Bobby Berk has enjoyed a lot of success, particularly in recent years as a member of the Fab Five on the Netflix reboot of Queer Eye – a reality TV show where five gay men give men (and occasionally women) makeovers to help them improve their life.
Although the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy that ran from 2003 to 2007 was meant as a means of making queer individuals more visible in a society that was becoming more accepting of their identities, the reboot is meant to bridge the gaps in a fractured American society.
The show has been a resounding success, being nominated for four Emmys in 2018 for its first two seasons, and winning three: Outstanding Structured Reality Program, Outstanding Picture Editing for a Structured or Competition Reality Program, and Outstanding Casting for a Reality Program.
It’s the casting that truly makes the show. Berk and his fellow hosts transform the lives of men in deep red communities with a type of openness and understanding that is rarely seen in such tumultuous times.
Berk’s part in the show is as interior designer for their “heroes,” the term given to those they provide makeovers to. The other members include stylist Jonathan Van Ness, who gives the men a physical makeover and coaches them on grooming habits; restaurateur Antoni Porowski, who teaches the men to create a healthy and tasty dish for their friends and family; stylist Tan France, who restyles their wardrobe while helping the men make personal choices about their clothes; and life coach Karamo Brown, who breaks down the walls of what’s holding them back from living their best life.
While the other four men focus on the hero themselves, Berk’s part of the show is the least attached to the individual, remaking their home while they are off with the other four. However, Berk points out that his is the part that sticks around the longest.
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“We use design as a physical manifestation of new beginnings, so every day when we’re not there to support them and encourage them, they wake up reminded of us every single day,” Berk explains. “I think my vertical is the one that stays with them the longest. Not to belittle any of my brothers, but a haircut, it grows back out. They can start wearing their own clothes again. But their home, unless they plan on spending a lot of money to redo it again, it’s something that is going to stay with them for years.”
Often times, as Berk pointed out, the heroes’ inner turmoil and depression manifests itself as the physical appearance of their homes. One makeover, which will appear in season three, was for a man dealing with serious depression issues, and Berk’s part was not only to add pillowcases to the bed, but to give him a reprieve from the clutter and chaos inside.
The Rocky Road to Success
Listen to Bobby In His Own Words
Fans of the show will know that the Fab Five do more than just approach a project from an outsider’s perspective. Throughout the series, each of the five open up about their own struggles as gay men. In the fifth episode of the first season, titled “Camp Rules,” the five head to Marietta, Georgia, to help Bobby, a devout Christian and father of six. While planting a garden with the hero, Berk opened up about his own concerns with a religion that caused him so much pain growing up.
As a child, Berk surrounded himself with design. “I was always really interested in design, even though I didn’t know what that was. As a little kid, I remember changing the décor of my bedroom and it always had a theme. I would move around my parents’ furniture, and I would help my mom make pillows and quilts. I was always into that, but, again, it wasn’t something I thought someone did as an adult. The closest I ever saw to a professional designer growing up was Designing Women.”
It wasn’t until Berk saw the Michael Graves collection for Target that he began to realize that useful things could be made with the purpose of making someone happy.
However, at 15, Berk had to leave his family’s home when he came out as gay. As he put it, any thoughts of finishing high school, much less receiving a college degree in design, were halted at that time.
Using Personal Pain to Bridge Political Gaps
It’s this recollection of the past and coming to terms with their own realities while helping their heroes – at times men who previously held homophobic ideologies or voted in the 2016 presidential election against the interests of the LGBT+ community and other minorities – that has made the show so binge-worthy. (Seasons one and two are currently streaming on Netflix. Prepare the tissues ahead of time.)
Opening up about their own struggles on the show, the Fab Five are able to humanize the struggles within the gay community to those who may not have otherwise heard first-person accounts of what it’s like to grow up queer in America.
When asked about design’s ability to bridge political gaps in a fractured American society, Berk admits, “I don’t know if I can necessarily pinpoint how design helps us in a political sense, but I can tell you the way I use it in the show to affect change.”
He continues, “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, this is Queer Eye. It’s about gay guys.’ No, it’s about five guys who are experts in their fields who use their fields as tools to have a conversation with our heroes. For me, I use it as a way in. I’ll start talking about design and the way it affects their family and them, and it often opens up doors so I can talk about experiences I’ve had, and experiences other minorities have had. I use it as a gateway to have a conversation that is not as harsh, not as directly political, but in a way to humanize myself and others like me and other minorities to where people can relate on a different level. For me, I use design as a tool to help me relate to them in a better way. Once someone can relate to you, once someone sees you as a person, as a human just like them, they have the ability to have more empathy towards you and understand your plight and not just their own.”
