- Shabdita Tiwari
Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow
With 47 episodes, five seasons and an international mini-series, the reboot of Queer Eye has very quickly become a cultural phenomenon. It has garnered high praise from its audience and is often considered a breakthrough moment on television history for the representation of the LGBTQI+ community. For the uninitiated, the show which is a reprisal of the mid-aughts, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, aired in the year 2018. Wherein, five gay men- two of whom are gender fluid and one who identifies as non- binary- help the people, i.e. ‘heroes’ transform their lives and become more independent and comfortable in their own skin. For the course of the week, the Fab Five- Tan France, the fashion expert, gives the hero a wardrobe upgrade, Jonathan Van Ness, the grooming expert, helps enhance their look, Antoni Porowski, the food and wine expert, aims to teach the hero a few quick recipes, Karamo Brown, the culture expert, tries to break down our hero’s walls and allow them to be more open and finally Bobby Berk, the interior designer, gives a swanky update to their house. This allows the hero to be more confident and independent, and lead their lives in a fuller manner. The show elicits a response from the viewers that is pure and truly joyous, oft-times moving us to tears. It was this fairytale storyline, coupled with five charismatic men and a sense of rebellion attached to the show, that it gravitated towards instant success.
In a different part of the world, on 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India repealed section 377 and decriminalised homosexuality. Two years down the line, Netflix subtly nods to this landmark decision by putting Queer Eye in my list of suggested shows. Of course, being the millennial that I am, I obliged and binge-watched four seasons of the show. The show is a warm and cuddly watch, and the authenticity of the Fab Five and the work they do, can in no way be denied or critiqued. But one thing that becomes very evident during the course of the show is how steeped it is in the realities of late-capitalism. Perhaps it will be unfair to only blame the makers of the show, and so we as viewers are equally responsible. The Fab Five are romanticizing temporary fixes, ‘zhuzh’-ing it up as Jonathan Van Ness would say. And the viewers seem to agree that a happy life is directly correlated to the money you make.
Materialism is not a new addition to Queer Eye, the original show also propagated a similar way of coping, but it was also full of tacky product placements. The reprisal has let go of the product placement for good and is overall much more sensitive to their surroundings. However, the obsession with buying new things to make lives better still remains. Out of the five guys, four guys’ jobs are rooted in the heroes’ financial capabilities. Although, for the week the Fab Five foot the bill for everything, be it clothes, grooming product, a home makeover, food and all other activities. The burden of maintaining these standards afterwards falls on the hero.
Each episode begins with an introduction of our hero and an account of their lives from the people who care about them. The Fab Five end up giving our heroes- a french tuck, better beard and hair, a room with grey pastels, an extremely simple recipe, and a long pep talk. And this is all the healing that is provided to the heroes (apart from the extremely encouraging and non-judgemental environment). The idea that having better clothes, better skin, and a better-looking house, is one that completely ignores the more pressing hardships of middle-income homes. “It’s a little bit curious that as our political discourse is concerned with economic inequality — and the soaring costs of healthcare, education and homes — the cultural conversation is fixated on the healing powers of luxury items”, writes Amanda Hess.
Katherine Sanders suggests the show made “heterosexual masculinity… compatible with the neoliberal moment.” Here neoliberalism, she says, is an economic and political perspective that has accompanied the rise of the digital age. More independent and also precarious working conditions, paired with a free market economy, means individuals must now display themselves as self-reliant and highly employable. This is evident in the portrayal of the heroes, as people who have somehow failed in achieving the desired level of confidence, style or financial independence- the standards that are determined by the culture that values your productivity above anything else. The point is when the Fab Five end their week with the hero, this ‘productivity’ that our hero was primed and prepped for, most likely wither away. At the end of the day, the realities of TV shows are drastically different, and not everyone is a fancy TV producer who can afford to live luxuriously. Because the healing that the Fab Five offer rests on indulgence and consumerism parading as ‘self-care.’
On the subject of self-care, a common viewer watching an episode of Queer Eye is self-care. We crave the fairytale story, and we want a happy ending, the parts of the story that do not depict a grand change inadvertently receive the ire of the viewers. This is evident in the huge amount of hate that Antoni Porowski receives for teaching seemingly simple recipes to the heroes. There are numerous articles on the internet asking- can Antoni really cook? We are so caught up in the drama of the Fab Five’s healing, that we are no longer looking out for the hero and what suits their needs, but versions of ourselves that never were. So, it is not appealing to see the food and wine expert teach a man to make grilled cheese or make a salsa dip, because we are looking for the drama, we want to be left in awe with a 360-degree transformation.
This is not to say that Queer Eye is not actively shaping political discourse, be it through their bold fashion choices defying the masculine-feminine binary, or them being completely accepting of each others’ identities and also differences. They have brought uncomfortable conversations right to our living room and forced us to reconsider our preconceived notions about gender and sexuality. They have taught us what a healthy and accepting environment looks like and that it is okay to spend time on yourself. These five men have waltzed into our homes and stolen our hearts, to say the least.
At the end of the day, there is an unsaid understanding that the Fab Five are selling stories, and they are required to mould these stories to fit well with any and all viewers. There is a reason that Netflix suggested Queer Eye to me on the second anniversary of the repeal of section 377. On a grander scale, the makers of the show enticing LGBTQI+ viewers on the pretext of representation is also a nod to our late-capitalist tendencies. What is often referred to as rainbow capitalism – organisations trying to direct and market their product to the members of the LBBTQI+ community who have now acquired purchasing power- is also at play in the realm of TV shows and is brazenly visible in this context. Although, like I said in the very beginning, the authenticity of the Fab Five’s work and their motives cannot be questioned and critiqued. However, we must remember, there’s always a pot of gold at the end of each rainbow, and the Fab Five have reached that end.
By Shabdita Tiwari firstname.lastname@example.org
The featured image first appeared on In Defence of Marxism on 2 December 2019.