When I arrived at Cornell my freshman year, I was a little bit skeptical about what my experience as a timid, scarf-wearing girl from a big, diverse city might be. Sure, Cornell was located in New York, a highly liberal state, but let’s be honest: Ithaca is in the middle of nowhere. And if I had learned anything from living in Texas, it was that the “middle-of-nowhere” towns were always the most…problematic. Not to mention, I had an idea of Cornell students as being a bunch of rich kid hotshots with copious amounts of privilege and none of the self-awareness to go with it. I recognize now that Cornell is a very much a tolerant campus and I often feel a bit embarrassed by my initial stereotyping. While I’m not quick to admit it, I realize now that all of my preconceived notions were truly rooted in fear: fear of rejection, fear of isolation and fear of people who I had already categorized without even meeting.
I recently started watching the show Queer Eye on Netflix. And by “recently started watching,” of course I mean that I finished the entire two seasons over the past weekend. The show follows five gay guys — Antoni, Bobby, Karamo, Jonathan and Tan — who tour the state of Georgia looking for straight men who have essentially let themselves go. The group, fittingly dubbed the Fab Five, take said straight man under their wings and give him an all-inclusive makeover: I’m talking hair, clothes, house, lifestyle…everything. Interestingly enough, while the show seems primarily focused on giving people very surface-level makeovers, it is actually so much more than that. t I cried at almost every single episode in a way that I never did while watching Extreme Makeover on ABC, despite that show being based on an almost identical concept.
I think the reason Queer Eye touches my heart as well as so many other peoples’ is because it isn’t really a show about makeovers. Rather, it’s a show about one of the most deeply relatable aspects of humanity, the very same one that I first felt upon arriving at college: fear. The show is a chronicled journey about people who, for whatever reason, are living in physical or emotional isolation rooted in a fear of opening themselves up and embracing the person they want to be. Take for example Tom, the divorced 57-year-old who wants to re-find love and heartbreakingly proclaims in the beginning of the episode that “you can’t fix ugly!”. Or take Remy, a 27 year-old whose father died in his arms and caused him to be stuck in a depressed, stagnant rut for years. Sure, the Fab Five renovate their homes, give them stylish new clothes and teach them fancy recipes, but that’s not what transforms someone’s life (nor is that what makes the audience weep). The true transformation comes from the happiness that these people find within themselves when they replace their fear with acceptance.
Queer Eye is spectacular because it touches on something that is so purely and innately human: the desire to be loved and accepted. Many times, I went into the show a bit nervous about how things might turn out. In one episode, the group goes to the home of Bobby, a devoutly Christian father of six living in a small Georgian town. At one point during the episode, Karamo asks Bobby about his view on homosexuality. In response, Bobby gives a beautiful and eye-opening answer, stating that for so long in his own life, he felt insecure and fearful about himself and about his financial and living situation that he would never give another human being anything but acceptance and love. I found this to be such a poignant idea. Every single one of us has felt paralyzed by fear; when you strip all exterior differences away, that very feeling is what makes all human beings so similar. Why, then, is it so difficult for us to realize that people who we see as “other” are likely feeling the exact same things as us? Why is it so hard to see other people as being just as human as you are?
Earlier this week, when the news of Senator John McCain passing away was circulating, I saw a really awful tweet describing how great it was that another Republican senator had died. Yet again, I saw that very same type of fear that I had once experienced and that many of the men on Queer Eye had as well — a fear that often translates into blind anger and hatred and a desire to build walls between ourselves and others. We want to avoid vulnerability and portray ourselves as unyielding, unmoved and unempathetic because we are scared. If Queer Eye has taught me anything, though, it is that fear is an incredible ice-breaker because it is something that everyone relates to. When I read that tweet about Senator McCain, I was reminded of one of my favorite Jonathan quotes: “If you try to numb vulnerability, you also numb joy, happiness and connection. You can’t have connection without vulnerability”.