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‘Queer Eye’, Jordan Peterson and the battle for depressed men

Progressives need to learn from the Netflix show’s battles against toxic masculinity. And the Fab Five need to recruit a trade union organiser.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
29 August 2020, 12.00am
The Fab Five: Jonathan Van Ness, Karamo Brown, Bobby Berk, Tan France, and Antoni Porowski.
(Photo By Sthanlee B. Mirador/Sipa USA)

While I was undercover at a far Right conference in Italy last year, it was easy to hide how I really felt about the people I was ‘befriending’. I’d been feigning enthusiasm for years.

Just before I went on that trip, I’d finally gone to see my GP. After nine months of therapy I was still utterly miserable, and my counsellor had suggested it was time to start trying pills. 

It had felt good to say the words out loud – “I think I have some combination of depression and ADHD.” And it had felt even better when the doctor listened, asked careful questions, prescribed fluoxetine for the former and referred me to a specialist for the latter – leading to a diagnosis this spring.

We’d agreed I’d start on the pills after my time posing as an alt-Right donor in Verona (the snooze-inducing side effects in the first month wouldn’t sit well with the work). And so as I hustled my way into the ultra-conservative networks at the World Congress of Families – spinning my cover story to a senior adviser to Marine Le Pen, breakfasting with a rock-star of alt-Right YouTube, conspiring with the man who does phone-tracking for Trump – I had to spend half my brainpower on grinding back against an endless cycle of unwanted thoughts. To pretend that my torso was something other than an insatiable black hole.

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But that was nothing new.

Netflix therapy

I’d got through the previous months with patient support from my partner, and two brilliant Netflix shows, Rachel Bloom’s mental-health musical ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’, and the rebooted ‘Queer Eye’, a careful exploration of toxic masculinity and male depression in the dying days of neoliberalism, neatly tucked into the format of a makeover reality TV show.

In each ‘Queer Eye’ episode, the ‘Fab Five’ co-hosts give a struggling hero – usually a depressed man – a lifestyle refresh: teaching him to cook something scrumptious, buying him stylish clothes, grooming him, doing up his house and supporting him to confront troubles in his life.

What this means for each character varies. But the underlying message of every cry-athon episode is the same. Toxic masculinity and competitive ultra-capitalism have taught men life lessons which make us miserable. To find joy, we need to unlearn.

While reality TV is notoriously cruel, the ‘Queer Eye’ cast specialise in kindness. Each of them opens up about their own struggles: grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness is an HIV+ non-binary former sex worker and ex-meth addict. Interior designer Bobby Berk is estranged from his Bible-belt family, and was a homeless teenager. 

Culture expert Karamo Brown is of Jamaican-Mexican heritage, grew up “very poor” and became a father at 17. Fashion aficionado Tan France comes from a “very strict” Muslim household in Doncaster, and is one of the first openly gay people of South Asian descent on a major show. Chef Antoni Porowski, the son of Polish migrants to Canada, is estranged from his mother

Each episode, I would sob to a stream of touching moments and familiar feelings, and an unbearable pressure would slip from my chest.

Far Right masculinity

As I gossiped around that Veronese conference hall, I realised I had rarely met people who so desperately needed to learn from the Fab Five.

The event was a sort of rally for far Right forces hoping to storm the European elections. But the combination of speakers seemed a bit incongruous: Catholic bishops and alt-Right YouTube stars; Italian far Right politicians and American evangelical pastors. While most started their speeches by announcing the enormous number of children they had fathered – as though success comes with the capacity to ejaculate – they were otherwise an odd mix.

When you met their audience, it all made sense. This was a world which gave struggling men meaning. Rather than helping us confront our demons, it suggested we worship them, weaving myths about masculine superiority, encouraging a world in which husbands and fathers are mini-dictators. A world where “the strong and the weak will know their place”, as Franco’s great grandson, the self-proclaimed heir to the French throne, declared from the main stage.

The key preacher in this world wasn’t any priest. He wasn’t even there: it was Jordan Peterson.

The rise of Peterson

Over the previous year my brothers and male friends and I – most of us stalked by our own black dogs – had watched in horror as the alt-Right Canadian psychology professor conquered YouTube. Like an addictive substance, he lured depressed young men back to the toxic behaviours and power hierarchies which crushed their souls. And he won fame.

Initially, he got it by demanding a return to traditional gender roles. Peterson first became famous pretending that new Canadian laws would require him to use trans people’s preferred pronouns, and raging against this invented injustice. He has criticised the Pill, and its impact on the relationship between women and men, and is best known for comparing humans to lobsters, which he claims have strict social hierarchies. 

