Consuming (is) caring. The Logics of “Queer Eye’s” (2018-) Ecology of Care

by Sarah Jeanette Ernst | 15th Feb 2022 | Issue The Caring Media

With the 2018 reboot of the eponymous Bravo TV show Queer Eye (2003-2007) aired over a decade earlier, the streaming service and production company Netflix (re)launched a cultural phenomenon, once again captivating its sizeable viewership with the ways five queer guys from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds manage to engage individuals somewhat lost in their ways in discussions and practices around empathy, acceptance, sociality, LGBTQ+ issues as well as discourses regarding self-love and -care. [1] Being one of the ‘feel good’ reality series of our time, its charm is based on its queerness, its intersectionality and the fact that it traces tolerance and acceptance to even the farthest and most unexpected corners of the United States. 

The original show, initially titled Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, has many areas in common with its rebooted version. Both feature a team of five men part of the LGBTQ+ community. Tellingly called the “Fab Five”, each of them functions as a professional in a different lifestyle-related field, who is tasked, in their respective area, to bring major, lasting change to the candidates’ lives. In the earliest version of the show, the Fab Five were primarily sent to the homes of heterosexual men in order to overhaul their appearance, surroundings, and view on life by lending them their titular ‘queer eye’ on their circumstances. Later in the production, the series’ title was shortened to Queer Eye, as the show rather quickly loosened its requirements for participants. 2018’s Queer Eye, which carries the subtitle More than a Makeover, follows in these footsteps, putting even more emphasis on topics surrounding diversity and intersectionality, both in the main cast and the candidates. Much like the original show, the 2018 reboot ended up being a critical and financial success. While Queer Eye is a concept that thrives on values like empathy, care, and (homo)sociality, fact is, it equally does so on ideals of consumerism, self-optimization and a commercialization of the practice of caring.

Approaching the Subject

This following essay attempts to examine the show under the theoretical lense of a media ecology after the author Katja Rothe. According to Rothe, the term combines the analysis of discourse with ethical thinking and an awareness of structural interdependencies.[2] Queer Eye is on one hand shaped and structured by practices of care and on the other a certain kind of consumerism associated with (upper) middle class lifestyles, furthermore relying on a very particular image of gay men to execute them. In other words, Queer Eye as a reality TV show centered around different notions and functions of care and empathy can be viewed as an ecology of care shaped by the commercial framework it is embedded in. That is not to say that this commercial, consumerist framework nullifies the positive the show does in terms of representation, fostering empathy for people from different ways of life and having significant and lasting impact on the individual candidates’ lives. Or even that it is detrimental to the LQBTQ+ community by possibly solidifying certain stereotypes. In fact, I would argue it   puts active effort into working against rigid gender norms. It is necessary, however, to take a closer look at the complexity and inner tensions that arise with this successful reality TV format that is certainly more than just a makeover. In this process, I will first examine the format on a formal and structural level. Examining each of the cast members’ work in their areas of expertise, specific situations from throughout the show will be webbed into the conversation, enabling an informed discussion on the various discourses the show opens, based on cultural, racial, gender-, age-, and sex-related aspects of the individuals each of the episodes centers around. Attention is furthermore put on how the Fab Five engage in the work of dismantling heteronormative structures and patterns of care, all the while not losing sight of how the Fab Five’s strategies are deeply intertwined with socioeconomical factors and consumerist attitudes, farther occupying the thin line between self-care and capitalist self-optimization.  

Form and Function of Queer Eye(2018-)

Queer Eye, like many reality TV shows, is made of episodes generally following a clear narrative macrostructure. From meeting today’s makeover’s target, over to addressing the various areas that call for expert intervention, to the eventual, emotionally charged parting of ways with the Fab Five’s latest ‘project’, which means leaving them to themselves (and the camera team) to organize an event of sorts which functions to present the freshly made-over version of the candidates to their community, and to put their newly acquired (social) skills to the test. The practice of caring clearly shapes the episodes from beginning to end. That is, 

candidates are typically nominated by close relatives, friends or community members, who had witnessed them struggle in various aspects of their lives, oftentimes further unable to accomplish what is necessary for them, their businesses or their communities to grow. Looking at some examples, there is Joey, a recent divorcee, nominated by his boss, who struggles to adjust his physical presentation to the requirements of his job promotion (S3, E2); the gamer Thomas, nominated by his sister, who has a hard time connecting to people past his computer screen (S3, E7); or Jess, a twenty-three year old lesbian, participating in the show thanks to her friends, who have noticed the debilitating effect of her adoptive parents forcing Jess to leave her home after learning about Jess’ sexual orientation (S3, E5). [3]

Whether it has to with love, family, profession, or communal service – frequently, the Fab Five are sent to people who harbor an abundance of care for their community and surroundings, but tend to lose sight of themselves in the process. The candidates can generally be considered ‘care-worthy’ on top of being in simply in need. This helps the candidates helps quickly appear deserving and the audience feel care. The circular logic resulting in a restitution of care previously spent by the candidate aids the narrative structure. 

