I love Netflix’s “Queer Eye” as much as the next person, so I was thrilled when the fourth season came out a few weeks ago. A reboot of the 2003 series, it follows a team of five gay professionals as they make over a “hero” for the week, including hair, wardrobe, home cooking skills and home decor. It’s a breath of fresh air. It unashamedly promotes kindness and positivity and celebrates individual differences. It’s certainly a nice break from the drudgery of work.
The old series often made over a heterosexual male, often white, often middle class. The reboot takes a more inclusivist direction by looking at people who often go unnoticed in society — an aging divorced redneck, an old-school teacher, a struggling black lesbian, a black man paralyzed from the waist down. It makes us feel good the way most “self-care” purchases make us feel good — it makes us feel warm and happy, temporarily. It makes us think that we should be able to “Queer Eye” our lives into hipper, happier incarnations, if only we tried hard enough.
The makeovers aren’t merely superficial. One member of the team is entirely focused on dealing with internal struggles. But it can’t be denied that much of the entertainment value of the show rests on external transformations of hair, wardrobe and home. The show’s message is that anything is possible if you “show up for yourself” and take time for that buzzword, “self-care.” But the show also clearly delivers another message: that anything is possible — with money.
The average person wouldn’t be able to afford the show’s home makeovers. Also, some heroes aren’t stuck in ruts because they’re lazy or uninspired — it’s often because they’re working in a broken economy. In one episode, a father struggling to support six children on two jobs gets advice on “taking time for himself.” But no one talks about why a man would need two jobs allowing for only two hours of sleep a night. Even as it is warm and refreshing, the show is clearly consumerist. It’s about the “glow up.” It’s bent on showing how external beauty should reflect internal transformations, and how those are easy as long as you have the time and money—things which are so often in short supply.
I read an ironic tweet about how a team of five lesbians would, instead of making you over for a week, buy you five pairs of comfortable jeans and tell you that the reason you’re tired is not a lack of self-care, it’s capitalism. Once a radical notion, famously promoted by queer black activist and poet laureate Audre Lorde—attention to self as a political, defiant act—“self-care” is now used to trick us into spending. Feel bad about your existence, the pressure to achieve and the inability to meet society’s standards of attractiveness? By all means, have a pedicure, a massage, a shopping spree.
Makeovers gloss over the fact that some individual fixer-uppers are only necessary because of a failure in society to address systemic inequality. Medscape recently came out with an article about how “burnout” is not the correct term to describe the hopelessness and fatigue plaguing physicians — rather, health care workers are suffering from a “moral injury.” The system acknowledges physician suffering and encourages exercise, yoga and so on, without acknowledging that the suffering is due to a broken health care system bent on profit. Shows like “Queer Eye” are sending us that same message — that same capitalistic promise of happiness if we just achieve more, produce more, spend more—without acknowledging that what makes us unhappy is that the worthiness of our lives is predicated on our productivity. The reason we are in a state of constant “burnout” isn’t that we’re not taking care of ourselves. It’s because we’re expected to be happy, productive members of society on insufficient wages and the expectation of endless resilience, in the middle of political turmoil.
Makeover shows can make us and the recipients a little happy in the meantime, and of course I’m going to keep watching “Queer Eye,” but let’s face it: what really needs a makeover is our entrenchment in late capitalism.
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