How urban gay men are helping men from the heartland

The reboot of “Queer Eye” is making viewers cry for its unabashedly emotional journey with men in need of TLC. (Photo: Queer Eye/Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle)
The reboot of “Queer Eye” is making viewers cry for its unabashedly emotional journey with men in need of TLC. (Photo: Queer Eye/Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle)

Welcome to a new Yahoo Lifestyle column, “The #MeToo Guide to Raising Boys,” which takes a look at where we’ve gone wrong — and how we can go right — while raising caring, respectful, self-assured boys today. Michael C. Reichert is a psychologist, executive director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, and author of the forthcoming The New Boyhood: The Power of Connections to Build Good Men.

Manhood is in great flux today, and viral sensations suggest where things are going. That’s why I wanted to check out the remake of Queer Eye, which is generating lots of buzz on social media since its February launch on Netflix.

The new version of the series (originally titled Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and running on Bravo until 2008), still revolves around a team of gay men offering guidance to men whose lives cry out for a makeover. But this time around, the show is based in Georgia, not NYC, and the men who are “stuck” include a self-professed “redneck,” a fireman, a young man still living with his parents, a father of six children working two jobs, and a MAGA-cap-wearing police officer.

The show’s premise — that a team of urban gay men can help men from the heartland without eliciting homophobic backlash — is, on its own, an indication of how far American masculinity has come. As Rebecca Nicholson wrote for The Guardian, the series “is the most 2018 thing I know I will see all year, and it’s barely even February.”

In the first episode, the show’s “Fab Five” arrive in Dallas, Georgia, to work with Tom, a retired garbage truck driver who is humbly engaging, lost, and lonely. On his third divorce (though still in love with his ex), he has fallen into an empty routine of smoking, drinking, and watching television by himself. His toddler grandson is the light of his life. About his prospects to find a life partner, he proclaims, “You can’t fix ugly.” But by allowing his team to guide him — new furniture and an upgraded wardrobe, stylish eyeglasses, haircut, and extreme beard trim, plus a green stick to hide lupus-induced redness on his face — he is transformed. The episode closes with him scoring a date with his ex-wife.

The outer touchups, though, manifest deeper changes within that are nurtured by his team’s attentions. Listened to, sharing what matters to him (his antique car, grandson, ex-wife), and following the team’s sometimes forceful suggestions (a decrepit recliner is tossed in the dump) for self-improvement, Tom is uplifted and even redeemed.

What is modeled, though, in the interaction between the Fab Five and their clients is the power of caring relationships to rehabilitate men who have been left behind. As the five men prepare to say goodbye to their charge, they share that they have “fallen in love with him,” saying, “You are such an amazing man.” Receiving such genuine appreciation, Tom breaks down in tears. It is clear he has never experienced such attention and support, and he admits he will miss his makeover team. “We all just want to be loved,” one of the Fab Five explains, with tears flowing all around.

I watched this first episode as I was headed to the launch of my colleague Michael Kimmel’s new book, Healing From Hate: How Young Men Get Into – and Out of – Violent Extremism. As I observed the men at this event, featuring a panel of “formers” — men who were members of extremist groups in the U.S., Sweden, Germany, and the U.K. — sharing surreal stories, the realization dawned that there was a clear connection to Queer Eye.

At the book launch, I found myself talking with one man, Robert, who casually mentioned that he had been a member of a neo-Nazi group as a younger man. Turns out he founded and now leads the group Exit Sweden to help other extremists find their way out of such groups and back to mainstream life.

After interviewing more than 70 men who left such groups, Kimmel, a renowned sociologist, discovered a common theme in their reasons for joining in the first place: They were embattled as men. They experienced “distress that the respect and obedience they felt was theirs by birthright actually had been upended, leaving them both bereft and enraged.” So it was not ideology that drew them to the groups but a chance to recuperate their sense of themselves. They determined, as one man put it, “to take back their manhood.”

Like the men in Queer Eye, an outer makeover redressed a deficit they felt inside. And so, donning Doc Martens, chains, and bomber jackets, and sporting tattoos across their bodies, they joined the brotherhood.

Both the show and the exit organizations share another insight about how to help men who have lost their way. Sociologists have come to understand that men “perform” masculinity to impress each other more than to impress women. So it is men, for this reason, who can give other men permission to ease up on themselves. Offering respect and understanding while inviting him to show his human sides is a reliable way to help a man regroup.

The formers spoke of how “aggrieved” they were by the loss of centuries-old male prerogatives. Bonded in a shared resentment, they found “a visceral experience of camaraderie and belonging” with other men in the same boat. To help them find their way out, the exit programs designed a parallel experience — a brotherhood that was “emotional, social, psychological,” to win their hearts.

Queer Eye aims unabashedly at emotional recovery. According to Nicholson, the show “is about gently teasing out emotions that have been painfully pushed away” but underlie how these men have become stuck, unfashionable, and unable to care for themselves. In the show’s setup, the Fab Five are comfortable with difficult emotions and enable their clients to be open up about their hard times — and as men who have wrestled with not fitting into conventional masculine norms, they help their clients accept themselves for who they are.

The show is onto something about men’s struggles today. Both the men on Queer Eye and those in Kimmel’s book need the same thing: dignity, plus a helping hand. And though those male helpers take things away from the men they work with — swastika tattoos, stale wardrobe articles, worn furniture — they replace them with upgraded grooming habits and items, not to mention acceptance of shortcomings, mistakes and all.

There’s growing evidence that younger men are beginning to march to a different drummer than older men. A “masculinity audit” of 2,000 younger British men conducted by researchers from University College London showed that there has been a dramatic shift in men’s priorities.

With suicide rates nearly three times higher than women, men, especially millennials, are beginning to recognize the importance of mental and emotional well-being. And they are turning to each other for help. As one 19-year-old former told me, “It’s so great, because we can all help each other, and a lot of us can relate.”

It seems that the close association of manhood with emotional suppression, personal disregard, and violence is wearing thin and that the success of Queer Eye is just one of many signs of the change. When we offer boys and men a real chance to be themselves, with support and understanding, they are increasingly likely to take us up on the invitation.

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