As COVID19 continues to lock many of us in isolation, I assume many are like us, whiling our lives away with the TV shows provided by our generous corporate overlords. Like all profit-seekers, media giants like Netflix continue to produce what works, and as a result—as if things weren’t bad enough—we have the misfortune of a fifth season of Queer Eye that premiered on Netflix on June 5th. A plethora of left-lib media sites, ranging from Bitch Media to Quartz, have offered a critique of the show for its failure to provide proper representation or insensitive handling of various identity issues. More commonly ignored, however, is the implied class project of Queer Eye, and whether the show is really about building acceptance or if it is just another effort in the ever-growing push to abolish the working class in favor of a universal bourgeois society.
Like most modern entertainment fed to the masses, Queer Eye is the regurgitation of a TV show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, that aired from 2003 to 2007 on Bravo. The modern show is a continuation of the same model launched in 2018: a group of five queer people—known as the Fab Five—help fix the tragic lives of (predominantly) straight men through personalized advice on food, fashion, culture & lifestyle, design, and personal grooming. After a week of home remodeling, recipe-learning, self-help nonsense, and an extreme makeover, the now-barely-acceptable former slob is revealed to their friends and community. The stated goal of the show was most succinctly stated by Tan France, the Fab Five’s resident fashion homo: “The original show was fighting for tolerance, our fight is for acceptance,” as he put it in the introduction of the initial 2018 premiere episode.
If the goal is to build acceptance then that would imply the show is trying to connect with (and presumably appeal to) people who aren’t particularly accepting of LGBT people. While the show is no doubt a profitable success, it is quite clear that the audience consists mostly of LGBT people and straight women who aspire to have a campy, sophisticated Gay Best Friend. It doesn’t take a genius to guess that the show is not likely to be prime-time viewing for culturally conservative workers in the dying Rust Belt or the coal mines of Appalachia. Like many of the pulpy, lifestyle-oriented pleasures offered by Bravo, Queer Eye is primarily for an audience of college-educated suburbanites and city-dwellers with unsatisfying professional careers in industries like tech or marketing. While the show often takes the Fab Five outside the hip, urban centers to places like Missouri, Georgia, and (most recently) Pennsylvania, it’s hard to not view this lip-service as an attempt to give a voyeuristic glimpse of the flyover country—with its baskets of fat, slovenly, poorly-dressed deplorables, the poor dears—to their disconnected coastal viewers. Given the implied separation between the viewer and the subject, it quickly takes on the character of a trip to the zoo for a group of gawking school children. Whenever glimpses of genuine human compassion and tenderness are revealed throughout the course of an episode—serving as the moist, emotional moneyshot—they must always be filtered through the memory of opulent champagne toasts and the “don’t worry, we’re going to fix this unfuckable loser” lede which invariably precedes them.
The reality is that the goal of Queer Eye was never to build a culture of acceptance in the places that could use some assistance in that department; instead, it is just another manifestation of the “extreme makeover” shows that flooded television throughout the 90s and early 2000s. The show treats its unfortunate subjects as vehicles by which to further propel the careers of the Fab Five, while advancing a disdainful and patronizing view of the poor and of working-class aesthetics—that is, treating any remaining signs of being of the working class as a problem to be diagnosed (and solved, superficially) by your betters in the professional and managerial class (PMC). From the Fab Five themselves, to the majority of the people they are “helping,” the show reflects and promotes the values of a group of men and a nonbinary person (Jonathan Van Ness is nonbinary) who are all wealthy business owners and PMCs, helping to reeducate and restyle their fellow PMCs, whose aesthetics or values—we are led to believe—are too conservative or too working class. These failings usually include things like religious belief, wearing camo, enjoying hunting, or just not having the time for extensive self-care routines and an immaculately clean house. Rejoice, little piggies, your managers are here to disrupt and optimize your sad life!
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The Fab Five themselves are a who’s who of prominent media figures who, by birth or aspiration, have truly learned to embody the values of the capitalist class. Despite many of the Fab Five being new to mainstream audiences, they have all enjoyed long careers profiting off the exploitation of workers while building their own fabulous economic empires—which has only continued in light of the extra dose of fame provided by the show. The hosts are: Antoni Porowski, an actor-turned-restaurant manager and personal chef; Tan France, the grandchild of denim factory owners, who went on to own several fashion brands (he eventually sold them, retiring at 331Honestly, this Refinery29 article is a hilarious capsule summary of these people. It combines garish product placement for a personal finance company with some mawkish prosperity gospel shit.); Karamo Brown, an MTV reality star and later contributor to media like The Young Turks and Huffpost Live; Bobby Berk, a “self-made” businessman who owns an interior design company; and lastly, Jonathan Van Ness, proud descendant of a family that has owned a media conglomerate since the 1980s, and who went on to own an LA-based upmarket hair salon. Since the show first aired, their careers have only continued to blossom—all of them have written books, started new companies, signed endorsement deals, gained further media jobs, and (like all whose stars are ascendant eventually will) entered the world of activism and politics. It will surprise nobody that these forays into politics by our queer titans of industry were primarily an attempt to boost the fortunes of neoliberal Democratic candidates like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. These guys aren’t your lovable gay best friend; they’re your asshole gay boss whose rich parents bought him his business as a graduation gift.
