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The Not-So-Secret Materialism of ‘Queer Eye’

Queer Eye

‘Queer Eye’ encourages its heroes to be themselves—as long as they’re buying the right things.

It’s not that I want to burst the Queer Eye bubble. I adore its heart-warming loveliness and energetic embrace of diversity, and the way they fill their subjects with confidence fills me with joy. But behind those French tucks and that exposed brickwork lies an uncomfortably materialist message. Queer Eye might seem a liberal millennial dream, promoting messages of self-care and acceptance, but the solution to its participants’ problems is often just to throw money at them. In Queer Eye it’s okay to be gay and it’s okay to be a man with feelings—but only if you have all the right stuff to go with that.

Of course, Queer Eye is not the only makeover show that does this; much of the appeal of the genre is in seeing transformations that you could only dream of, while creating pathos by giving these expensive overhauls to those most in need of it. The premise is always that this new house/wardrobe/garden/car will solve the participant’s problems and change their life. Extreme Makeover and Ten Years Younger use pricey cosmetic surgery as their tools, while Property Brothers and Grand Designs pour their money into lavish refurbishments of houses. Perhaps Gok Wan’s How to Look Good Naked, premiering in 2006, made makeover TV’s materialism the most literal when he asked the female participants to stand half-dressed in shop windows at the end of each episode to show how much their body confidence had grown.

Queer Eye might brand itself differently from the classic makeover show, but its materialist focus is the same. The Fab Five—Jonathan (grooming), Tan (fashion), Bobby (design), Karamo (culture) and Antoni (food), the team of queer experts who guide the transformations on the show—are always ready with good advice, personal anecdotes and a sturdy shoulder to cry on. They insist they are there to help their “heroes” be their best selves, and lead honest, empowered lives. Yet in the world of Queer Eye it doesn’t matter if someone is struggling to come out to their family or needs to rekindle a romantic relationship, the solution is a fancy new wardrobe and a designer haircut. The big reveals of each episode still relate to a flashy makeover of their clothes, hair, and house, with a sidelined section on their “cultural” development (still as vague as it was in the original iteration of the show) and how they’ve learned to cook one incredibly simple dish using reasonably expensive ingredients. To become a better person you need to have expensive material goods and be attractive, no matter your social background.

Queer Eye might brand itself differently from the classic makeover show, but its materialist focus is the same. Click To Tweet

Take William from Season Two’s “A Decent Proposal” as an example. William works at Walmart, as does his girlfriend Shannon, to whom he is planning to propose. Quite clearly they’re not going to be living a highflying lifestyle. The couple live in a trailer home that’s been decorated with love, if not expensive taste. Yet the Fab Five’s reaction to the home is classist, and shows real misunderstanding of living on a low income. When they first enter Bobby seems scared to touch anything and a sofa that was bought for $30 at Goodwill is deemed a rip off. But what shocks the Fab Five the most is that William and Shannon are using furniture that Shannon had previously owned with her ex. To them this is terrible, unacceptable, a cause of William’s difficulty in romantically committing to Shannon; perhaps it’s merely that, on a low income, the couple don’t have the option of turning down perfectly good furniture for emotional reasons.

Only Antoni seems to acknowledge that they work so much they might not have time to create the perfect home environment for themselves. William and Shannon seem like a sweet couple who deserve a bit of luxury; but surely the waxing, dermatology consultation, and expensive clothing the Fab Five advise aren’t a standard that two Walmart employees can keep up? The finale of their episode is a showy proposal at an open-air cinema, complete with fancy picnic and a cheesy film made with the help of the Fab Five. It’s adorable, its loving, and it made me cry—but isn’t it the love between William and Shannon that matters, not the financial ability they have to put on a huge proposal?

When Are We Going To Get Over Biphobia?

