The economic conservatism of Queer Eye

Today’s reboot may outshine the original, but its failure to address economic injustice makes the otherwise progressive show more backward than its predecessor.

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I didn’t watch Queer Eye for the Straight Guy the first time round. Instead, after binge-watching every episode of the Queer Eye reboot launched earlier this year and then feeling bereft, I looked up the original series, which ran from 2003-07.

The result was both familiar and jarring. The format is superficially similar, five gay men swoop in to rescue a lost soul by giving them a total makeover, but it’s hard to imagine that the fifth and final season is little more than a decade old.

Was our taste really so bad? The women cry tears of joy after they are made over by Carson Kressley, the “fashion savant”, even when one is dressed in a long greige velvet skirt and loose net cardigan, resembling a fortune teller put through a too-hot wash, and another could be starring in a blue remake of Little House in the Prairie.

“This is a tasteful novelty tie, it’s by Mark Jacobs,” Carson says, solicitously patting the stomach of a bear-like man who has been given a sleek Victoria Beckham style bob and seems inexplicably happy about it.

The internet culture we take for granted now is seen as something exotic and inherently sophisticated. “The most fun place on earth, welcome to the Apple store in Soho!” Jai Rodriguez, the “culture vulture”, declares in one episode. “I’m excited to see if this whole online dating thing actually works,” says the design guru, after the Fab Five set up the first real-life meeting of a couple who have been chatting online for half a year – a process that Carson likes to refer to as “googling each other for six months”.

The first Queer Eye also brings into sharp relief something that troubled me about the reboot. In the older series, the Fab Five act as fairy godfathers, bestowing gifts on clueless and cash-strapped straight guys. The guys might end up a little more confident and slightly less useless as boyfriends or husbands, but these were just the side-effects: the show mainly offered an opportunity for the Fab Five to “spoil” people.

A gifted 18-year-old who has won a dance scholarship to college but has no cash is given $10,000 and a Tiffany bracelet to present to his girlfriend at prom, struggling newlyweds are given an eight-day honeymoon, the internet daters are bestowed with air tickets to visit one another. Queer Eye is partly about materialism and aspiration, and unlike the reboot it doesn’t try to hide that fact.

While in the new series, the blank and beautiful food guru Antoni Porowski invites his charges to mash avocado and reverentially sniff artisanal cheeses because farm-to-table dining nourishes the soul, or something like that, the original food connoisseur Ted Allen teaches men things like how to navigate a complicated placement – so they can feel at home among the fat cat financiers in Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurants.

Ostensibly the original Fab Five were turning men into better lovers, but mostly they seemed to be teaching poor men how to look and act rich.

In the new Queer Eye, as in the original, many of the people helped (no longer just straight guys, but gay men, trans men, and women too) are struggling financially, and some are working two jobs to get by. As before, the Fab Five throw cash at people’s problems but this time round they will seemingly talk about anything but money.

The haircuts and new wardrobes and home redecorations and pep talks are couched in the language of self-care and self-acceptance and individual empowerment. Financial problems are reconceived as psychological or spiritual ones. The Fab Five will help you find the real you and learn to love it, because once you have learned to love your true self anything is possible. Except, it isn’t really, is it?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for Queer Eye. I think of the Fab Five as close friends and when I am about to roll out of the house with bed hair and no make-up, I imagine the grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness’s fabulous horror – because we can all take five minutes for self-care, right?

When the made-over subjects tearfully thank the Fab Five for changing their life, and the Fab Five tearfully accept their thanks, and everyone hugs it out, I cry too. The personal stories, told with humour and sensitivity, are touching.

But what’s disappointing is that for a show so willing to discuss difficult subjects, the Fab Five are mute on economic injustice and inequality. They are brave and generous in sharing their own experiences of discrimination, rejection and heartache. And the programme deliberately tackles thorny issues such as police violence, trans rights and homosexuality and the church.

But when subjects are struggling financially they are either advised to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or to just overhaul their skincare routine.

The second season features a father who is working two jobs and surviving on only a few hours’ sleep a night to provide for his family. This unhealthy and unsustainable predicament is presented as the one immutable fact of his life, and it is accepted without questioning or comment.

Instead he’s given a Walmart makeover and advised to set aside a few minutes a day for personal grooming. His house is tidier and more attractive, but the real reason his life is so hard is left unacknowledged and unaddressed.

Repeatedly people stuck in dead-end jobs are advised that the key to changing their lot in life is changing themselves: they are losing in life because they are acting like losers. The dark underside to the Fab Five’s affirming messages about confidence and self-acceptance are that everything bad that happens to you is your fault. The economic and cultural structures that perpetuate inequality are deemed irrelevant.

Queer Eye aims to be socially liberal and culturally radical, but when it comes to economics, it is deeply conservative.

Read more from the New Statesman’s retro reality TV week 2018 series here.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.