Queer Eye is just HGTV gentrifier pap for Democrats
It took me two years, but I finally fell out of love with Queer Eye. I no longer cry during episodes. I no longer find Jonathan Van Ness cute.
This time last year, I still enjoyed Queer Eye. At this point, I knew that there was a strong leftist critique against it, and I agreed with almost all those critiques. Queer Eye has never been activist media — it’s in the same vein as Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Hamilton. However, I also believed (and still believe) that all media is inherently capitalist, and trying to find media that isn’t problematic is usually a race to the bottom. The episodes still touched me, and I still had fun taking notes from Bobby’s designs and trying to create Tan France-approved outfits.
Lord help me, I can’t do it anymore.
My unease started with Bobby Berk’s absurd belief that one should buy a new mattress when they start a new relationship — and that they’re somehow lesser partners if they don’t. My eyes rolled when JVN promised heroes “budget tips” to take care of their skin and hair on limited means, only for those“budget tips” to really be asking the hero to justify spending more than they used to on haircuts and products. And I was never fooled by Karamo’s insinuation that having someone scale a 5.5 or hooking them up to a polygraph machine was a substitute for therapy.
I can’t point to exactly what it was with the new season, set in Philadelphia, that finally stripped Queer Eye of its glitter so gracelessly. It wasn’t simply that I couldn’t reconcile my love of Queer Eye as an entertainment vehicle with my politics. Maybe it was the fact that the new episodes just weren’t quite as entertaining as they had been before, which helped expose just how halfhearted Queer Eye’s “activism” is. Queer Eye no longer seemed any different than the house-flipping, pro-gentrifier pap on HGTV (see Citations Needed for a great episode on this specific topic) — its audience skews 10 to 15 years younger, and it has a specifically liberal feel to it, but they’re really one and the same.
Maybe it’s just that the Millennial generation is entering its Flip or Flop years— Netflix offered us a version draped in shallow social-consciousness. Now we’re hooked.
It’s literal gentrification porn
While Queer Eye does not purport itself to be a house-flipping show, Bobby Berk’s largely unseen crew work does work wonders on the homes. Some homeowning heroes have fairly unapologetically used their home makeover as a flip job; Season 1 hero AJ (one of the most watchable episodes, because AJ is about as tragic as he is handsome) confirmed that he put his condo on the market the day after filming finished. Another Season 1 hero, Bobby Camp, was a renter, and Bobby (Berk)’s home makeover motivated his landlord to put the home on the market almost immediately after shooting wrapped, effectively forcing the Camps to move out. He told TV Guide that “apparently a house styled by Bobby Berk has greatly improved value.” That’s fantastic for the landlord, but it’s unlikely the family Camp got to reap any monetary benefits. It’s not a stretch to say that Queer Eye got one of its most likeable heroes evicted. (Camp, for his part, has called it a “blessing in disguise,” but that’s exactly the label you give to something that you would have never chosen to do).
Season 3’s Joey also lost his sweet digs almost immediately; while it’s unlikely that this had anything to do with the value of Joey’s camp accommodations, his work position was eliminated before Season 3 even aired on Netflix. Joey eventually landed on his feet with a new job and place to stay, but it should also serve as a reminder that when the Fab Five leave, they leave — the beautiful new reality they’ve created for someone isn’t necessarily long-term. Or even mid-term.
As much as the fifth season tried to present a sort of consciousness about class, occasionally touching on the subject of gentrification, it makes you wonder if Bobby and Tan will glance at each other and ask, “Are we the baddies?” Even beyond the home makeovers, the show is a towering monument to the kind of trendy boutiques and eateries that force the working class out of their neighbourhoods. Many of the Philadelphia episodes take place in Fishtown, a neighbourhood where home prices have doubled in eight years. The show is sort of caught with its pants down in the last episode; Fishtown business owner Nate spends much of the episode discussing how he doesn’t want to get priced out of the neighbourhood. The Fab Five say they understand — but every other episode featured them taking Heroes to trendy Fishtown joints like La Colombe, Franklin & Poe, Aether and Pizzeria Beddia.
What in gay capitalism?
It’s not the only time the Fab Five are caught being single-issue “activists.” When they meet 18-year-old climate activist Abby, they dash around on bikes, buy vintage clothes and source repurposed furniture — which is great. One episode later, we’re back to Pottery Barn and Anthropologie (the latter is home to the Bobby Berk collection of wallpapers, and for all his #BLM Instagram posts, Berk somehow didn’t see fit to end his relationship with Anthropologie when it was accused by hundreds of people of discriminatory and anti-Black in-store practices, appropriating art and fashion styles from BIPOC and expecting a Black influencer to work for free).
