How did you spend your summer vacation? I spent mine in a dissociative fugue of materialist excess, lying prone on my couch and watching all four seasons of “Queer Eye,” the Netflix makeover show reboot. Once an hour, I briefly regained consciousness to feverishly click the “next episode” button so that I wouldn’t have to wait five seconds for it to play automatically. Even when I closed my laptop, the theme song played on endless loop as Jonathan Van Ness vogued through my subconscious. The show is a triumph of consumer spectacle, and now it has consumed me, too.
Every episode is the same. Five queer experts in various aesthetic practices conspire to make over some helpless individual. Tan France (fashion) teaches him to tuck the front of his shirt into his pants; Bobby Berk (design) paints his walls black and plants a fiddle-leaf fig; Antoni Porowski (food) shows him how to cut an avocado; Jonathan Van Ness (grooming) shouts personal affirmations while shaping his beard; and Karamo Brown (“culture”) stages some kind of trust-building exercise that doubles as an amateur therapy session. Then, they retreat to a chic loft, pass around celebratory cocktails and watch a video of their subject attempting to maintain his new and superior lifestyle. The makeover squad cries, and if you are human, you cry too.
Because “Queer Eye” is not just a makeover. As its gurus lead the men (and occasionally, women) in dabbing on eye cream, selecting West Elm furniture, preparing squid-ink risotto and acquiring gym memberships, they are building the metaphorical framework for an internal transformation. Their salves penetrate the skin barrier to soothe loneliness, anxiety, depression, grief, low self-esteem, absentee parenting and hoarding tendencies. The makeover is styled as an almost spiritual conversion. It’s the meaning of life as divined through upgraded consumer choices.
Just a few years ago, American culture was embracing its surface delights with a nihilistic zeal. Its reality queens were the Kardashians, a family that became rich and famous through branding its own wealth and fame. “Generation Wealth,” Lauren Greenfield’s 2018 documentary on American excess, captured portraits of people who crave luxury, beauty and cash as ends in and of themselves. Donald Trump, the king of 1980s extravagance, was elected president.
But lately American materialism is debuting a new look. Shopping, decorating, grooming and sculpting are now jumping with meaning. And a purchase need not have any explicit social byproduct — the materials eco-friendly, or the proceeds donated to charity — to be weighted with significance. Pampering itself has taken on a spiritual urgency.
Practitioners of this new style often locate its intellectual underpinnings in the work of Audre Lorde. But when Lorde wrote, in her 1988 essay “A Burst of Light,” that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” she was speaking in the context of managing her liver cancer — and doing it as a black lesbian whose health and well-being were not prioritized in America.
Now the ethos of “self-care” has infiltrated every consumer category. The logic of GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow’s luxury brand that sells skin serums infused with the branding of intuition, karma and healing, is being reproduced on an enormous scale.
Women’s shoes, bras, razors, tampons and exclusive private clubs are stamped with the language of empowerment. SoulCycle and Equinox conceive of exercise as not just a lifestyle but a closely held identity, which backfired when some members were aggrieved by the news that the chairman of the brands’ parent company is a financial supporter of President Trump. Therapy memes imagine mental health professionals prescribing consumerist fixes, which are then repurposed by beauty brands. Even Kim Kardashian West is pivoting to the soul: Her latest project is launching a celebrity church with her husband, Kanye West.
And through the cleaning guru Marie Kondo, who also became a Netflix personality this year, even tidying objects can be considered a spiritual calling. Her work suggests that objects don’t just make us feel good — objects feel things, too. She writes of old books that must be woken up with a brush of the fingertips and socks that sigh with relief at being properly folded.
“Queer Eye” has further elevated material comforts into an almost political stance. When the reboot of the original — which ran on Bravo from 2003 to 2007, as “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” — debuted last year, Netflix announced that it intended to “make America fabulous again” by sending its crew deep into the red states to “turn them pink.” By preaching self-care to the men of Middle America — it has so far plucked its makeover subjects from Georgia, Missouri and Kansas — the show would heal the nation itself through the power of stuff.
Is “Queer Eye” a political show? In a sense, yes. Van Ness, the show’s profoundly magnetic grooming expert, rocks a signature look of a Jesus beard, mermaid hair, painted nails and high-heeled booties. His fashion and grooming choices have an obvious political valence; he recently came out as non-binary. When he makes over some straight dude, it is as if he is imbuing the process with his own transgressive identity, even if he’s grooming the guy into a standard-issue cool dad.
Anyway, it’s wonderful to watch. In contrast, the original “Queer Eye” no longer goes down so easy. The show’s exclusive focus on providing men with physical upgrades now plays as cynical. The Fab Five ridicule their marks as much as they help them. More than a decade before same-sex marriage would be legalized across the United States, these five out gay men were quite obviously punching up.
But in the new version, the power dynamic has flipped. The difference between the Fab Five and their charges is no longer chiefly one of sexual orientation or gender identity. (This “Queer Eye” also provides makeovers to gay men and to women.) The clear but unspoken distinction is a class one.
The “Queer Eye” cast may come from humble beginnings, but they now reside in coastal cultural centers and hold fulfilling and lucrative jobs. Their makeover subjects are lower- and middle-class people who are, though it is rarely put this way, struggling financially. This “Queer Eye” handles them gently. As Van Ness puts it in one episode: “We’re nonjudgmental queens.”
It’s a little bit curious that as our political discourse is concerned with economic inequality — and the soaring costs of health care, education and homes — the cultural conversation is fixated on the healing powers of luxury items. What does it mean, that materialism is now so meaningful? “Generation Wealth” posits that extreme spending is a symptom of a civilization in decline. Americans may not have what they need, but at least they can get what they want, even if it’s on credit.
The writer and performer Amanda-Faye Jimenez recently posted a meme to Instagram of a child swinging blithely on the playground as a fire rages in the forest behind him. The forest is tagged: “My personal life and career.” The child: “The skincare routine.”
Material comforts are comforting: cooking a nice and interesting meal; living in a tidy and beautiful space; soothing tired eyes with a cool mask. And money helps you get money: The subjects of “Queer Eye” are typically made over in a standard professional style, as if they are being retrofitted for the work force. Surreptitiously, “Queer Eye” provides vacation time, too: Its subjects somehow receive a week off from work to focus on themselves.
The trouble is that when “Queer Eye” offers these comforts, the show implies that its subjects have previously lacked them because of some personal failure. They have been insufficiently confident, skilled, self-aware, dedicated or emotionally vulnerable. The spiritual conversion of the show occurs when the subject pledges a personal commitment to maintaining a new lifestyle going forward. But what these people need is not a new perspective. They need money, and they need time, which is money.
“Queer Eye” offers a kind of simulation of wealth redistribution. But every time the Fab Five retreats from the scene, I imagine the freshly-painted homes slowly falling into disrepair, the beards growing shaggy again, the refrigerators emptying.
In the fourth season, which dropped last month, the team makes over a single dad from Kansas City who is known as “the cat suit guy” because he wears feline print onesies to local sporting events. By the end, he gets a new corporate casual wardrobe, and a pop-up support network for his depression — he struggled to discuss it with anyone until the cast of “Queer Eye” broke through his shell.
As they prepare to leave, he tells them that he really needs them to stay in touch. “You’ve got to check on me,” he says. Absolutely, one of them says: “On Instagram.”