Like many people I know, I breezed through the first season of “Queer Eye.” Or more accurately: I wept through it. Unlike the first iteration of the show, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” which dealt exclusively in aesthetics, this redux seemed interested in asking big questions and exploring masculinity and fatherhood, queerness and heteronormativity. Billed as “more than a makeover,” “Queer Eye” dives deeper than makeover reality shows we’ve seen before. Still, as I watched this season, I felt a discomfort I couldn’t quite locate, and in the second episode, I realized what it was. In “Queer Eye,” demonstrations of socio-economic class differences are everywhere, yet the show refuses to acknowledge class at all.
In that episode, we are introduced to William and Shannan, who met while they were in management training at Walmart. “Oh, it’s a Walmart romance,” Bobby says. Jonathan gushes, “It’s how I’ve dreamed of meeting my husband my whole life.”
After driving down a gravel road to the couple’s trailer home, the Fab Five enters. When Karamo points out, with disgust, the stains on the couple’s couch and asks where they got it, William answers, “At Goodwill, for $30.” Karamo is aghast: “So you have a woman who is the one? Maybe you shouldn’t have her sitting on things like this.” After William tries to defend the couch’s comfort, Karamo begins jumping up and down on the springs. Bobby is equally appalled that the couple still has furniture from Shannan’s first marriage.
Here’s something to consider: Perhaps a couch from Goodwill is what they can afford. Maybe they didn’t replace perfectly functional furniture because bedroom sets cost money. It’s possible that Shannan trims William’s hair in their bathroom because professional haircuts are expensive. For a show that touts self-love and confidence, it spends a fair amount of time ignoring financial obstacles and shaming hard-working people for their outdated or messy homes.
In short: Tan France’s French tuck advice doesn’t solve for living below the poverty line.
If “Queer Eye” is “more than a makeover,” doesn’t that mean that someone at some point should acknowledge the socioeconomic obstacles people face to changing their homes, appearance and lives? Walmart, the site of this couple’s meet cute, is notorious for low wages, poor labor conditions and actively working against unionization. In Georgia, where the show is filmed, 1 in 5 children are living in poverty. A U.N. report released last week concluded that with 40 million people living in poverty, the United States is the most unequal developed nation in the world.
You won’t hear about any of that on “Queer Eye,” where conversations on race, sexuality and religion are welcome, albeit controlled, but class remains verboten. This is, after all, a program that makes money from product placement. Beauty shots of advertisers fill the show — from facial products near the bathroom sink to the gelato the Fab Five eat while watching their newest prodigy on their giant flat-screen. We are reminded that our lives can be better, that we can be more confident, and that we will be more beloved by our partners and families if only we pick up these specific items.
The show’s blind eye to poverty is particularly galling, given its commitment to showcasing the value of members of the still-marginalized LGBTQ community. Systemic oppression is intersectional. This is certainly true for sexuality/gender identity and socioeconomic class.
In terms of wealth, Antoni, Bobby, Jonathan, Karamo and Tan represent a very small portion of the LGBTQ community. “In a 2016 study, 1 in 4 LGBTQ people [in the United States] — approximately 2.2 million people — did not have enough money to feed themselves or their families during some period in the last year,” said Tyrone Hanley, one author of the May 2018 report released by the LGBTQ Poverty Collaborative Project. Poverty rates are even higher for LGBTQ people of color and worst for those with the most marginalized identities, such as black transgender people who, on average, make less than $10,000 a year, according to Lourdes Ashley Hunter, executive director at the Trans Women of Color Collective.
Additionally, while LGBTQ youth make up an estimated 5 to 8 percent of the overall U.S. youth population, up to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. You could call the Fab Five “aspirational”; you could also call them out of touch.
In Season 1, the Fab Five transformed the messy house and life of 45-year-old father of six Bobby Camp. Within the first five minutes of the episode, the audience learns that Camp works by day at an engineering firm and then, when the kids go to bed, he stocks shelves at a home improvement store. In addition to being the primary caregiver, his wife works as a preschool teacher.
Camp doesn’t need a better grooming routine. He needs to live in a culture where he doesn’t have to work two jobs to provide for his family.
Many show participants have a tremendous amount of stuff. Their homes overflow with clutter. This fact is never treated with anything more than eyerolls and eyebrow raises and the presumption that all that is needed is some Marie Kondo therapy. But I know different. My Maw Maw lived through the Depression and grew up in a home with dirt floors in rural Louisiana. When she died, we found stashes of food and clothing and other items hidden all over her house. To minimize is a privilege. Many people don’t have the luxury of knowing there is money in their checking account to replace what they threw away.
“Queer Eye” isn’t the first makeover reality show to interface with issues of class. “Extreme Home Makeovers,” which ran from 2003 to 2012, met them head-on — it sought out and renovated the homes of people who had suffered tremendous hardships. They were swimming in medical bills or living paycheck to paycheck. Though well-intentioned, that show proved to be clumsy about financial realities, too. Because of their expanded square-footage or, in some cases, brand-new homes, show participants could not afford skyrocketing property taxes and utility bills. Their homes were foreclosed on, or owners were forced to sell.
Reality television is inherently unreal. We are witnessing a carefully constructed facade, one made to get views and make money. But for a show that markets itself with feel-good vibes, one that tries to expand conversations about race, religion and sexuality, the omission of class discourse is glaring. Economic disparity is real, and it is not the fault of an individual, but rather the culture they live within. “Queer Eye” deserves credit for its efforts to expand conversations across certain kinds of difference. But viewers should recognize the show for what it is: a pretty reality show that ignores some very ugly realities.