By Katherine Billotte-Kelaidis
The third season of Netflix’s Queer Eye dropped the first Friday of the Eastern Orthodox Lent. So, after going to the Akathist to the Theotokos, I came home and put on Queer Eye. Then I engaged in some very un-Lenten conduct: I binged. By the time I was done, I had not only watched the third season, but re-watched the previous two. As I sat there eating my vegan cookie dough (which is exactly as gross as it sounds), I realized I was partaking in another kind of indulgence, or rather cheating a bit. I was skipping Lent. Easter morning was on my TV screen.
If you have not seen the reboot of the early 2000s-makeover reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, you are missing out. While the original program was entertaining (not to mention pretty revolutionary), the new incarnation truly delivers on its tagline promise to be “more than a makeover.” The premise is deceptively simple: down-on-their-luck Middle Americans (of a variety of genders and sexual orientations, by the way) spend a week with with five gay men (who are also lifestyle experts of various strips) with the aim of getting the aforementioned Middle Americans out of whatever slump they have fallen in. The new Fab Five are a diverse lot in a way that could come off as not subtly preachy if they were not each so TV likeable. There is Kamaro Brown, a 1st-generation Jamaican-American, and Tan France, a British Pakistani Muslim. Antoni Porowski is the Canadian son of Polish immigrants. Jonathan van Ness is unapologetically flamboyant and genderqueer. Bobby Berk is a Missouri boy who is painfully transparent about the damage done by a childhood spent in a rural, conservative Christian community. But the show manages to avoid turning its cast into a list of political identity categories. Actually, one of the refreshing differences between Queer Eye in this iteration, as compared to its predecessor, is that the cast is never treated like magical elves who float in to fix straight people’s lives, but have no life of their own. These men are husbands, fathers, sons, cat loves. You know, fully-rounded human beings.
This full and honest humanity turns out to frequently be the greatest thing they have to offer. Many of these “heroes” (the term used for each episode’s subject which, I will be honest, has induced many an eye roll from me) are social conservatives; some are explicitly Christians of the strain that has given us the “gays vs. the Christians” trope. They are also all people in some kind of pain. They are lonely, depressed, or just stuck. They are people who need help. And not just help picking out home decor or learning how to do the perfect “French tuck.” They need help remembering who they are. They are lost, in ways big and small, and they need to found.
When help arrives it comes in the form of five gay men, men of different colors and backgrounds. Men who might be the object of the heroes’ nightmares even if they were straight. These are definitely not the people that Trump-voting Georgian police officers go looking to for assistance. But they are the ones who show up. And that’s how Queer Eye becomes the most Christian show on television.
Time and time again, the gospels remind us that we will not encounter the holy in the places we are expecting to find it. Or rather, in the places where the world tells us we should find it. Seek out the Publican not the Pharisee. If you ever find yourself beaten, robbed, and left for dead at the side of the road, the Samaritan will help you, not the priest nor the Levite. The “sinful woman” will get you water from the well. In fact, she is the only one who will be there at that time of day. All the respectable women, the sort of women you would like to get you water, to whom you wouldn’t mind your friends seeing you talk, they have already come and gone. Why would we expect it to be any different? God has come among us, not as a king, but as a baby in a cave. As itinerant preacher on the edge of the Roman Empire, wandering Palestine with a rather motley crew. Eating with all the wrong people and overturning the money-changers tables in the temple.
At a time in which our culture continually defaults to the demonization of the Other, when different more and more means “bad” (even among nice progressives in vibrant coastal cities), when fear and distrust send us each further into our bubbles for safety, it is not a stretch to say that the most subversive part of the Christian narrative is in its insistence that we will find God and subsequently ourselves in the face of frightening strangers. In the coming Kingdom of God, on the eighth day in the light the Resurrection, there will be “neither free nor slave, Greek nor Jew, male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). Our salvation shall come when we are made one not only with Christ but with each other.
It is this hope and promise that keeps me close to the Christian tradition. Yet, it is simultaneously the part that challenges me the most as well. Do I really want to be made one with Jerry Falwell, Jr.? With Donald Trump? Frankly, that sounds more like a threat than a promise. Plus, the whole premise does not sound very plausible. I do not see many instances of any of this working in real life. My own Orthodox tradition, the only Christian expression my family has known since the Middle Ages, is a case study in what reactive, insular faith looks like.
But as I sat there watching Queer Eye, I saw the promise of the Resurrection. I saw people whom the world says must be in opposition encounter one another in the fullness of their humanity and in that encounter heal the parts of each other that the world has broken. And there it was. Easter at the beginning of Lent.
Katherine Billotte-Kelaidis is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics at Loyola University in Chicago and a Visiting Instructor at DePaul University. She is a Scholar in Residence at the National Hellenic Museum. She holds a PhD in Classics from the University of London. Her research interests are the Reception of Greek & Roman Drama and Greek-American studies.