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Why we should question the ‘self-care’ of Queer Eye

TextLeila Sackur

In the age of makeover reality shows, the Fab Five’s help is just as individualistic and exclusive as the rest, despite the emotional backstories

Netflix’s tagline for its 2018 hit reality show, Queer Eye, is: ‘More than just a makeover.’ The show is all about self-care, which is interpreted for its global audience as DIY grooming, healthy eating, and checking in with yourself. When Audre Lorde, a black lesbian activist, first used the term self-care in A Burst of Light written after her cancer diagnosis she was talking about self-preservation as an act of “political warfare”, a prioritising of the self in a world that wants you to die. On Queer Eye, self-care is described by Jonathan Van Ness as, “an inside job” – work you have to do on yourself to be presentable to the workplace and the world, rather than as vital recuperation from that world, and a recognition of its cruelties.  

In its depiction of both personal and superficial transformation, and the focus of the inner selves of the show’s subjects and their inspiring backstories, Queer Eye differs from other makeover reality TV. For example, in Extreme Makeover, a series that ran on ABC from 2002 to 2007, subjects were frequently derided for their appearances and given plastic surgery. In spinoffs Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and later (in 2011) Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition, the plastic surgery element was removed, but contestants were still fat-shamed, forced into new clothes and make-up, and into the gym for gruelling daily workouts. 

There’s no self-care on Extreme Makeover; for one, the show aired before Instagram feminists and wellness brands popularised the previously political term, and for another, contestants on Extreme Makeover are generally denied an exploration of the self beyond their failures to be physically attractive. Likewise, Channel 5’s 2016 show, 100% Hotter, is rooted in public perception. Subjects of the show are critiqued by presenters Melissa Sophia, Daniel Palmer, and Karen Williams for being too sexual or too out of touch, and fitted with a more ‘flattering’ look. Afterwards, members of the public are asked to decide whether the show’s participants are indeed now, 100 per cent hotter.

On Queer Eye, we get a bit more context. In season three episode four, “When Robert Met Jamie”, the Fab Five tell Robert they won’t stand for his self-deprecating attitude towards his weight. Karamo takes him to a dance studio and they go over his disgust with his body. “Nobody else is saying these things about you,” Karamo tells Robert, and together they write positive adjectives on the mirrors; ‘father’, ‘good guy’, ‘handsome’. This is a confident assertion from Karamo that betrays an ignorance of the daily shame and marginalisation experienced by fat people. Earlier in the episode, Tan takes Robert to a boutique and buys him dark, flattering clothes to “cover the areas he is concerned about.” A tip from Tan: vertical stripes are better for hiding a bigger stomach than horizontal ones.

“On Queer Eye, self-care is described by Jonathan Van Ness as ‘an inside job’ – work you have to do on yourself to be presentable to the workplace and the world, rather than as vital recuperation from that world, and a recognition of its cruelties”

Maybe it would be an unfair expectation for the Fab Five to address the structural issues underlying Robert’s insecurities in the space of one week, when fat activists have been working on this for years. But what we don’t need is more footage of Robert struggling at the gym, implicitly suggesting to the audience that the problem with fat people is that they have simply never considered exercise. Antoni shows Robert how to make a chicken salad using no oil, butter or carbs, after throwing out all the food in the fridge and looking grossed out by canned cheese. The episode is basically Robert being told to go on a diet in the nicest way possible. Because this ideology is shrouded in quips about the link between mental and physical health, and because, superficially, the Five are dealing with Robert’s insecurities on an individual basis, we might miss the similarities between this footage and that on Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition.

Although the journeys are different, Queer Eye ultimately reaches the same conclusion as other makeover shows. After a whole week of self-improvement, our heroes of the show are objectively better than ever, and they also have a new house, courtesy of Bobby. While the show’s subjects aren’t necessarily mocked for being overweight or cheaply dressed, they are still taken to gyms and independent boutiques. Women are given heels, make-up, and flowing tops. Men are given button-downs and tan shorts. Although conventional gender norms and standards of beauty are adhered to, the whole thing is repackaged as a form of self-care. The contestants should do these things because it will make them feel better, and feeling better will make them look better, and looking better will make them more successful.

On Queer Eye, self-care is isolated from the radical political roots originally intended by writers such as Audre Lorde, and is repackaged for the mass-market as glorified me-time. Although the self-care tips offered up by the Five might be effective in the individual lives of the ‘heroes’ they work with (a quick glance at some of their Instagram accounts show them, for the most part, retaining the advice and becoming mini-influencers themselves) self-care on screen represents a privatisation of social care. Given that, for British and American audiences, income inequality is at record highs, and current governments are doing their best to privatise existing social healthcare, the idea that self-care alone could radically improve the lives of Queer Eye’s viewers is little more than fantasy. 

The cleansing and grooming rituals depicted on, and encouraged by Queer Eye would better be described as simply ‘personal care’. Removed from being a call to collective survival, care on Queer Eye is purely individualistic. Although the private individuals on the show have temporary access to the professional help, high-quality corporate-sponsored products and clothing offered by the Fab Five, most people do not.

“Although conventional gender norms and standards of beauty are adhered to, the whole thing is repackaged as a form of self-care. The contestants should do these things because it will make them feel better, and feeling better will make them look better, and looking better will make them more successful”

Perhaps this is what’s so addictive about the show. It’s comforting to imagine that in a world where you’re often unable to access these moments of care, a group of celebrities might help you out. It’s comforting to imagine that ‘self-care’ on its own can be transformative. According to Queer Eye, a face mask might be more than a face mask; it can count as time spent committed to the conservation of yourself. 

But in reality, for a 2019, austerity audience, Queer Eye does little but reinforce the idea that (in the nicest way possible) we’re on our own, and survival and happiness lies in a new suit, an afternoon at the gym, or a lip and cheek stain duo.

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