Given that the Fab Five could not be more disconnected from those conservative-leaning, working-class “middle Americans” they so generously “help,” it is lucky that the vast majority of people they are assisting are not working-class people at all. Instead, the majority are fellow PMCs and business owners (and even a prison guard, just in case anybody hadn’t grasped the class project yet) who just haven’t taken the time or made the effort to assimilate bourgeois norms. Inside each one of these unfortunates is locked so much human potential—the potential to correctly perform the class signifiers that are their rightful inheritance! Of the 32 episodes based in the US, only around a quarter of the people they help are in recognizably working-class positions (e.g., restaurant servers, construction, bartenders, and firemen). Just over half of the beneficiaries of their goodwill work in professional and managerial positions, expressing the show’s deep commitment to diversity by showcasing PMC careers like programming at a university, being an IT professional, managing an NGO, and even being a town mayor! It’s a sort of twisted, mirror-universe revenge of the nerds scenario. The balance of the poor, pathetic darlings are a smattering of business owners, security state workers, or (ew!) unemployed people.
It may seem surprising that the show is focusing so much energy and money on people who already have successful careers and enjoy a prized place in the economy, but the show is all about self-help rather than changing the material conditions of people. Self-help is a popular vice among the PMC. Once you’ve internalized the idea that your seemingly superior position in life is the result of your individual talents and hard work, it’s easy to believe that you can continue to relentlessly optimize your wellbeing by eating the right foods, changing your appearance, or simply changing your mindset and behavior. Behind this relentless optimism, however, looms near-certain disappointment for anyone not already in their special economic club. All of this is pointless, and for most there is no reason to be optimistic that somehow changing your thoughts or appearance will fix the things that are holding you back in life. Working people in America can barely pay their bills or afford healthcare, but we are led to believe that if they can just access the clothes, food, and lifestyles that the Fab Five enjoy, they’ll be on the road to success. For the show it’s much easier to fix professionals and those who can already signal their membership in a more cosmopolitan and educated set, as entry to this club is how the Fab Five became fabulous and wealthy. To patch up the fortunes of working people, they might have to confront the precarious situations and harsh economic realities for workers. The audience really doesn’t want to see this, in the same way we don’t like watching those TV commercials about sad, tortured animals. Of course, if the project of transforming the proles into an obedient petite bourgeoisie isn’t a complete success, the ideology of the ruling class has an easy dodge: personal responsibility. Sorry, bucko, we tried to fix your sad life, but you just didn’t want it badly enough. Liberals sneered when Jordan Peterson peddled his 12 Rules for Life—effectively just another personal-responsibility, self-help fad—but give it a coat of lavender paint and suddenly you’ve got a cultural moment and five seasons of an inescapable television sensation.
While the show occasionally has to confront traditional or conservative attitudes towards LGBT people, the fact that these values seem to be more prevalent among working people who are denied access to material security and quality education is quietly side-stepped. Sure, people are poor and suffer hardship, now cut to commercial so we can get back to transforming this defective young professional into a proper bourgeois aspirant, fit to take up his rightful place in the world! With that task completed, we’re quickly on to ministering to the next afflicted soul, like missionaries trying to maximize heavenly rewards while on a brief overseas posting. The show cloaks its hostility to lifestyles that the coastal elite deem “backwards” or “distasteful” in a tone of wide-eyed, rapturous zeal, and is intent on saving as many of the unfortunates as they can by recruiting them to join their well-groomed team. It’s not about helping working people change their lives, but instead is about erasing anything identified with the working class in order to create a universal society of PMCs—a society in which the bourgeoisie can enjoy the culture they’ve built without having to deal with the unwashed masses ruining it for them with their huddled, pleading desperation. It is a straightforward pursuit of ruling class interests, with a syrupy and mawkish gay veneer.
So watch the show if you wish, but be aware it’s not about kind-hearted helpfulness; rather, it is the naked expression of the neoliberal ambition to dismantle what small parts of working class America they haven’t already destroyed. All that is left to attack after endless austerity and bogus free-trade deals is the sense of self that being a product of the working class provides. Once that is gone, we’ll finally have reduced the value of every person to whether they’re capable of joining the club, and those that aren’t can simply whither away for failing to meet the standard. Truly, what a fabulous vision of the future.
Queer Eye season five is now available for hate-watching on Netflix.
|↑1||Honestly, this Refinery29 article is a hilarious capsule summary of these people. It combines garish product placement for a personal finance company with some mawkish prosperity gospel shit.|