He also has a history of sympathising with Adolf Hitler.

Peterson says he’s a follower of Carl Jung, the Swiss founder of analytic psychology most famous for the idea of ‘collective unconscious’. But like too many in a field which tends to treat problems as personal rather than social, Peterson treats our shared instincts and archetypes as almost mystical and unchanging forces, rather than the product of a society in which we all participate. He encourages fans to accept their place in a world where we almost all suffer from collective and unconscious racism, sexism and snobbery, rather than seeking to change it. 

Peterson tries to understand the collective unconscious by glimpsing the flickerings of dreams and reading between the lines of myths. But social scientists have shown how the invisible lenses through which we all see the world aren’t cast down by the gods or conjured up by magic. They are ground by history and economics and culture and the struggles of people against power. They are best explained not by Carl Jung in his tower on Lake Zurich, but by Antonio Gramsci in his prison cell on the Adriatic.

Like Jung, Gramsci showed that our subconscious shapes how we see the world. But unlike Jung, he was able to explain how our subconscious is itself shaped by the world: not by mystical interventions or mythical memories, but by human institutions, like schools, churches, armies and the arts. For nearly a century, rigorous research has developed our understanding of what he called ‘hegemony’, challenging us to question the ‘common sense’ we’re taught to intuit. 

Just as Gramsci was jailed by Mussolini, the propagandists of the powerful have long sought to shut these thinkers down, and sold us nonsense instead.

Writer and publisher Dan Hind offers an explanation for Peterson’s cult. Because they focus your mind on your mood, any self-help book delivers positive feelings – briefly: the average is six weeks. But that’s long enough to encourage friends to buy the book, and to crave a return to the nice feelings once they have passed.

This is why self-help is great for publishing companies. A world that makes people depressed endlessly produces mini-cults and sales booms. But like any addictive substance, the buzz soon goes, leaving victims pining for the next fix, and publishers with the next hit.

There are exceptions. Rumi’s reflections endure. Much of religion can be seen as self-help. But Peterson was only different from the more fleeting examples of his genre because he tapped into a vast alt-Right YouTube universe.

The fan boys

I’ve interviewed people in streets across Central Europe about the far Right, and I’ve run into many who are susceptible to the firm hand of ultraconservative psychobabble. The well-dressed young man in Košice, eastern Slovakia, who I met in February and who raged, in English, against ‘gender ideology’. The multilingual middle-class woman in Poprad in the High Tatra Mountains who was a member of the neo-Nazi party because of her opposition to LGBTQI rights. The young far Right activists in Zagreb in 2018 who were campaigning against the Istanbul convention on gendered violence, because its definition of gender is trans-inclusive.

And there was Madrid last year. At the end of my time at the World Congress of Families in Verona, the half of me that was there trudged onto a plane to Spain, having connected with the far Right party Vox. A few days later, I sat, soulless, in the lobby of a swanky hotel trying to focus past the grinding in my head and onto my conversation with the man behind Vox, the Spanish-American Ivan Esponosa de Los Monteros, who had been told I was a potential donor. 

He talked smoothly in the language of the World Congress of Families, gently suggesting that gender-violence laws discriminated against men, that equal marriage gives same-sex couples not equality, but superiority, because they ‘uniquely’ couldn’t have children. Marriage, apparently, is intended for biological parents. 

Like Peterson, he tried to frame himself as the real warrior for human rights, the true liberal.

Esponosa invited me to a vast Vox rally in a bullring outside Madrid. There, the tone was different. Wrapped in flags and with the energy of the crowd, the party’s neo-fascist roots were showing. But while the racism was implied, the sexism was clear: the testosterone in the amphitheatre gave it the aroma of a Trumpian locker room.

The Vox rally. The flag reads "Espagna do Facha, Vox" - roughly "fascist Spain, Vox". | Adam Ramsay

The attraction of these movements shouldn’t be surprising. If you are the sort of person who is accustomed to being given power by social hierarchies – white, male, straight – then those who tell you to wield that power with pride, that doing so will make you feel alive, will always be a source of temptation.

One reason that openDemocracy’s Tracking the Backlash project focuses on the war on women’s and LGBTQI rights is that toxic masculinity is a key ingredient in the cocktail that has intoxicated so many young men in recent years, and drawn them into far Right movements. 

Just as we can’t fully understand the rise of Trump without understanding Gamergate, incels, and the 4Chan community, we can’t understand the elite institutions driving us to authoritarian capitalism without understanding the sociology, psychology and social movements of toxic masculinity.