There’s such a thick layer of cynicism from a show that talks about climate change and activism so sincerely for a total of one episode. How is the show any better than the adults who have patted young people like Abby on the head while not really taking her cause seriously? (Side-note: Abby has very intelligently used her post-show profile boost to do nothing but good work, and frankly it’s disappointing to see that the Fab Five have not amplified any of her social justice or climate justice work following the show considering how much they publicly keep in touch with heroes like Corey the Republican cop).
Demanding perfection from people, especially entertainers, on social issues can be a bad trap. It discourage people from trying. But it feels like a show that purports itself as a vehicle for change should be able to show more self-reflection and acknowledgment of the systems it’s played into. When you consider that at least once a season we meet a religious hero who’s forced to self-flagellate on camera for the collective trauma caused by organized religion, it would be nice if the wealthy and fabulous hosts acknowledged in any way that they are fallible — or at least showed some progress throughout the seasons.
There’s an increasing disconnect between the Fab Five and the heroes
The Fab Five consist of four queer men and one non-binary person. Two of them are men of colour. Their experiences in the world cannot be discounted. They’ve experienced homelessness, addiction, racism and of course homophobia. Last year, Jonathan Van Ness revealed prior to the release of his book that he is HIV positive. Regardless of my feelings about Jonathan’s philosophies and approach to “self-care,” I can’t be class reductionist and pretend that JVN’s life has ever been easy. But I also can’t discount that Jonathan was raised by a family that owned a mini media empire in the midwest, that he didn’t literally attend a country club as a child. I can’t pretend that he doesn’t have to work hard to identify with the heroes who are Walmart managers and servers and struggling dog groomers. Yet in the Season 5 premiere, Bobby Berk — a wealthy business owner — practically made the hero, gay pastor Noah, apologize to him personally for the rejection Berk has faced from the church. The Fab Five are still so rooted in their collective identity as queer people, with the show often insinuating that being around five queer people is liberating for the heroes. But there isn’t a sense of accountability from the hosts, which becomes more obvious as the show goes on — the lessons that the Fab Five attempt to pass down on their subjects just feel more and more like fantasy.
The Fab Five talk a lot about self-love and confidence but can’t seem to pass that down to their heroes without a fresh coat of paint. In so many episodes, they’ve said that their subject’s transformation was more inward and outward — but their bathrooms are still stocked with with $40 Herbivore toners and there are still $200 desert boots in their closets.
It’s worrisome how little therapy is brought up. John from Season 4 is one of the only heroes to even mention depression — using that word— and discuss therapy and/or medication. Other heroes who don’t have therapy brought up include: a shy college student grieving his mother, a man who still feels guilty for never telling his father he was gay before his death, a woman who is watching her husband’s health deteriorate and a young woman abandoned by her homophobic family and (presumably) living below the poverty line.
Bobby Camp, who is taken to the woodshed for his drab wardrobe and his “homeless man” haircut, works two jobs that, when combined, result in him only getting a couple hours of sleep a night. It’s not just frustrating that the episode doesn’t do anything to condemn this; it’s also horrible to know that, according to Camp, he and Karamo did discuss his job situation, with the latter helping him with resume and interview skills — and that didn’t make the final cut of the episode.
Queer Eye is enamoured with the American Dream, which is on display most evidently in Season 5. There’s a whole episode which focuses on first-generation immigrant Marcos and his scrappy success story as a business owner. There’s the inspiration porn episode about Tyreek, a young man who was sleeping in cars less than a year ago. The aesthetics of the season are drenched in colonialism, with showrunner Jennifer Lane telling Variety that she thought dressing Karamo as George Washington was subversive and powerful — “It’s kind of like Hamilton!” she says, as I chew on my lips and silently urge her to read the room.
What Queer Eye never acknowledges is the number of heroes who were betrayed by what they thought was the American Dream — like Jennifer and John, whose lives were turned upside down when John was diagnosed with ALS, because the concept of a social safety net is essentially nonexistent. Or Kevin, one of the sweetest heroes from this season; his daughter/nominator shared on social media that between filming and airing, Kevin had to have one of his legs amputated due to an infection complicated by diabetes. His daughter had to crowd-fund to help out her father remodel his home and pay off his medical debt, a campaign that was not once mentioned by the Fab Five on their social media. Bobby didn’t even bother mentioning this when shared his post-season review of Kevin’s home redesign, which seems incredibly heartless.
Next season — once filming resumes — Queer Eye heads to Austin. Governing.com has a great map of gentrification in U.S. cities (more from a statistical perspective than a human perspective, so it doesn’t always tell the full story) including Austin. There’s also a map from Urban Displacement that tracks how many people have been forced out of key areas as city dwellers in the state capital face increasing pressure (read: injustice) from urban development in the region. After four seasons in largely rural environments, Queer Eye’s faults have been exposed more clearly now that it’s had to work its magic in an urban environment. I would say I have high hopes for Austin, but I think Queer Eye knows where it’s comfortable. It’s a house-flipping show disguised as activism, and it’s done well for itself that way.