When the Queer Eye reboot landed on Netflix a few months ago, my initial skepticism soon got washed away by the overwhelming doses of kindness and empathy the new cast showed everyone they encountered. A few episodes in, though, new questions started percolating in my head: Shouldn’t this show be called “Bourgeois Eye” rather than “Queer Eye?” Where are these people’s support systems — why do these five men need to help strangers complete basic, everyday domestic tasks? How can Jonathan and Antoni belong anywhere on the same spectrum of professional competence and emotional intelligence? Who could’ve been callous enough to stage not one, but several awful scenes involving Karamo, the sole black cast member, and local police?
At The Baffler, Laurie Penny lends her sharp critical eye to a show in real need of some serious unpacking. She pulls off a very Fab Five-like feat: blanketing her subject in affection while exposing (shredding, really) both its obvious and less-obvious shortcomings. At the core of her essay is a crucial point: that the show isn’t really about queerness; it’s about documenting (mostly white, mostly straight) “heroes” who demand, but can’t quite acquire, the emotional and other labor they’d expected to get for free.
The one thing the Fab Five aren’t allowed to do is get angry. That appears to be the trade-off for permission to enter the homes and lives of their test subjects. The show is relentlessly, exhaustively upbeat.
There’s a queasy equivocation, the constant implication that both sides need to compromise and unclench their grip on their prejudices in order to reach that magical place of acceptance. Issues of race, gender, and poverty are painfully smoothed over to force the material into a neat forty-five-minute box tied off with an uplifting message and a tasteful bow. Most grueling of all is episode five of season one, which stars a Christian father of six who works two low-waged jobs, usually sleeps two and a half hours a night and, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have a lot of time left over for personal grooming. He tells the Fab Five that he considers the state of his too-small house evidence of “not being enough” for his wife and children. It should be apparent even to the most unblinking neoliberal believer in the power of positive self-talk that the deficiency is not in this man’s soul, nor his self-confidence, but in his salary. His deficiencies have a dollar value, and culture has convinced him that that is his fault.
Money is the silent sixth member of the rescue squad. The services that the Fab Five are offering are worth more than most of these men could possibly afford—there are thousands of dollars of new clothes and furniture on offer here, and frankly, that’s no shabby way to advertise tolerance.