‘Queer Eye’ season five 

In late 2019, Jordan Peterson checked into rehab in Russia, crashing from public life. A fad steak-and-salt diet “the world’s most influential intellectual” had promoted to millions seems to have left him gravely sick. The cosmic battle between Peterson with his ‘toughen up’ masculine individualism and the Fab Five with their emotional solidarity was a key front in the culture war. And the new season of ‘Queer Eye’ is a victory parade.

In season five, released on Netflix this summer, the politics stops being subtle. They help a gay pastor accept himself. They study the psychological violence of Black impoverishment in three episodes with heroes bound by its chains. They show the struggle of migrant families through the eyes of a fishmonger and a pediatrician. 

They even spend a week with a young climate activist, helping ensure that she and her Sunrise Movement housemates don’t burn out in their drive to stop the planet from burning. And of course they return to their old theme of toxic masculinity.

While it’s easy to criticise the show as consumerist ‘change your wardrobe, change your life’ claptrap, the underlying messages are much more positive. Again and again, men are supported to open up to those around them, and ask for help. 

Where Jordan Peterson sees a world of individuals who must make themselves strong, the Fab Five understand that we rely on each other. It’s no coincidence that the show isn’t based around a single, charismatic, middle-aged White male guru, but instead, a collective. It’s not just chance that, while Peterson is only really an expert in magical thinking, the Fab Five each have their own, specific craft.

Fulfilment doesn’t come from reaching up, but from reaching out to those around you.

This ideology underpinning the show is perhaps best expressed through Karamo Brown, the culture expert. Netflix’s ‘Queer Eye’ is a re-boot of the 2003-7 programme ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’, which had a different Fab Five. In that version, the “culture vulture” Jai Rodriguez focussed on culture as in ‘the arts’, often giving the shows’ heroes tickets to a performance of some kind. 

But when Brown – a former social worker in the LGBTQI Black community – applied for the role in the reboot, he pitched it as referring to culture as ‘how we live together’. That he got it tells us why the new version is successful, and points to a deep shift in US politics.

At the turn of the millennium, when the original aired, liberals in the US still largely believed in the American dream. Help people access the spaces of the class above them, and you give them a ladder to socially climb. The world is made of winners and losers, and the original Fab Five helped you win.

As we arrive in the 2020s, the next generation of liberals in the world’s declining superpower are beginning to see through that mythology. Fulfilment doesn’t come from reaching up, but from reaching out to those around you.

Drugs and disconnection

The alternative to fighting depression is to see it as a business opportunity. Neoliberalism makes millions miserable, producing vast markets for fake cures. Pablo Escobar, Billy Graham, Mark Zuckerberg and Jordan Peterson all got rich hawking false solutions to the crisis of disconnection. 

My addictions are Facebook and Twitter. There, I’ve invented a constantly connected version of me. I have a stage on which to show off. Flickering screens command my attention. Internet debates distract from internal quarrels. Reality becomes a shadow and I become comfortably numb.

But just as lonely rats will choose cocaine over food, while rats kept in groups will get high in moderation, the drug is no more cause than cure. The problem is isolation in communities torn apart by brutal inequality, a world where we’re told to run ever-faster to keep up. A society of spectacle, which taught me to aspire to celebrity. 

That neoliberalism changed us isn’t a side-effect. It was the point of turning every joy of human life into a commodity. In 1981, Margaret Thatcher famously told the Sunday Times: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.” She did. By the time she left office, the suicide rate among young men had increased by 50%.

In search of class

Despite the role of our economic system in producing the depression pandemic, ‘Queer Eye’ – like the American liberalism it grows from – is missing an understanding of class.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t look at poverty. A number of its heroes are clearly imprisoned by lack of funds. But again and again, the lesson it teaches is that the path to financial security runs through entrepreneurialism. More than one of the Fab Five gained access to the middle class by building their own firms, and a huge number of the people they help are struggling business owners.

And this is where modern American liberalism evaporates in the daylight of reality. Of course a small number of people can find their way out of poverty through their own business ventures. But with limited access to capital, they will usually end up being crushed by a bigger beast, and most people won’t be given an investment by Netflix. The data shows that people in the US consistently overestimate the possibility of social mobility, and repeating that bedtime story helps no one.

The final episode focuses on a gym owner in an historically Black area of Philadelphia. Gentrification threatens his business and his community. But the only response to this from the team is to modernise the gym – which, in all likelihood, won’t be enough as the area’s landlords jack up the rent.

Just as you can only really explain the astonishing popularity of the musical ‘Hamilton’ when you understand it is an attempt by liberal America to snatch their country’s foundation myth from the shadow of Trumpism, the popularity of ‘Queer Eye’ makes most sense when you see it as an attempt to reframe the national myth: the American dream.

