The All-American Contradictions of Queer Eye

For Season 3 of the Netflix makeover show, Kansas City provides subjects in need of pep talks or paychecks—and often both.

Queer Eye's culture expert, Karamo Brown, with the makeover recipient Jody Castellucci
Queer Eye's culture expert, Karamo Brown, with Jody Castellucci, a makeover recipient (Christopher Smith / Netflix)

Before the five divine spirits of the Queer Eye makeover crew whooshed into his life, the 47-year-old Joey Greene didn’t regularly bathe, cut his hair, buy clothes, cook meals, or deal with the fridge stench described as resembling rotten chicken carcasses that had been eaten and then excreted by a skunk. The director of a summer camp for kids, Greene lived out of a deteriorating RV and barely used his work-appointed cabin. “It’s just never been a big deal for me to take care of myself, because I have what I need,” he explains.

“What’s wrong with wanting something that you just want, not that you need?” replies Tan France, the clothes guy.

“The way I grew up, I got it in the back of my head that that was selfish.”

Greene’s take on humility might seem radical, but similar sentiments echo throughout Queer Eye’s third season. By now, viewers are well acquainted with the telegenic stars of Netflix’s hit reboot, their ability to offer not only haircuts but also therapy, and their interest in polishing up not only straight guys but also schlubs of all varieties. Yet the show’s relocation from Atlanta to Kansas City, Missouri, has turned up a fresh and motley slate of domestic crises. A camo-wearing prison guard who wouldn’t mind femming up her wardrobe, two sweat-shellacked barbecue pitmasters, a lesbian who’s been rejected by her parents, and a slew of beleaguered dads—one about to be married, one expecting a baby, one grieving his wife’s death—are among the targets. Each receives eerily similar advice. Ask for help. Take time for yourself.

The rhythm of Queer Eye teeters ever more between comfortingly familiar and droolingly rote, and the show’s sappiness was always almost as grating as it was life-affirming. As before, though, two factors save the series. One is the chemistry of the Fab Five, who grow wackier with each season, but who also pull off the appearance of caring about their subjects as full-fledged people. The other is the inherent human interest of the makeover recipients’ stories. Each episode requires detective work—for the viewer as much as for the Fab Five—to figure out what really underlies these folks’ all-instant-ramen diet or all-flip-flop footwear regimen.

Queer Eye basically gives the same answer to such mysteries every time. The issue is, to borrow terminology from another 21st-century gay TV fixture, the “inner saboteur.” It’s not just that these people lack the know-how or resources to do better for themselves, the show says. It’s that they don’t think they should do better for themselves. A viewer might read the subjects as overdosing on American workism and self-reliance, given that they almost seem too proud—too afraid of appearing frivolous—to muss over their own look. But the show insists that putting in effort for oneself is necessarily putting in effort for others, whether the other is the spouse who wants a cleaner house or the children who might benefit from nutrients that freezer food alone cannot provide.

Getting the subjects into shape is presented as an internal matter. As Jonathan Van Ness sits his clients down for a shampoo, he spends as much screen time on grooming tips as he does on, say, swapping stories about personal loss, or advocating for three minutes of mindfulness a day. Karamo Brown, the team’s culture expert, seems to spin a wheel and land on a different self-actualization exercise each installment. Or, sometimes, not different. In one episode, he brings a subject to a dance studio, and has him look in the mirror and write affirmations. In another, he brings a subject to a dance studio, and has her sit on the ground and talk about her feelings. To both people’s relief, neither is actually asked to dance.

But the psychoanalytic woo-woo, to an even less ignorable extent than before, relies on concrete changes. Though the show doesn’t dwell on it, many of its subjects appear to be financially fragile. One lost his job and was in a car crash; one works alternating shifts with her husband and has little time to care for the house. A standout episode spotlights two sisters who opened a tiny barbecue joint to pay for one of the women’s daughter’s college. The Fab Five arrange a dental procedure for one of them, as well as the mass bottling of their secret sauce—goals that were long deferred, presumably in some part due to time and money. For another subject, who’s barely getting by on a waitress’s salary, Tan picks out a fetching biker vest. She’s thrilled looking in the mirror. “Would I buy this?” she chirps. “Absolutely.” And then in the same eager cadence: “If it were in my price range? Yes!”

Of course, it’d be silly to expect a take-home message about how America needs a makeover in the form of a stronger social safety net, but it’s not like the show is politically allergic. While the Netflix version was initially hyped as a bridge-building exercise for the Donald Trump era—the guys descended from blue New York to red Georgia—tricky social discussions are mostly absent from Season 3. What’s there instead is a subtheme of identity-based solidarity. Sometimes it’s clumsily executed, as when Jody, the prison guard who has almost no female friends, is sat down with a set of “strong women” for a group hug. Sometimes it’s a bit more graceful, as when Karamo tours the historically black 18th and Vine district with Jess, the young black queer woman who feels somewhat estranged from a sense of community.

But three seasons in, the dissonance at the heart of the show feels more and more glaring. As Netflix’s largesse furnishes regular, harried folks with king beds, Orangetheory Fitness memberships, and time away from work to learn how to cook larb, Queer Eye draws on more than the cultural image of gay men as spendy-stylish helpers. It also draws on one of the deepest tensions of the United States’ culture wars. If the left insists that individual identity cannot be understood apart from the nation’s inequalities, the gurus of the right advocate rules for living that say all anyone needs to thrive is within oneself. After the Fab Five leave, their new friends will be left with strategies and stuff to better execute upon the same dictum they always grappled with. The distance from Make it work to Make it werq isn’t that far.