Revisiting the Reality TV Shows of My Youth
‘Queer Eye’ and ‘American Idol’ have evolved alongside American culture — and maybe I have, too
Like everybody else on the internet, I am enamored with the Netflix Queer Eye reboot. When a new season is released, I binge-watch the episodes and shed happy tears for those who are finally embracing their true identities and imperfect lives. For the man who worked up the courage to come out to his family. For the adorable barbecue queen who got her teeth fixed and could finally smile without shame. For the trans man and the widowed father and the woman who hadn’t felt pretty or worthy since her brother died. And this year, for the first time in about 10 years, I have been keenly following every episode of American Idol. The episodes are released on Netflix UK the day after they air in the U.S.
I’ve spent the past decade pushing these kinds of shows away. They felt too American to me, too contrived, too sensational. There were better things to watch — I had Netflix and Amazon Prime and was very much alive and well in the Golden Age of TV. So why is it that I’ve returned to Queer Eye and American Idol, both of which I originally watched as a teen, now that I’m in my thirties?
It feels significant, somehow, to return to these shows as a different person in a different world. It feels — in an era of Trump and Brexit and refugee crises and wars and floods and global warming and a million catastrophes — like hope. Like an acknowledgment that while some things seem to be getting worse, much worse, maybe some things have gotten just a tiny bit better.
If you were to ask me, I’d tell you I think nostalgia is one of the most boring things on Earth. “Things were different when I was young.” Yes, Grandpa, we know. We get it. Life is change. Blah, blah, blah. But humor me for a second while we heed the wise words of Missy Elliot. Let’s call nostalgia a “thang” and then let’s “put my thang down, flip it, and reverse it.” Dare to turn nostalgia on its head and you get something less sappy, less sepia-toned, and decidedly more hopeful. Turn it upside down and then give yourself a wee moment to reflect on how far we’ve come. A moment in which to acknowledge, “Yes, things were different when I was young. And thank god they’re not that way anymore.”
I grew up in conservative, Bible Belt Texas in the late ‘90s and early aughts. I was a bookish kid and while I dreamed of one day visiting Paris and Shanghai and, hell, even far-flung New York City, my reality was all Walmart aisles and MSN chat rooms and the “equine breeding center,” where horses engaged in loud lovemaking across the way from our double-wide trailer. In one particularly thrilling turn of events, a courier accidentally brought a vial of horse semen to our front door and tried to hand it off to my mother. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
In a pre-self-care era, it felt subversive that straight men might bother, or be asked, to take care of themselves.
Needless to say, my reality left a lot to be desired. And then one day, the winds shifted. There was quiet and then, boom. Reality TV blasted into my life, showing me the mundane could be made interesting if only there were cameras to capture it and story editors to craft it and makeup artists to make its skin appear flawless. In came the Osbournes. In came the home makeover shows like Trading Spaces and wardrobe makeover shows like What Not To Wear. And in this sloshing bucket of nutritionally void milk, two shows consistently rose to the top like sweet, sweet cream: American Idol and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
Nowadays, we’ve got buzzwords like “woke” and “problematic,” but in the early 2000s, “metrosexual” was all the rage. In a pre-self-care era, it felt subversive that straight men might bother, or be asked, to take care of themselves. To wear clothes that fit them and apply moisturizer to their faces and acknowledge their feelings and assemble salads. This felt like stuff “city people” did, if you were fond of euphemisms. Straight-shooters could just come right out and say it: It felt like stuff gay men did. And, thus, the premise of the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: Gay men show straight men how to be better for the benefit of straight women. Working in this service, the original “Fab Five” came up against a lot of resistance. Heterosexual men didn’t want to work product through their hair. They didn’t want to wear shoes with laces or shirts with buttons. Yes, they wanted to change, or so they said, but they didn’t want to change-change. It was a frustrating battle to watch, and my mom and I would sit in front of the TV hurling insults at the obstinate subjects: “You agreed to this makeover!” “Get a grip!” “You ingrate!”
Now it’s 2019, and I haven’t heard anyone use the term “metrosexual” in years. Although pushback and violence and discrimination continue to exist and Nazis have somehow made a comeback and churches fly into rages over illustrations on Starbucks cups, we do live in a much more accepting culture. I mean, as a teen, I was convinced I’d live to operate a flying car, but I honestly didn’t think I’d see the day when marriage equality became a reality in the United States. After all, at my high school, the word “gay” was used synonymously with “stupid” or “bad,” as in, “I hate Dr. Pepper. It’s gay.” Or, “Professional wrestling is so gay!” (Okay, so sometimes they got it kind of right.) As a bookworm, I whiled away many hours in a Barnes and Noble with my best friend, who was constantly seeking out new reading material featuring gay characters. We’d pay visits to a special section hidden in a dim corner, where the “gay” books were discreetly stored away like a shameful wizard nephew in a cupboard. Now when I visit bookstores, the “gay” books are mixed in with the “normal” books, almost like being gay is now considered… normal. What a novelty. Sure, we have a long, long way to go, but lest we forget, we have already come surprisingly far.
