In the first season of the Queer Eye reboot, we meet Bobby Camp. Bobby is a forty-eight-year-old father of six. His wife, Vera, is a preschool teacher. Bobby works as a drafter at an engineering firm from nine to five. After the kids go to bed, he heads to a home improvement store, where he stocks shelves. He goes to sleep at four o’clock in the morning, and wakes up again at six.
“I nominated Bobby because he never takes time for himself,” says Vera. “Sometimes he just throws on clothes, and I think, those have holes in them and they’re stained, and your hair is stringy and greasy, and you look terrible.” She adds, “I just wanted something nice for him.”
The family’s home is “pure chaos,” says Vera. There are sippy cups and toys scattered everywhere, and the sink is filled to the brim with dishes. The kids each share rooms, and Bobby and Vera share the smallest room in the house. There is one bathroom for eight people. The couple are loving parents and devoted to each other — they just don’t have the time or money to effectively manage their household.
Enter the Fab Five.
“I’m at a loss for words,” says Antoni, the show’s culinary guru, standing in the Camps’ cluttered dining room. “My OCD is coming out in violent bursts.”
“That house is messy AF,” says Jonathan, Queer Eye’s hair specialist. “It’s literally an anxiety panic attack in action.”
But the Fab Five aren’t here to judge. They’ve seen it all before. Their makeover subjects are usually overwhelmed or stuck, and often ashamed that their lives aren’t more put together, but the Fab Five are supremely understanding.
This is Queer Eye’s finest quality. On the surface, it’s a show about gay men’s good taste, but more than that, it’s a compassionate look at the obstacles that often make it hard for ordinary people to take care of themselves. It’s hard to zhuzh — Jonathan’s word for a small flourish that makes all the difference — amid the stresses and pressures of contemporary life.
“Baby Bobbers is struggs to func,” says Jonathan. “That’s ‘struggling to function.’” The Fab Five can’t make his two jobs pay him more, or double the size of his home; all they can do is help him function a little better by giving him a one-time boost plus some tips on routine self-care.
But you know who can make fundamental changes to Bobby’s and every other working person’s life? Us. Through political struggle, we can build the kind of society where everybody has the time, space, and economic freedom to adequately care for their partners and children, and still have plenty left over to attend to themselves.
Nobody should be “struggs to func,” and that’s really what socialism is all about.
Beyond Creative Coping
Tan, the Fab Five’s sartorial expert, takes Bobby’s clothes out of his and Vera’s cramped closet and inquires where Bobby acquired these monstrosities. “I get a lot of hand-me-downs,” answers Bobby. “If I’m gonna spend money on clothes, it’s gonna be for my wife, it’s gonna be for the kids. I don’t buy myself anything.”
In view of Bobby’s budget, Tan skips the boutiques and takes Bobby to Target, where he teaches him how to shop for clothes that fit and experiment with prints. This is the show’s sensitivity in action. The Fab Five aren’t asking Bobby to live outside of his means, which would only be discouraging once they and their funds have left the building. They’re just urging him to think of himself once in a while. After all, he works so hard for everybody else. He deserves to look and feel good.
Jonathan gives Bobby a shave and a haircut, and Antoni teaches him how to make healthy chili for the whole family. Behind the scenes, the show’s interior designer, Bobby Berk, is hard at work on a complete home makeover, always the most labor-intensive part of the show. By the end, Bobby and Vera’s house looks like a fairy tale, and Bobby himself looks like, as one of the Fab Five says, “a total DILF.” In their final scene together, Bobby cries and gives the gang a group hug.
The episode is not a standout — this is typical Queer Eye fare. Usually the makeover subject is a hard-working person who, struggling to keep every other aspect of their lives from falling to pieces, has simply lost track of themselves. Or they’ve got a handle on their responsibilities, but they’re locked into a routine, sleepwalking. The show’s “lifestyle” guide, Karamo, performs basically no other function besides wringing a personal narrative out of the transformee. And they nearly all say the same thing: I was so busy taking care of whatever seemed most pressing, day after day, that I forgot about me.
Feeling overwhelmed and alienated is a nearly universal experience for working people under capitalism. It’s actually part of capitalism’s structure: if you don’t own productive assets or income-generating capital, you have to sell your waking hours to somebody who does in exchange for a wage, which is what you use to purchase necessities. Put another way, if you want a place to live and something to eat, the majority of your time doesn’t belong to you. This resonates especially in the United States, the most overworked nation in the developed capitalist world.
Under capitalism, working people don’t have much time for themselves. And they often lack the money or energy, or both, to devote what’s left over to meaningful self-care. The result is a whole society of people who feel like shit, and it shows.
The Fab Five can teach people how to creatively cope, and can demonstrate extraordinary compassion and sensitivity in the act of teaching. But we don’t have to settle for coping strategies. Instead, we can fight for more free time and prosperity for all. That fight is the essence of the socialist project.
Socialism would break the contract that binds capitalists and workers together, the one that says workers have to sell the majority of their time to a capitalist for a roof over their head and food on the table. Under a socialist system, the basic necessities for a dignified life would all be guaranteed and provided by collectively pooling society’s vast resources. We know this is possible: there’s already enough wealth in the world to house, feed, and clothe everyone. It’s just concentrated at the top.
Work, meanwhile, would no longer be allocated and performed for the profit of a few. We’d decide what work needs to get done by deciding democratically what kind of society we want — not just letting corporations’ insatiable hunger for profit and workers’ desperate need for employment chaotically govern the entire economy. Under socialism, all work would actually go into creating a society that provides a better life for everyone, and there would be way less of it. For example, we could eliminate the entire telemarketing industry, and employ people instead to work fewer hours building bigger houses for large families like Bobby’s.
But socialism isn’t just around the corner. We know it will take a while to get there. In the meantime, socialists endeavor to enact reforms that can relieve the pressure capitalism puts on working people, for example by fighting for higher wages, universal health care, and more affordable housing. Even just a few small victories like these can go a long way toward giving people the space and resources to take care of themselves and feel better.
The Fab Five can’t visit every household in America. But Medicare for All can, and can save every working adult thousands of dollars and a world of stress. Plenty of people would use that extra money, time, and energy to zhuzh. And they should. They’re more entitled to pampering than private insurance companies are to their hard-earned money.
In a way, Queer Eye is a preview of the world to come. More free time and shared prosperity will mean less pressure and alienation on individuals, which in turn will yield higher confidence and greater dignity for all. Life will be less grueling, less degrading, more noble. People will walk with their heads held higher, not by the ones and twos but by the millions.
Even with more free time and shared prosperity, it will still be possible to fall in a rut, and we’ll still be able to benefit from the intervention of gay men with good taste. But socialism promises more than just personal advice from experts. It would be a total social transformation. Socialism would be a makeover for the masses.