The revived Queer Eye, currently streaming on Netflix, is not about transforming an unfashionable, scraggy, failure of a man into something pretty, complemented by a nice feature wall in the bedroom – or so the reviews have unanimously argued.
Rather, the makeover show aims to, according to Junkee, find “unhappy, unfulfilled and lonely men [and try to] fundamentally improve their lives.”
But is that reading a little too romantic?
The first season of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy appeared on our screens in late 2003, when the ugly ducking to beautiful swan trope was particularly pervasive. It was a time of profound individualism, where we were being reminded politically, socially and culturally, that the individual was in charge of their own destiny; if you are poor, or sick, or obese, or uneducated, that’s your problem and you really ought to fix it.
Television shows like The Swan, Trinny and Susannah, and Extreme Makeover, worked for a time. Precisely the same time, in fact, as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
They were ambitious. They were extraordinarily capitalist. And they were about the individual taking responsibility for oneself – an overtly political message.
Is the new Queer Eye problematic? We discuss on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below.
The Netflix revival of Queer Eye has replaced the original fab five, but practices the same format. Five men approach a subject who has been nominated by his friends or family for a makeover. There’s the grooming guy, the fashion guy, the culture guy, the food and wine guy, and the interior design guy. They are playful and vibrant – for the most part authentically bonding with the man at the centre of the episode, whether it’s Tom from Georgia who hasn’t had much to do with the LGBTQI community, or the white policeman, Cory, who proudly wears a Make America Great Again cap.
“It’s heartwarming and gorgeous,” the reviews conclude. “It’s a great example of how men can care for their own communities and shape them towards being more progressive.”
And that’s true. Queer Eye dismantles traditional forms of masculinity, inspires vulnerability and encourages emotional maturity among men who have, for their entire lives, been taught otherwise. It provides a platform for these five men, who are unequivocally brilliant talent. They are great at what they do – and for once it’s gay men with the power – something that even in 2018, we do not see nearly enough.
There is, however, a ‘but’. And it’s a ‘but’ worth acknowledging.
The way they “fundamentally improve [men’s] lives,” is to buy things. Lots of things.
The transformation, largely, is material, from getting a new haircut, to buying a dining table, to purchasing an entirely new wardrobe.
Is this what self-actualisation looks like? Does an expensive belt truly transform a person?
Again - the premise is overtly capitalist: Happiness can be purchased. And it's worth asking ourselves, are we entirely comfortable with that?
If we're not, that doesn't mean we ought to boycott Queer Eye, or that one problematic message undermines many progressive ones. But we ought to be careful about what assumptions we passively consume in popular culture.
Grief or depression or pain cannot be remedied with a skincare range. A new set of curtains will not make us more interesting.
Not taking pride in one's own living space, or how one presents themselves, may well be symptomatic of something greater. But you do not solve a problem by exclusively addressing the symptoms. Material items do not fix psychological issues.
A new couch is nice. New products can be exciting, for a moment. We love a 'before' and 'after'. It offers us the greatest gift of all: possibility.
But for the vast majority of the audience, spending tens thousands of dollars in the name of 'self-improvement' isn't possible.
What Queer Eye obscures is the varied reasons for unhappiness, or for a less than enviable living situation. There's mental illness, there's physical illness, there's crippling debt, there are family obligations - and all of these interact with variables like class, race and disability.
A new couch doesn't address any of those factors.
"If I just had a new bedspread..." we think.
"If I just had a really good night cream," we muse.
"If I just got that haircut," we fantasise.
"If I looked that way...", "If I ate that food...", "If I wore those clothes," and "If I sat on that chair," then...
Well - then, and only then - I'll be happy.
That's The Capitalist Promise; with more things, we'll become the best version of ourselves.
But we know that's bullshit.