The Queer Eye reboot very much exists in this new climate, a time and place in which being gay is largely no longer considered a joke or a mental disorder or a shameful little secret. But beyond the cultural climate change, one of the most noticeable features of the reboot is how willingly the participants surrender themselves to the process. They welcome it, even. There’s very little resistance to the Fab Five themselves or the gifts they’ve come to offer. Instead, the participants battle with their own hangups. They struggle with inner demons and low self-esteem and grief, and they all reach a point at which they are able to articulate these previously buried parts of themselves to the Fab Five. They put words to their fears and inadequacies, robbing those fears of their power. This says something to me. That in this day and age, we are, at long last, daring to look beyond the superficial. That we no longer believe in fairy godfathers. That we no longer expect a band of gay men to visit and wave a wand and force us to wear better clothes, despite our protests. The new makeover subjects seem to view both themselves and the Fab Five for who they are: people. Professionals in their fields. Facilitators, coaches, counselors, fashion designers, chefs, hair stylists, businessmen, fathers, brothers, sons. Human beings who want to help other human beings help themselves.
But before there was Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, there was American Idol. When the singing competition first came to TV in the summer of 2002, it was a sensation, an event. It’s no exaggeration to say that I looked forward to watching it each week more than I looked forward to almost anything else. My mom shared my enthusiasm. We made a ritual of it. We transformed those sweltering evenings into a veritable banquet for our largely deprived senses. On Idol days, she’d stop on her way home from work to pick up Taco Bell or cheap pizzas from Mr. Jim’s; it was a welcome change from off-brand boxes of macaroni and cheese. Once the show started, no one in our family was allowed to talk until a commercial break, during which time we’d savagely critique each and every performance. Although food was an important part of the Idol-viewing experience, crunching or loud chewing was not permitted. As small-town kids crooned Motown hits, I’d let the pizza crust or taco shells dissolve on my tongue like communion wafers. After all, there was no YouTube and we couldn’t rewind our TV, so when a moment was gone, it was gone.
Back then, American Idol was corny as hell — but we didn’t notice, or care. More precisely, we didn’t know the difference. It was all we had in the way of televised talent competitions. In 2019, Idol feels much more slick. Part of that comes from the show’s reputation; after over a decade, its producers can secure rights to better songs and nab appearances from higher-profile celebrities. But the level of talent is also much higher. Fewer performances feel like karaoke and more of them feel like actual artistic expression. And like Queer Eye, this show sometimes causes my eyeballs to juice up. As cynical as I may think I am, even I have to admit that it’s deeply moving to see people start to believe in themselves, to see dreams come true, to see personal growth illustrated through song, to see the pride and awe on family members’ faces. Unlike the regular TV of my youth, Netflix doesn’t have any commercial breaks. I can pause or rewind the show whenever I’d like to loudly scrutinize a performance. However, the convenience is now lost on me. I don’t have any savage things to say about the contestants — they’re all pretty darn good and seem like pretty nice people.
[T]he world outside feels so unkind and chaotic that we crave kindness and stillness wherever we can find it.
And that’s the biggest difference, I think, between Idol then and Idol now: the tone. In early 2000s America, we loved cattiness. Maybe we were cranky from all the foreign wars and being made to take our shoes off in airports. I don’t know. But whatever the reason, the result was that Simon Cowell became one of the most recognizable faces in American pop culture. We loved his sass and tell-it-like-it-is philosophy. Now? Not so much. This year’s judges — Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan — are supportive, enthusiastic, and humble in their feedback. They’re the kind of people you’d want in your corner. In the years since I last watched, our culture has largely moved away from Cowell’s brand of cynicism and snark. Maybe it’s that the world outside feels so unkind and chaotic that we crave kindness and stillness wherever we can find it. Maybe that’s why we’re all doing Korean face masks in the bath and listening to YouTube videos of people whispering. And maybe that’s why we want to see talented, hardworking people get the praise they deserve on shows like Idol.
Both Queer Eye and American Idol are labeled “reality TV,” but we’re all adults here and we all know that reality TV isn’t real. At best, it’s a heightened version of reality. An elevated version. An edited version. Storyboarded, commercialized, condensed. A version that exists at just enough distance to give us some perspective. To allow us to take long, hard looks at ourselves and the people we want to be and the people we might someday become in the future, if only we keep on fighting.