It’s a recurring theme throughout the show that the wholesome encouragement and message of self-confidence must be accompanied by the purchase of new material items. Season One’s opening episode “You Can’t Fix Ugly” centres on Tom, who has gone through multiple divorces and is still in love with his ex-wife, Abby. He clearly needs a confidence boost and perhaps some lessons on how to show a romantic partner you care, but alongside these the Fab Five also do the standard appearance and house makeover. Apparently his recliner chair is disgusting (it kind of is) and his house is a mess (it also is), so it gets a huge redesign from Bobby. Wouldn’t it be better if the Fab Five just tidied up what Tom already has, rather than buying brand new expensive items? Instead it’s repeatedly made clear in the episode that this physical transformation is crucial to a successful relationship, betraying the materialist heart of the format.

It’s the fact that so much of Queer Eye is brilliant that makes its central failure so underwhelming. The program has been lauded for how it tackles modern masculinity, encouraging men—whether they be bearded divorcees, nerdy comedians, or Burning Man addicts—to acknowledge their emotions and feel free to be vulnerable. Even the gruffest are hugging left, right, and center by the end of their makeover, proudly telling those closest to them how much they love them. Queer Eye does men’s rights the feminist way, allowing men to do the things they feel their gender identity has told them they can’t. It’s also tackled racialist police violence in its first season, and had a trans participant in its second season. I’d never claim Queer Eye provides the most radical or comprehensive analysis of these issues, perhaps particularly in the case of its race debate, but it doesn’t shy away from talking about difficult issues.

Wouldn’t it be better if the Fab Five just tidied up what Tom already has, rather than buying brand new expensive items? Click To Tweet

Yet Queer Eye’s materialism and consumerist ethos undermines its good work and laudable intentions. Toxic masculinity, racism, and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people are deeply tied into the capitalist materialism at the heart of Queer Eye’s makeovers. A capitalist society is always willing to let individuals suffer if it makes the boss at the top just a tad more money. LGBTQ+ people are often the victims of this; we see that when the price of AIDS medication increases because of the greed of pharmaceutical companies, or in how LGBTQ+ venues are being pushed out of London and other big cities as property owners hike up inner-city rent. By combining liberal TV with materialist values, Queer Eye reflects the trend of “pink capitalism,” in which companies profit from targeted inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community, whilst simultaneously benefitting from the ways heteronormative capitalism exploits queer people.

The history of pink capitalism is a sad reflection of how quickly businesses will jump upon a radical social movement. As widespread homophobia declined around the 1990s, businesses recognized the spending power of LGBTQ+ people—particularly gay men. Queer couples often benefited from two paychecks and no children, sometimes making their disposable income uniquely high. At the same time, openly queer people became less likely to be turned away from well-paying jobs and, eventually, LGBTQ+ culture even became trendy and desirable to those who didn’t identify as anything but straight.

If Not For Capitalism, Would I Still Have Been Abused?

Western cosmopolitan culture is now welcoming to queer people, and for a business to be anything but welcoming too—at least in the public eye—is often detrimental to their success. Never is that more obvious than during Pride season, when everyone from Spotify to Burger King to Google will jump on the queer bandwagon in the hope of appealing to an audience that broadly accepts diversity. Sure, its nice that companies no longer overtly hate queer people, and that queer employees get a chance to organize and march with company floats, but the LGBTQ+ community aren’t merely consumers. As backlash to the commercialization of pride will tell you, Pride started as a protest not product placement.

Unfortunately, in a capitalist society, everything costs money, and sometimes chucking a whole load of cash at something can make a difference. Season One’s “Hose Before Bros” and Season Two’s “God Bless Gay” both involve the Fab Five getting involved in community projects, helping with a fire station’s fundraiser and doing up a church’s community center respectively. But even then shouldn’t the state be funding fire stations and community centers, not Netflix? And for the individual transformations, the focus upon stocking their lives with shiny new things just seems lazy. It reinforces the worst messages materialist capitalism has for us and this show has the potential for more than that.

While the Fab Five do sometimes incorporate old belongings into the makeovers, wouldn’t it be powerful if this happened more? Queer Eye could tell us that the foundations of a new life are all around us if we just have the right mentors, adding rather than detracting from the other inspiring messages the show has to convey. In 2018, let’s separate materialism from self-worth and make life transformations about more than pricey goods and services. In choosing not to do this, Queer Eye falls into the trap of complying with capitalism, not challenging it. It’s time Netflix changed this—and we got the heartwarmingly subversive Queer Eye we deserve.