The cast of Queer Eye dug into Bernie Sanders in what was ostensibly a critique of style in a 2018 video that has recently gone viral amid the Democratic primary. The cast members extolled Hillary and Bill Clinton, while denying to have ever “felt the Bern.” A more bald defense of class interests under the thin veneer (or light concealer) of aesthetic criticism is hardly imaginable, but the video does raise important questions as to the real meaning and material impact of Queer Eye and the capital-controlled culture industry it manifests.
Queer Eye is first and foremost a show about style. Style is what each “hero” (what the show dubs the subject of each episode) lacks and, in the most positive assessment, style can transform the subject interiorly by putting on at the same time a new dress and a renewed self-confidence. Style is, nonetheless, the most supremely superficial plane of sensory experience, referring solely to idiomatic aesthetic patterns. The substance of style can be found only in its propagation, which it achieves by mimetic instances of consumption. In this respect, Queer Eye is no different from similar iterations of the style television genre, from “What Not to Wear” to “Property Brothers” to “Salt Fat Acid Heat” to “Dr. Phil” (indeed, this too is but an aestheticized reduction of psychotherapy, racing to achieve katharsis within its forty minute runtime). If anything, I grant Queer Eye the achievement of combining these elements into one program, and thus sparing the ever busy cultural critic the tedium of enduring that host of specialized style programming.
What is it that the contentless idiom of style, whose quality may be assessed in its reproducibility alone, reveals besides “an obedience to the social hierarchy,” as the Frankfurt School realized over seventy years ago? It is this numbing mechanism of aesthetic intoxication that transfigures into that yet more seductive rationale for consumption that the Fab Five valorizes as “self-care.”
Once a reservation of bourgeois decadence, self-care is now available at your nearest retailer (provided you’re visited by an intercessory group of queer guardian angels and their gracious bestowal of funds)! At first glance, the contemporary notion of self-care appears an orientation towards self-consciousness and well-being that liberates from servile market labor. Such it would appear to Jacobin writer Meghan Day, for whom Queer Eye prefigures the “makeover for the masses” that only Socialism shall fully accomplish. Let the scales of a regressive comprehension of political economy fall from your eyes, however, and you will see the protean shape of capital rear its multiformed head.
Following a shift in mid century left critical theory, Marxists began to realize that under monopolistic capitalism competition-based supply and demand disappears and consumption takes in its place. Subjects consume based on perceived need, which the unilateral control of signs (via ubiquitous advertisement through the culture industry) can induce. This in mind, we must cautiously approach the exhortations towards “self-care” emanating from wealthy personnes célèbres that almost invariably involve changed patterns of consumption. Even if a particular recommendation avoids suggesting a certain commodity, the language of self-care reinforces itself by its repetition, and in its echo resounds with a motif suggestive of passive consumption.
Finally and perhaps most deceptively, Queer Eye cloaks its fundamentally conservative praxis (conservative because it serves to maintain the political economy) with the flamboyant mantle of progressive social thought. At the very beginning of the first episode, Tan France girds the series in the arms of the perpetual war for civil rights, asserting “our fight is for acceptance.” Antoni Porowski, however, comes in handy to deescalate his colleague’s overly militaristic language with the conciliatory consolation “my goal is to find out how we’re similar, as opposed to how different we are.”
Fear not, fellow Americans! Queer Eye comes bearing no sword, but the balm of reconciliation. The Fab Five can assure you that they, in fact, are different from their revolutionary forebears. This is not the disruptive queer movement of the Stonewall riots, but a secure celebration of incrementalism à la Capital One sponsored Pride Parade. And yet, how are we to demand otherwise from a “Netflix Original Production”? Should a grossly profitable entertainment endeavor be expected to undermine the structure under which it yields its gains?
To explain how the simulacrum of liberation itself works to re-enchant and reinforce the political economy is a task too broad for my scope, but suffice it to say in my entirely unoriginal observation that the amoral institution of capital subsists by the appropriation of morality. The entirely laudable goal of uplifting marginalized groups becomes, under capital, a commodification of those identities and their integration into the bourgeoisie, the class identity that trumps all others.
All this is to say that Queer Eye’s political message is engrained in the very concept of the program. Entertaining though it may be, and even uplifting at times, we must remember Henri Lefebevre’s admonition that the illusionment of capitalist ideology proves no cure for human immiseration and no substitute for concrete transformation of the world.
Absent a revolution, I suppose we must applaud our most diverse ruling class, welcome our sensitive technocratic overlords, and celebrate a more humane capitalism! All in all, the Fab Five prove lustrous campaigners for Elizabeth Warren.