Know your place

In the twelve years from the collapse of the global financial system to the pandemic-induced collapse of the real economy, Western economies massively inflated the prices of their assets with billions of dollars of quantitative easing. 

As a result, those who already owned assets – houses or otherwise – did OK. Those who didn’t struggled. Wages have been stagnant in the US for decades, and millions who believed that by now they would have entered the middle class have discovered that they are very definitely working class.

It’s not surprising that many of the characters the show focuses on feel they haven’t made much financial progress in recent years. Most Americans haven’t.

For Jordan Peterson, the solution to this situation – and the reason he is beloved of the powerful – is to accept it. The sixth of his famous ‘12 Rules for Life’ – the title of his bestselling 2018 book – is “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” In other words, ‘know your place’. 

And his implicit message goes a lot further than that. The prominence that he – and so many of his fellow travellers – give to their refusal to accept trans people only makes sense when you understand that for them, there is no greater sin than refusing to accept your place in the social hierarchy. After all, if you endlessly work hard to accept your rank in a world which makes you miserable, you resent no one more than those who refuse to follow. To be trans is to transgress against their world order, and they can’t stand it.

Peterson’s message isn’t just “Don’t change the world.” It’s “Don’t change who the world tells you that you are.” And it does profound damage. In January last year, my friend Danielle, a brilliant activist who had started to come out as a trans woman, took her own life. Like thousands of others every year, she was struggling with a world that refused to accept her.

Ripping society apart

Too often, mental health is individualised. As with physical health, we are taught to believe that it is down to us, on our own, to sort it out. And as with physical health, this is essentially a neoliberal lie.

In June 2018, the World Psychiatric Association published a paper which gathered research from across the developed world and showed that there is “a statistically significant positive relationship between income inequality and risk of depression”. Equally, people at the rough end of racism are much more likely to suffer from poor mental health.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Inequality rips society apart. It tears us away from those around us, severing the connections of community.

I can only really speak to the impact it has on the ultra-privileged, like me. Boarding school forced me to grow up fast, but incompletely. I endlessly replay the terrible lessons I learned there, showing off but closing up. So much of life became performance without connection. Social media addiction hardly helps. 

But the woes of the posh boys aren’t really the point. If I struggle to live in this world, how does everyone else cope? The same 2018 meta-study shows it is those with the lowest incomes who are hit hardest by the depression pandemic. 

My neighbour is a doctor in one of Scotland’s poorest areas. Many of his patients who want help with depression face, he says, lifelong circumstances which would make any rational person miserable. But he can’t prescribe the abolition of poverty.

Progressive alienation

For much of the Left, the reaction is the opposite to the right’s individualism. It is: “Organise with millions of others to overthrow an economic system which makes us all sick.”

Of course this is something we should do. But exhortations to join the revolution aren’t much help to those who are desperately miserable now. Our political systems – particularly in Britain and the US – are designed to alienate. The purpose of them is to put off mass participation. And most people are put off. The prospect of wading through the factional flame wars of party politics, or of being beaten off the streets by increasingly militarised police, is unlikely to salve to the hole in your chest where your soul has been ripped out.

So many progressive groups are full of people searching for salvation from the depression pandemic. And, fairly consistently, they fail. We fail. Because while hurling yourself at the great injustices of the world is a great way to feel significant, it’s also a brilliant way to distract yourself from inner turmoil, rather than resolving it. 

Exhortations to join the revolution aren’t much help to those who are desperately miserable now

And in activist communities, feelings so often play out in over-intellectualised power politics. If everyone is telling themselves they are there for the greater good, then it’s hard to admit the real reason you’re upset is that your ego has been bashed. It’s hard to admit that you’re just performing your own neuroses when the planet’s burning. It’s easier to disguise hurt feelings behind ideological spars. Too often, people find it easier to split a movement than confront their own demons.

In this context, Jordan Peterson’s suggestion that you “tidy your bedroom” can seem to many like the only option: it answers the crisis of alienation by showing you something you do have power over. And it works: tidying your room is a remarkably effective way to feel better, for a bit. For a generation living in shared flats or parental homes longer than they expected, your bedroom may be the only space that you can control on your own.

Fortunately, the idea that you have control on your own or not at all is just the propaganda of the powerful. Because while activist groups are a terrible alternative to therapy, organising with our peers is the best tool we have for taking back control of our lives. 

The challenge for the left, then, is to learn how to organise miserable people, and to learn to organise while miserable. Depressed people shouldn’t be encouraged to treat politics as a distraction from their misery, but to look straight into their misery, and use it as a lens to better understand the world and a motivation to change it, together.

