day. People who’ve stopped buying clothes, brushing their hair, or washing their dishes might just be clueless, but they could also be depressed, grieving a loss, or in the midst of physical or emotional transition. Depression often shows up as a lingering feeling of sadness and hopelessness, but it can also manifest itself as a feeling of crushing, persistent boredom, and gradually pulling away from close partnerships and friendships as many of the show’s contestants seem to be doing. This is something a makeover can’t fix, no matter how good a makeover it might be. The “look good, feel good” philosophy might lift someone out of a funk, but it can also minimize legitimate struggles with the depression and grief.
Queer Eye is much more than a makeover show, and the way the show acknowledges some of its contestants’ experiences with racism and internalized homophobia are part of what makes the show great and meaningful. In Queer Eye’s season two, the Fab Five visit a young trans man recovering from top surgery. It’s one of this season’s most memorable episodes, and even includes a brief teaching moment between the contestant and Tan who, like some people watching at home, just doesn’t “get” what being trans is about. Queer Eye wants so much to be a show that’s about something, and it is, but the show’s approach to tackle an “issue” in each episode sometimes feels jarring. Tan likely walked away from season two with a more compassionate understanding of what it’s like to be trans, but a lifetime gender dysphoria can’t be solved with a new suit, though I’m sure it helps. Similarly ambitious episodes like the first episode in season two feature a woman who’s grieving the loss of her mother, and her son who felt shut out from their church community when he came out as gay. These episodes clearly aren’t focused on a physical transformation, but trying to solve homophobia and years of grief in one episode just doesn’t work—it can’t.
What Queer Eye does best, though, is give its audience a sense of hope. I want to believe that if I start using a redness-reducing green stick and cuffing my jeans correctly things might really start looking up, and they might. They also might not, but at least I did something, or tried to. At times, Queer Eye’s message gets lost as it tries to tackle the big issues that can’t be resolved no matter how good its contestants look, but it applauds them for trying, and for not giving up on themselves even at their lowest. Looking good can be too much, and sometimes just doing your best really—or finally gathering the strength to swipe on some hair pomade— is enough.