However, the Fab Five are tasked not only to take care of and with their projects for a set period of time. Rather, they are tasked to foster self-care in individuals, who for diverging reasons had not been able to ‘adequately’ engage in it by themselves. Taking care of one’s own well-being, in physical as well as psychological terms, is communicated as the key to providing supply – sustainable, that is – of caring towards others, thus not just serving their own benefit. This helps to conceptualize care and practices of caring as interrelation networks whose individual branches need to be tend to in order for the whole system to flourish. Returning to the previously used term ‘adequate’, however, it is crucial to examine what Queer Eye understands under ‘adequate’ in terms of (self)-care, and through which techniques it is achieved. 

Caring and Consumption

Netflix’ Fab Five consist of Antoni Porowski, Bobby Berk, Jonathan van Ness, Tan France and Karamo Brown, five queer men in their late thirties to early forties with different cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. The appeal of the show can certainly be traced back to the fact that all five of them seem genuine, genuinely caring about each other, and genuinely invested in and affected by the people they share those brief journeys with. 

First, there is Antoni Porowski. Titled the “food and wine” expert, Antoni helps people reflect on their relationship to food, cooking and their general health. Porowski usually starts the transformation by going through the candidates’ kitchen cabinets and fridges, asking them about eating habits and favorite dishes, as well as taking them on some form of culinary learning experience around town. Based on the information gathered about the candidate, Antoni eventually attempts to teach them an easy to prepare, healthy yet satisfying dish to make into their new staple. Especially in this first step of examining the status quo, Queer Eye and its ‘judges’,here Antoni Porowski, avoid what is so frequently done in reality TV, namely to brutally shame the candidate for their current situation. Although curiosities (and sometimes monstrosities) are humorously commented on both verbally and expressively, the show manages not to communicate any mean intent. This is certainly owed to the acceptance, empathy and personal anchor points each member of the Fab Five brings to the table. 

Porowski, whose parents migrated to Canada from Poland, does not only use food as tool for future self-enhancement, but as a gateway to the past – personal, cultural, or communal. Nowhere is this importance of food and its ties to history as clearly explored as in Season Three’s Episode “Jones-Bar-B-Q”, where the Fab Five not only help give two sisters their confidence back, for instance replacing one sister’s missing teeth, but also by helping them brand and mass-produce their father’s secret and priced barbecue sauce recipe. The human, as well as the financial resources to enable this particular practice of care, eventually help lift up a black-owned, historical business and set the groundwork for ongoingness. While situations like these represent Porowski’s effort at its best, a more critical perspective if offered by analyzing a meme that grasped the internet after the release of Queer Eye’s first season. Porowski frequent use of avocados in his recipes quickly garnered attention. Avocados, which over the last few years have seen an enormous rise in popularity, particularly amongst (financially well-off) Millennials, have developed somewhat into a symbol of modern day contradictions between upper-middle class ideals of self-care and self-enhancement on the one, and ecological and ethical practices of caring on the other. Considering the scope of this essay, I will refrain from opening a more detailed discussion on the issue; however, it does path the way to broader topic of how the practice of caring in Queer Eye manifests itself on a material and ideological level. 

When it comes linking care and materiality, Bobby Berk is certainly the most fitting member of the Fab Five to address. Berk owns an interior design business. In terms of work hours, Berk and his team of designers and construction workers probably put most effort into changing the candidates’ lives. Through careful planning and listening to the individuals’ needs, Berk redesigns everything from food trucks to community centers, to living rooms, creating spaces that facilitate or even enable practices of caring and socializing. In Season One, Episode One, titled “You Can’t Fix Ugly”, as little as adding the detail of a second recliner chair to a new living room set up makes a significant difference, as it does not only offer the candidate Tom a more comfortable and back-friendly replacement for the dearly loved but run-down recliner the 57-year old had received from his ex-wife years prior, but also a companion chair for a future partner he so clearly longs for. [4] Here, Berk’s practice of caring works on two levels. First, he creates a space that will serve Tom as place for attending to his physical and emotional needs. Second, he provides Tom with surroundings that will not only serve him, but also his quest to find a partner to share these moments with. This beautifully demonstrates interior design’s function as a structure of care, not least because the spaces in Queer Eye are frequently used to facilitate personal or community events, like movie nights with friends or the get-together of a religious community. From the dining table in the garden for hosting your grandchildren, to the living room arrangement that provides adequate space for the members of your LGBTQ+ support group, Berk demonstrates how caring for yourself and caring for others is facilitated by customized spaces. However, it is important not to confuse representative structures of care with the actual process of caring. Here, the ties to consumerism surface. While the internal process of caring might have always been inherent, apart from mental and physical health related crises that did not allow for those processes to manifest physically, there is the presence of socioeconomic factors. 

