interiors | PROFILE
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.”
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 self-
ishness. 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.
can relate to
sees you as a
person, as a
they have the
ability to have
and not just
— Bobby Berk
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 inter-
feres 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
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.