And that has to include giving the sort of depressed young men lured to Peterson the chance to connect with those who are different from them, to emancipate themselves from social hierarchies which are making them miserable, too.

This learning is already happening in many ways, through political networks, unions, and campaign groups. It’s a major theme of openDemocracy’s Transformation section. But what it needs is the touch of popular culture.

The super six

And this is why ‘Queer Eye’ needs a makeover. Because just as social movements need to learn from ‘Queer Eye’ about masculinity, misery and joy, ‘Queer Eye’ needs to learn from social movements about how real change happens. What better time than season six to introduce a sixth character, specialising in helping people organise not just the objects around them, but their community?

In some episodes, they might focus on workplace struggle, establishing a trade union branch with colleagues and helping them negotiate better conditions with employers. After all, the data is stark: US workers who are members of unions earn significantly more than those who aren’t. And yet trade union membership has halved since 1983.

In some, they might knock on neighbouring doors and set up a tenants' union. All across the Western world, renters have responded to the housing crisis by getting organised.

And in others, maybe they’d organise a marginalised neighbourhood to confront a local oppressor. Every community has plenty.

Rising through the US class system is impossible for most. Even more than most Western countries, ‘success’ is hereditary. Yet generation after generation of US TV shows repackage the lie of the American dream, leading millions to miserable attempts that are doomed to fail, and luring them away from the statistically proven route to improving their prospects: workplace organising.

But with Black Lives Matter launching under the first Black president, the US has started to understand that change isn’t a matter of individual progress. ‘People like you’ getting to the top of the ladder doesn’t make it easier to reach the rungs. Emancipation is achieved together, or not at all.

All politics is culture war: we interpret our material interests through lenses ground by society. And as the critic Raymond Williams powerfully argued, you can’t separate culture as ‘how we live together’ from culture as ‘the arts’. The latter is a powerful tool for carving the former.

And so as the ‘Queer Eye’ crew look ahead to their next season, glinting with medals for their battles against patriarchy, it’s time for them to start to unpick the American dream and expose it for what it is: the core lie at the heart of American nationalism. 

Winning the culture war

In last year’s European elections, the far Right didn’t do as well as many had projected. Since Trump’s 2016 election, millions everywhere have been inspired to take part in politics, desperate to oppose his cruelty.

It’s easy to focus on the hard misogyny, racism and transphobia I find when I go on my wanderings around Europe, but they don’t dominate. In most communities, most bigotries are more subtle. In most places – including places with significant support for far Right parties – most people hate the far Right. 

In a day in Nyíregyháza, an eastern ‘stronghold’ of Hungary’s far Right governing Fidez, I found lots of people who reluctantly vote for them. But very few who actually like them. Hanging around Czechia’s communist-era housing estates, where thousands vote for the country’s supposed ‘populists’, I struggled to find anyone who did so enthusiastically. They really aren’t very popular. 

Across the world, White supremacists and defenders of patriarchy aren’t feeling dominant. Their shouts are the squeals of the losers, the howls of White men failing to adjust to a world we’re increasingly being made to share.

The Fab Five/Peterson grudge match is really only an Anglosphere millennial phenomenon. Netflix doesn’t release viewer data, but, like the shows’ hosts, and me, its audience is surely mostly in its thirties. We are the children of the 1990s, whose future taught us to be alone. And we aren’t really young anymore: half the people in the US are younger than us.

In the coming years, millions of members of Generation Z will arrive in polling booths for the first time, and, across most of the Western world, polling consistently shows this is a cohort inspired not by Peterson, but by Greta Thunberg, Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter. 

These are the K-pop stans and the TikTok teens who trolled Trump in Tulsa and drown out White supremacists in floods of memes. The culture war of that generation will be fought out in a boxing ring in Madison Square Gardens, between the British-Nigerian YouTuber and Black Lives Matter activist KSI and Jake Paul, the White US rival he has accused of being racist. That’ll happen once the pandemic is over. But it’s another story. And you’ll need someone younger than me to write it for you.

Finding the joy

The pills have helped, as have kung fu classes. Getting better at talking about it has helped too, perhaps more. I sometimes think that depression is the word we give to disconnection produced by an atomised society. Perhaps most importantly, opening up brought me closer to my partner.

In February, Juliette got the train across Europe and met me in Vienna. There, she asked me to marry her. 

A couple of months later, early one morning, I sat up in bed, filled with hope. After what felt like too many minutes, she came back into the room with a serene smile on her face and showed me the test: positive. She’s due in January, and I’ve never been happier. 

With thanks to Dan Hind, Danielle Myriam, George Ramsay and, most of all, Juliette Daigre.

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