Jorts Be Gone! Queer Eye and the Power of Imputation

This one was written by Ben Maddison. I wear roughly the same outfit combination every […]

Guest Contributor / 2.21.18

This one was written by Ben Maddison.

I wear roughly the same outfit combination every day. Tight-ish jeans, brown leather shoes, button up shirt with a smart print, blue blazer and accompanying accessories. I have enough of these outfits to work a Monday-Sunday schedule, then wash (sometimes) and repeat. I’m certainly no style expert; I know what I like, and I have a general sense of what’s currently fashionable, but they don’t make cost-friendly stylish clothes for people my size. The hell that is trying to find non-pleated pastel-colored shorts is too real.

It’s not that I don’t want to dress well. I’d love too. But I’ve wandered into the comfortable normalcy of my 7-outfits pattern. I like them, I wear them, I don’t need much else. And maybe I’ve convinced myself it’s who I am—it’s what I deserve.

My (relative) sense of style is probably not good enough (or bad enough) to get me on the new Netflix reboot Queer Eye. You may remember the original, where “five, fabulous gay men” take one unsuspecting hetero guy and introduce him to a world beyond “jorts” (AKA jean shorts) and tucked-in-t-shirts. From the food he eats, the clothes he wears, the style of his home, to the life he lives, Queer Eye (formerly For the Straight Guy) introduces the world to men who get manicures, $100 haircuts, and eat locally-sourced quinoa. In just 5 short days, the hosts take a dud to a stud—sometimes simply by sheer force of will.

The current Netflix reboot has the same plot and premise, inserting a new “Fab Five” to assist in these transformations. And the transformations are stunning. The collective assistance of five style professionals has a significant impact on the way their subjects present themselves to the world, to their friends and family, and ultimately to themselves.

But why does the show work? It’s not just the free advice and assistance, its something more.

Kathryn VanArendonk at Vulture puts it this way:

The original Queer Eye operated with the following set of assumptions: that straight men need help, that gay men hold the answers to straight men’s problems, that gay men know what women want, and that the problems of straight masculinity can be addressed through simple grooming, culinary, and home-décor fixes. Underneath all of that, of course, the original series made a deeper proposition: that straight and gay men could understand and appreciate one another, if only straight men had an opportunity to learn from gay men, and if Americans could watch them do it. Its spoken intent was to make straight men better on an individual level; its unspoken idea was that a broader cultural betterment might follow. On the new Queer Eye, that idea becomes explicit.

VanArendonk waxes poetic about the power differential between the Fab Five and their straight canvases. She wonders what it says when power is given to disenfranchised groups and when those marginalized people are placed front and center in the arenas of power. I think she’s right—Queer Eye invites us into a world that is not the world we currently live in. A world of equity, mutual respect, and a hip and elegant dinner party.

But I don’t think the show’s power comes primarily from its play with power and social dynamics—although that keeps it interesting.

The real power of Queer Eye comes from imputation.

If marriage is two bags of trash that get lit on fire, as Sarah Condon once quipped, imputation is God calling those ashes good.

Imputation ascribes a quality to someone that they don’t appear to possess, at least not immediately. Imputation is telling a 57-year-old man who keeps joking about “not being able to fix ugly,” that he is in fact handsome. It’s telling a slightly-depressed, slightly-hermitted app developer that he’s worthy of friendship and connection. Imputation is what happens when you see a mess of jorts, ugly flannel, and unkempt facial hair and before doing anything else, you deem that mess lovable. (And then of course, you do a complete lifestyle makeover.)

We think that the power of the show comes from the expertise the Fab Five offer, but it comes from their calling a bad thing good, a broken thing whole, and old thing new.

Now, I know that imputation isn’t the only aspect of the Christian message. And I know there’s a difference between the psychology of imputation and the theology of imputation.

But still, for me, with my seven-outfit rotation who tries to be stylish for a heavy-set guy but defaults to humor to cover up the mishaps, the prospect of five aesthetic authorities showing up and reminding me that I’m worth a damn has brought me to tears—more than once.

In the fifth episode, the Fab Five help a father of six shake off dad-bod and find the surprising Mark Ruffalo look-alike underneath. Bobby, the Mark Ruffalo look-alike, is a conservative Christian who works two jobs to provide for his family; he has a lot of guilt about how his wedding reception to his wife Vera went (or didn’t go). In short—it was a complete disaster, they have no pictures of it, and, according to him, it set the marriage off on the wrong foot for a while. The most powerful moment in the episode is at the end of the transformation, when Bobby (one of the Five) says to Bobby (the canvas)—“You are an amazing father. You are an attentive, sweet, kind husband…you really are.” Bobby names the things that he knows other Bobby needs and wants with all his heart—the things he’s tried to be but failed at. Bobby (the canvas) replies, “I know the stuff—the stuff that makes life too much—its still there. But I’m not afraid of it.”

The episode ends with a reception re-do, with Bobby saying in front of his friends and family—“I want to do this again. I want to re-do it. So I’d like to ask you (Vera, his wife) to dance. I know I’m probably not doing it right—I’m probably leading with the wrong hand—but I love you.” Vera and Bobby dance and whisper to each other “I love you.” Cue the tears.

Bobby says this to Vera because the Fab Five first said it to Bobby. You are lovable. You are able to love.

We live in a world that reminds us ad nauseum that anything short of perfection is undesirable.  We live in a world that says if you don’t meet x, y, or z standards of beauty, fashion, talent, personality, life itself, you aren’t valuable. We live in a world where we are measured based on what we accumulate, what we have, and how we show it off. And more than that, we carry the unknown and unspoken expectations of our gender, faith, family, community, and culture.

These things are the jorts of life—everybody’s got a pair and if you are smart, you hide them away, so no one can seem them. Some of us wear the jorts all the time with a mixture of pride and resistance. But, rightly or wrongly, the megaphone of condemnation is ever-present.

I, for one, welcome any voice of imputation, any voice that speaks louder than that of expectation and condemnation. Any voice that clothes the jort-ed in a fresh pair of chinos—for no other reason than that’s what this voice does. I don’t know about you, but I could use all the help I can get.

You are loved, even when you think, or feel, or actually are unlovable.