What Makeover Shows Like Girlfriend Intervention Should Learn from What Not to Wear

Girlfriend Intervention is a new makeover show airing on Lifetime, and it’s been the source of some controversy since it started airing this summer. Flavorwire called Girlfriend Intervention “a racist mess” and “Queer Eye but with black women." The four hosts of Girlfriend Intervention are Tracy, Nikki, Tiffiny, and Tanisha, who specialize in beauty, home, style and fashion, and soul. They play up archetypal (bordering on stereotypical) versions of the “sassy black girlfriend” often seen in romantic comedies or television series that feature a white female lead.

The experts generalize along racial and cultural lines when they speak directly to the camera (“My white girlfriends, if they’re anything other than a size 2, they are nervous and scared… As a black woman, we definitely embrace our size for what it is”), but that was also true of Queer Eye. On the one hand, it’s nice to see a show with a multitude of African-American women in lead roles. It happens on occasion (see: the excellent Girlfriends; the, err, very popular The Real Housewives of Atlanta), but not often enough.

Archetypes that border on stereotypes aren’t Girlfriend Intervention’s biggest problem. It’s the fact that, as a makeover show, it’s pushing a brand instead of treating participants like individuals.

TLC’s What Not To Wear, hosted by Stacy London and Clinton Kelly presented very specific fashion rules, and then applied them to individuals. Girlfriend Intervention and Queer Eye have a brand, look, and show philosophy, and they fit individuals into that branding. WNTW, which aired from 2003-2013, has passed on to the great reality TV playground in the sky, but I still think about it all the time. And that’s mostly because of the great shift that took place when the show switched up its hairdressers in the seventh season. Originally, WNTW’s hairdresser was Nick Arrojo, a kind of sarcastic, resting-meh-face dude who gave the same, pixie/mom haircut to any and all of the show’s contributors that sat in his chair. And then came Ted Gibson.

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“How was your week?” Ted would so often begin. And then, in the face of frightened contributors who are way out of their comfort zone, “That’s a really heavy sigh. What’s up with that?” Ted talked to them about what they wanted and what they were scared of, not just with regard to their week in New York choosing a new wardrobe, but in their real lives back home. “How long have you had your hair like this?” might seem like it’s about, you know, how long have you had your hair like this?, but with Ted kneeling down and looking just past the contributor’s shoulder, both of them talking into the mirror, it winds up being about the contributor’s life, her self-esteem, her sense of self worth.

What Not To Wear did not live up to its title, which implies judgment and critique and correction. What Not To Wear asked questions, listened, and searched for a contributor’s truth. Okay, that’s a little touchy-feely, but it still captures the overall feeling of WNTW. Just the fact that participants on the show were called “contributors” is worth noting. They were there to add something to the show.

Compare that point of view to Girlfriend Intervention’s intro, which explains that, “Trapped inside of every white girl is a strong black woman waiting to bust out. Every week, we take a BW -- a basic woman -- and turn her from a red-hot mess into a bootylicious babe.”

In Girlfriend Intervention’s fourth episode, beauty pro Tracy Balan stands in front of the mirror with participant Cortney. Tracy is kind; she’s stern, but caring. She asks Cortney questions to get to the heart of why Cortney feels the way she does. But then, Tracy says, “I’m going to take over. Welcome to beauty bootcamp.” It’s about fitting Cortney into a mold, instead of teaching Cortney how to find her own beauty.

In another episode, the girlfriends tell Sam, a newlywed who loves fantasy role-playing, that they are “going to take you away from the dungeon and the dragons and stuff like that, and help you get comfortable, help you feel good in your own skin.”

Look, Stacy and Clinton would make jokes at their contributors’ expense. One of that show’s recurring bits involved literally throwing a contributor’s old wardrobe into a garbage can. But one of the show’s fashion rules was that, “You can show off your personality without looking crazy.” They would have tried to teach Sam that she could love what she loved without dressing like a teenager.

Girlfriend Intervention’s Tracy, Nikki, Tiffiny, and Tanisha offer a one-size-fits-all approach that is the equivalent of passing someone on the street and telling them to “smile more.” Stacy and Clinton might make fun of your mom jeans (okay, they will definitely make fun of your mom jeans), but then they’ll pour you a cocktail, take you out to dinner, and ask you about your childhood.

Stacy and Clinton (along with makeup artist Carmindy and angel-among-men Ted) guided the makeover process, but they didn’t control it. That was down to the contributor, and that’s why their where-are-they-now updates were full of hugs, tears, and continued style success stories. These are results I think we can all get behind.

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Also? It’s the only makeover show that featured a Law & Order parody.

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