Still, it’s worth paying attention to Queer Eye’s treatment of money given the way the show—and society at large—implies queerness as a class status. The Fab Five are careful to say, per designer Bobby Berk, “We’re just five guys who happen to be experts in our field, and who happen to be gay.” Yet from the show’s title, to the cast’s joyful use of in-group lingo, to the way their advice taps the experience of conquering the closet—be yourself, forget gender norms, and work—their magic sure comes off as tied to sexuality. And that magic is, in part, their access to Netflix’s money.
In the real world, untangling fierceness and finances can only be healthy. Antonin Scalia once cited the gays’ supposed prosperity when arguing against discrimination protection. Just last week, anti-adoption legislation in the state where Queer Eye films served as a reminder of how plenty of people would like to ensure same-sex couples have no choice but to be dual-income, no kids. Even within the community, an emphasis on appearances and experiences—though maybe rooted in the liberation of being out—can create special pressures to overspend. “Are Your Gay Friends Making You Poor?” read the headline on a 2015 advice column from David Rae, an LGBT-specializing wealth adviser who’d seen many a guy lured into debt by chasing their fellow pool partiers’ $500 sunglasses.
To Queer Eye’s credit, you can discern some subtle attempts to keep money from playing too outrageous a role as fairy dust. The often-stated goal is not to wantonly sequin the straights but rather to accentuate their “true” selves with finer fabrics and fits—plus just a smidge more effort and know-how. When the team makes over an affable Trump-voting cop named Cory, for example, the grand sartorial innovation is in getting him to visit a big-and-tall retailer rather than make do with the meager clothes stocked at his grocery store. When the fashion expert Tan brings Cory into a boho tailor to pick out a suit, it’s with a wink. “Do you feel expensive?” Tan asks during the fitting process. “You will.”
In one standout episode, the Fab Five transform the cluttered home of the Camp family, where the father, Bobby, works two jobs to support his wife and six kids. Much of the hour is spent at Target. “Stores like this, they’re designed for the Bobby Camps of the world,” announces Antoni in one of his many unwittingly hilarious condescensions to his subjects. He’s right, though: The Target haul, including a Crock-Pot and well-fitting khakis, is practical for this family. Still, the logic of Netflix’s generosity being scaled for each person’s status carries a weird deterministic tinge. Who’s to say the Bobby Camps of the world wouldn’t prefer the Lacoste spree that another subject got?
During the one episode making over a gay man, AJ, the variables—self-actualization versus simple spending—become easier to tease out. It’s plainly the best episode too, encapsulating the extremes of fun and seriousness this show operates at: Minutes after AJ’s seen modeling his leather harness to the panting Fab Five, he’s coming out as gay to his step-mom by reading a letter he wrote to his dead father. And though he begins the episode with an unkempt beard and horrifyingly disorganized bedroom, his life in general already seems, to use the show’s terminology, fairly snatched. He lives in a trendy condo of exposed brick and interactive mirrors, and he has a handsome boyfriend and close group of pals.
According to Queer Eye’s Berk, once the team redesigned AJ’s condo to look magazine-ready, AJ “put it on the market the next day” and moved in with his boyfriend, to whom he’s now engaged. There’s no questioning the importance of AJ’s Fab Five–assisted coming out—it’s basically impossible to sit through it without crying. And the show may indeed have given him the psychic boost he needed to move to his next phase of life. But it more clearly, also, gave him the cash to do so.