The most common reaction to Netflix’s Queer Eye is tears. Twitter is full of comments such as, “I cry half a dozen times every episode!” and Instagram users post stories of their teary faces as they watch. For season two, Netflix leverages this emotive response on their promo poster with the header, “I’m not crying, you’re crying,” above a box of tissues emblazoned with the lovable faces of the fab five. Move over, This Is Us, there’s a new crying show in town.
A direct reboot of Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which debuted in 2003, Queer Eye is, on its surface, a makeover show in which five gay men –– Jonathan Van Ness, Tan France, Antoni Porowski, Karamo Brown, and Bobby Berk –– help transform their clueless subject, or “hero,” in five areas: grooming, fashion, food, culture, and home decor. But each episode becomes more than a makeover as the men of that fab five break through the hero’s walls and reach the root of their low self-esteem. That’s where the true emotions rise to the surface.
“Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention,” wrote Frederick Buechner. “They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not, God is speaking to you through them.”
Queer Eye is more than uplifting reality television. At this moment in culture, the fab five’s weeklong makeovers have taught us what it means to minister to a hurting person, reveal their value, and help them open up to joy and love.
Jesus once told a story about someone needing help (Luke 10:25-37). A man was mugged and beaten while traveling, and while he lay by the roadside in a world of pain, a couple of religious guys –– one even in ministry –– passed him by without offering any aid. Luckily, a Samaritan also saw the man, and “his heart went out to him,” Jesus said. The Samaritan tended to the man’s worst wounds, then took him to an inn, paying the innkeeper good money to take care of him.
It’s an old story; so old that the shock value is often lost on today’s listeners, who want to focus on the kindness of the Samaritan instead of his unsavory background. But the healer’s Samaritan identity was the whole point. He was from a marginalized population, a person most Jews of that day wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. But, in Jesus’ story, this Samaritan is a good neighbor, and hands-down the best neighbor of the three who walked by that day.
Many Christians today were raised with the idea that homosexuality is a sin, and that those practicing homosexuality are sinful, immoral, even behaving in a way that is against nature. These Christian viewers of Queer Eye might experience the same tension that Jesus’ listeners did as they heard his startling parable starring a disparaged yet heroic Samaritan.
What sets Queer Eye apart from the parable of the Good Samaritan, however, is that the fab five are real people, not simply caricatures used to prove a point. Bobby, Jonathan, Antoni, Karamo, and Tan don’t come from one mold labeled “gay man.” They express their queerness in as many different ways as they express the other parts of their identities: their humor, their style, their intelligence, their kindness.
They share parts of themselves we can relate to, whether it’s their roles as spouses or their past struggles with self-esteem. Some of the most profound moments in the show have been Bobby’s accounts of growing up in a Christian family in the Bible Belt, active in his church and youth group. In interviews, he has expressed how painful it was when he came out, “to have everybody in my life who’d told me they loved me unconditionally to suddenly say, no, never mind.”
Perhaps part of the effectiveness of the fab five’s ministry comes from their own individual experiences of hurting and healing. “Nobody escapes being wounded,” Henri Nouwen wrote. But, he said, “When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”
Over and over again, this band of good-hearted queer men descends upon a person in need and offers comfort, care, and a bit of good-natured teasing. They get to know the man (or now sometimes woman, in season two) and lavish him with affirmations, expressing delight in him just as he is. They offer everything they have, everything they are, to help the man heal, feel less alone, get back on his feet.
Each episode’s crowning moment is when the fab five and the hero part ways, and the goodbye always feels like the last day of summer camp. The heroes express their appreciation to the men in such heartfelt ways that tears are inevitable for the five and viewers alike. In the second episode of season one, hero Neal tells the men, “This has been a completely weird and beautiful experience ... I was in a really dark place, and for some reason I didn’t fight my way out of it.” But during his week with them, he says, “For the first time in a long time I was joyful.”
This show’s ministry isn’t typical. It isn’t summer camp with the youth group; it’s not your church’s annual men’s retreat. Just like Jesus’ story about the Samaritan, the least likely characters –– not the pastors or counselors or prayer team volunteers, but a group of out and proud gay men –– bring such light into people’s lives it’s difficult to describe their work as anything other than holy.
The men who make up the fab five aren’t just comforting and caressing — they’re ministering. And the result looks surprisingly like some of the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, and kindness. The sense of God’s joyful Spirit in each place the men go, the Spirit’s playfulness, openness, and unpredictable way of blowing through a person’s life like a refreshing wind.
What does “Queer Eye” mean? Maybe it is the lens the show offers its viewers, helping them see the world in neither black and white nor shades of grey, but as a wild and colorful place where anything is possible, even the idea of loving yourself as you love your neighbor.