When money is scarce and time is money, there is neither the resources to overhaul spaces, in this case, on one’s own, nor is there to outsource the practice of taking caring for spaces to others, like the service provided by Berk’s business. The ecology of care that is Queer Eye intervenes as a sort of ‘deus ex machina’, hiding its own commercial interest behind the Fab Five’s ‘performances’ of caring. While this certainly has a lifechanging impact on the individuals selected for the show, the logics of capitalism and consumerism are never undermined, with the show’s projects furthermore being selected by that very same logic which takes a decision not only on who is worthy in a market sense, but eventually also on who is deserving of care. 

Un-gendering care

While Queer Eye might not work against the idea of consumerism, it certainly works towards dismantling stereotypes surrounding the LGBTQ+ community, the gendering of certain practices of caring, and towards spreading empathy, acceptance and understanding. Although it is certainly true that the Fab Five represent a very specific type of gay and male consumer, and can be said to “train” the candidates into the consumption of particular articles usually tied to women, such as clothing and skin-care [5], they do so while opening discussions about the gendering of said practices, feelings of shame and fear of misconception associated with them, and generally try to work with the candidate instead of against them, not pushing them into presenting as somebody there are not. Tan France, who serves as the fashion expert, demonstrates this by staying firm with his opinions in order to get people out of their comfort zones, while also giving the candidates options. That is, France is not pressuring candidates into wearing clothing that might look fashionable, but just is not them. In charge of grooming and skin care, Jonathan van Ness does more than just advertise placed products, he spreads self-love and self-acceptance, teaching the candidates to work with the skin they have. Of course, seen as self-optimization, this eventually serves not only themselves and their confidence, but also makes them more ‘agreeable’ to society and the market. Moreover, instilling confidence in the candidates is not solely only achieved through exterior practices of caring, but by verbal and physical affirmations throughout the episodes. Speaking of physical affection, the Fab Five are not overly sexualized, rather they display a harmonious image of homosociality, therefore unlinking physical acts of affection between gay men with sexual desire. In one of the most unexpected moments of Season One, candidate Tom from the first episode, while going mattress shopping, joyously joins in on a group hug between members of the Fab Five playing out on one of said mattresses. This moment simultaneously shakes stereotypes of male gay hypersexuality, as well as stereotypes that might be held against the masculine, bearded southern man in his late fifties whose favorite pastime is visiting car shows that is Tom. While it is true that words of affirmation, personal histories and intimate conversations are shared between each of the members of the Fab Five and the candidates, Karamo Brown serves as the lifestyle expert and in doing so generally takes on the role of a therapist. Karamo works on untangling people’s fears, feelings of shame, regrets as well as desires, aiming to reveal a more genuine and open version of themselves. Especially when it comes to men, mental health is still somewhat of a tabu topic. Allowing oneself to talk about feelings, being vulnerable and being caring have been societally linked to the sphere of the feminine. De-stigmatizing and spreading awareness surrounding mental health and reworking the idea of professionally and structurally being taken care of from a sign of weakness to one of strength is certainly a subject that Queer Eye is targeting. However, the show fails to address the fact that working on one’s mental health is not a matter of one intense week, but one of years by trained professionals. Neither does it help change the fact that access to said professionals is not only a matter of availability, but also of financial and temporal resources, once again promoting a practice of caring that, regrettably so, is not easily accessed by most candidates due to their socioeconomic positioning. This practice of caring, too, comes at a cost. 

Final thoughts

This essay has attempted to shine a light on some of the intricate ties and contradictions between caring and consumption that are evident in the Reality TV format Queer Eye (2018-) seen as a commercialized media ecology of care. While this work solely scratches the surface of some of these issues and is in no way comprehensive, it does offer food for thought and theories to keep in mind during a future viewing of Queer Eye. Ultimately, this is not about making a decision on whether the show is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but about opening up the conversation about the complexities of what can be considered a so called structure or ecology of care.

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Referenzen und Anmerkungen

[1] Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, R.: Bravo, US 2003; Queer Eye. More Than a Makeover, R.: Netflix, US 2018.

[2] Rothe, Katja, “Medienökologie. Zu einer Ethik des Mediengebrauchs”, Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft14/8, 2016, S. 46-57, 2016, hier S. 48f.

[3] “Lost Boy”, Queer Eye, 3/2, R.: Netflix, 15. 03. 2019; “Sloth to Slay”, Queer Eye, 3/7, R.: Netflix, 15. 03. 2019; “Black Girl Magic”, Queer Eye, 3/5, R.: Netflix, 15. 03. 2019.

[4] “You Can’t Fix Ugly”, Queer Eye, 1/1, R.: Netflix, 07. 02. 2018.[5] Sender, Katherine, “Queens for a Day. Queer Eye for the Straight Guyand the Neoliberal Project”, Critical Studies in Media Communication23/2, 2006, S. 131-151, hier S. 133.