Breaking Down the Walls of Polarization
This use of design – as well as the other four verticals – is the larger impact of the show. Although the internet makes it easier for people across the globe to have conversations faster and with more diverse populations, research has been done over the last two decades to understand the impact of the internet on human empathy.
In 2011, Dr. Gary Small, M.D., and Gigi Vorgan, co-authors of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind wrote an opinion piece for CNN in which they asked, “Is the Internet Killing Empathy?” In it, they cite a 2002 study published in Brain and Cognition that showed that adolescents, who tend to use the internet more than other age groups, struggled to recognize the emotions of others. Using teenage volunteers, researcher Robert McGivern and his team were able to study responses to facial expressions – a necessary component in registering empathy. During the teenage years, humans begin to develop their ability to be empathetic, as well as the region in the brain that registers empathy.
Young people use their temporal lobes, a portion of the brain which has a depressed ability to understand empathy, leading to increased amounts of selfishness. As Small and Vorgan describe it, “In many ways, the young teenage brain is non-empathetic.”
Adults, on the other hand, use the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that is able to process how our actions affect other people.
The move from using the temporal lobes to prefrontal cortex involves face-to-face interactions, during which a young person’s brain begins to connect the dots between their actions and the way the other person may be feeling based on facial expressions. Small and Vorgan state, “We are concerned that all this tech time interferes with young people’s learning and development of basic empathy skills, such as maintaining eye contact or noticing subtle nonverbal cues during a conversation.”
What research suggests is that without seeing the reactions of one’s statements and actions through the computer’s screen, more conversations are being had without the brain being able to understand the impact of one’s statements on another person, creating a disconnect in the components required to gain empathy for others.
In putting themselves on a TV show while having difficult conversations about society, religion and politics, Berk and his Fab Five co-hosts help to create empathy in not only their heroes, but within viewers as well.
“Honestly, I think the biggest impact is the fact that it’s helped bridge the gap a little bit,” Berk says. “We’ve become so polarized and on either side of everything. Through this last election [in 2016], we went through and anybody who didn’t have the same political views as us, we deleted them, we unfriended them, we blocked them. We just want nothing to do with anyone who reminds us of politics at the moment and the opposite side of the aisle. And I think what we’ve done is that we’ve shown one another that, you know what, just because someone voted a certain way, you shouldn’t define them by that. We’re not. We’re five gay guys walking into the houses of guys with Trump signs on the front yard, and we’re finding commonalities. These are guys that, to this day, we still talk to and are friends with.”
The Impact of Design
The impact of the show has been immense during its short stint on Netflix, particularly in the personal lives of the show’s heroes. The internet became enamored with Tom, a 57-year-old divorcee featured in the pilot episode and his quest to win back the love of his ex-wife, boosting the show’s following. It boasts a rating of 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
One of the biggest success stories from the show is Cory, a 36-year-old former Marine and cop, during whose episode Brown, a black man, not only pulls the now-iconic red Make America Great Again Trump hat from Cory’s closet, but has a meaningful conversation about the relationship between people of color and the police in America. It is difficult to watch in some places, but Berk says that not only do the Fab Five keep in contact with Cory, he has since quit his job with the police force to start his own DJing company. While Cory may have started the show uncomfortable with the LGBT+ community, he now excitedly DJs at local gay weddings.
A big part of the change in Cory comes from the differences in his living situation. Before the show, the main living space of his family’s home was clearly designed by and for his wife and daughters, while Cory’s shenanigans, including frequent parties in which he dresses up in a variety of costumes, was relegated to the downstairs den.
While discussing the home’s design, Cory admitts to Berk that he felt out of place in his own home and like it wasn’t a space for him, a frankly common refrain in American households where there are still remanences of the idea that the home is the wife’s domain. In redesigning the upstairs to reflect both Cory and his wife’s personalities, rifts between the two began to heal, and Cory felt more at home with his family.
But what’s more: Queer Eye opens the door for designers to have more discussions about the impact of design on the health and well-being of the end user, approaching political conversations such as the importance of decreasing carbon emissions through sustainability and the social responsibility engrained within places like public amenities.
Design can create positive changes in a politically turbulent time, and the success of Queer Eye proves people are starting to pay attention.
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