Who was shocked when a study last year found that gay men on average earn about 10 percent more than straight ones? TV and movies insist that the typical gay guy is a fashionably equipped, mimosa-swilling city dweller. But the truth is that the study was a milestone: The comparable research before it had shown a gay wealth gap, with homosexual men lagging behind heterosexuals in wages, more likely to be on food stamps, and less likely to find a job. If gay men are, in general, richer now, it’s a new thing—and for many, “gay affluence” is still a myth.
When it debuted in 2003, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy capitalized on the image of the outwardly prosperous gay man—and insisted high-quality handbags should match high-quality inner lives, offering up an inspirational, aspirational symbol for Americans gay and straight. The Netflix reboot, just titled Queer Eye, continues the mission with impressive finesse. For this edition, the “Fab Five” gurus descend on Atlanta, from where they launch interventions into the lifestyles of the dumpy and normal. They teach firefighters and basement-dwellers how to make eye contact and julienne carrots. They also buy them new wardrobes, smart haircuts, and—for the surest wows—drastic home renovations.
It is great, great TV. Much credit goes to the group of highly watchable experts, whose breakout stars include Karamo, a satin-swathed bro whisperer; Jonathan, a whirligig of sass and kilts and moisturizing wisdom; and Antoni, the self-consciously pretty boy and supposed food whiz (he’s aroused suspicion for doing little more than slicing avocados, but of greater note is the cyborg calculation clear in his every lip bite and eyebrow arch). Their targets are nicely varied and likable, too. They range from a Lupus-affected, ex-wife-obsessed, jorts-bound, Mountain Dew–addicted car collector (all along, he should have been drinking charred rosemary and thyme lemonade!) to a quiet, semi-closeted gay guy who mostly just needs a shave and a housecleaner.
The show, on its face, asks questions about masculinity, stereotypes, and the estrangement of blue and red America (the show opens with a journey from New York City to Dallas, Georgia, population 12,629). The early parts of each episode buzz with the energy of culture clash, and there’s always an awkward-funny scene of the queers rummaging through a knickknack-strewn home, leering at crusty underwear. By the end, it’s an orgy of friendship and crying, testifying to the transformative power of incorporating a pop of color into one’s daily look. The wave of essays and tearful social media responses in response confirms the show’s success in calibrating humor, meaning, and heart. (Do read this lovely piece from a viewer inspired to stop washing his face with bar soap.)
But Queer Eye doesn’t want the audience to think quite so much about what’s arguably its greatest entertainment: the easy-breezy spending of money—and money’s great proxies, time and labor. Hollywood screenwriting textbooks advise creating characters who have an external motivation (get the treasure, save the world) and an internal motivation (find love, move on from trauma) so that movies can provide the magic of resolving two quests at once. Queer Eye performs the same sleight of hand. Can you learn to love yourself anew without new stuff? The show, unsurprisingly but also significantly, avoids the question.
For example, maybe the app designer who’s the subject of Episode 2 really does need to be made more comfortable with hugging, as the show insists. But maybe his bigger need is for his long-neglected back deck to be furnished in modernist wicker. It’s hard to say. The viewer’s amazement comes in overlapping waves as personal breakthroughs swirl in alongside before-and-after shots of apartments and clothes. Tig Notaro’s Twitter feed nailed it: “Next season on queer eye: What my husband really needs, more than anything, is a renovated kitchen with a farmhouse sink—I mean CONFIDENCE he needs confidence.”
To be sure, linking swag with happiness is the American way. Google “makeover shows and class” for a glimpse at how academia has rigorously subjected Ty Pennington to Marxist deconstruction over the years. One of the most significant music videos of 2018, Drake’s “God’s Plan,” mainlines audiences the warm fuzziness of seeing successful people handing out loot to less successful people.
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.