Thursday, August 17, 2006


Project Runway's gender politics

This is a post about one of the many reasons why Project Runway is worth watching even if you're not (as I am not) a fashion bug.

I've always felt that straight men have been burdened with a disproportionate share of the blame for the "woman's body image" problem: it's all, or mostly, straight men's fault that women get breast implants or starve themselves into thinness.

I'm not saying straight men are blameless. But when the book is finally written on this subject (for all I know it has been... I don't read the stuff), a major culprit will, of course, be the women's fashion industry itself.

The women's fashion industry is gay guys designing for women who want to impress other women. There are no straight guys in that fundamental equation. Even if that's a stereotype, it doesn't mean there isn't a lot of truth in it.

Of course we don't actually know who's gay and who's straight on Project Runway, but we probably assume (okay, I do) that most of the male designers and professionals on the show are gay. But taking that stereotyping assumption as a starting point, Project Runway shows week-in week-out something we all should have known all along, but that some of us realize more slowly than others, that gay male personalities come in all shapes and sizes.

Having said that, there is plenty of stereotypical fashion queen stuff going on in the show. Kayne (loves beauty pageants and Marilyn) and Robert (works for Mattel designing clothes for Barbi) are this season's stereotypical designing fags, and they live up to the part by showing us fits of misogyny. We see them starting to fixate on Laura, a strong personality who's giving them stiff competition, as some sort of demon-lady, and they dish Kayne's model as though she was merely some sort of goofy mannequin.

Michael Kors plays the role of bitchy fashion judge to the hilt. Kors was a key figure in this week's judging decision where, for the first time I really noticed it, sexism came up through the cracks like a big ugly weed.

Of the three designers who bombed this week, Kayne got a pass based on the quality of his prior designs: "but he really knows how to make clothes," said Kors, saving him from elimination. The judges -- Kors and three women (Heidi, Nina Garcia and a guest judge) -- decided to eliminate the talented Alison rather than the clownish, consistently bad Vincent, because (as I point out in the prior post here) they thought Alison's design made her model look fat. Unlike Kayne, Alison did not get the benefit of her past record of good designs.

During the judging, Kors kept harping on how shocking it was that Alison, "as a woman," would commit that error. The women judges, particularly Heidi, definitely hated a design that fattened the model, but Kors really seemed to be the alpha judge on this issue.

In a sex discrimination lawsuit, the telltale phrase "as a woman" would -- rightly -- be considered smoking gun evidence of a discriminatory double-standard. That, along with the differential treatment of her and Kayne -- he got credit for his past good work, she didn't -- and you have a case I would readily take to trial.

And speaking of stereotypes and sexism relating to the judging, the weekly cell-phone poll during the show asked, this week, which of the three regular judges was "the toughest." And by a 3-1 margin, the viewers picked Nina Garcia over Michael Kors. But there's no way that's true. The two of them are indistinguishable in the harshness of their judgment, and if anything, Kors should superficially look harsher given his penchant for the cat-scratching bon mot ("it looks like a wrinkled dinner napkin!"). It's pure sexual stereotyping -- Nina looks mean compared, not with Michael, but with the expectation that women should be kinder.*

Anyway, for me, this latest Project Runway episode provides a fascinating glimpse into how misogynistic gay fashion designers play a part in women's body image. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of the gender politics (not just male-female, but also gay-straight) that swirl around in this fascinating show. One day, doctoral dissertations will be written about this show. Maybe they're being written now.

*All of this is subject to the caveat that maybe, like Jessica Rabbit, "they can't help it, they're just drawn [ -- in this case, edited --] that way." (Is Tim Gunn really such a charming mensh, or does he just play one on TV? There's a studied quality to his charm: this year he keeps rotely telling the eliminated constestants "we're going to miss you," as if focus groups told the show's producers that the old "you have to clean up your workspace now" was too cold. )

UPDATE: A commenter on Althouse, who links to this post, says:
The straight Jeffrey is also a classic misogynist. The quack comment last week and the feminazi (feminazi!) comment before.
Sounds right to me that he's no respecter of women. And he's emerging as this season's biggest jerk -- him and his tattooed neck.

I gasped out loud when they chose Alison. My friend said that they just kept Vincent around for "good TV". He's crazy. He's going to break down at some point, and you know that the cameras are going to be RIGHT THERE. It's not fair that they are treating Vincent with kid gloves while Alison makes one little slip and is out.

naszpfj=Nazri's peanut butter fluffernut and jelly sandwich.
If straight men had any influence on women’s fashions, the knit dress would never have gone out of style.
As far as I'm concerned, two things point to the fact that the female fashion industry hates women... and that women are masochists by accepting (and embracing) it:

1. Single number clothing sizes.
How can two people, one 5'0" and
the other 6'0" both be a "size 8?"

2. High heels.
Has ever a single non-drug
product caused so much damage -
and left it's users wanting more?
Sara's dead on. The sole reason that they gave the nod to Vincent over Allison is that Vincent will make better television. Also, part of the reason Santino was continually given a pass last season.

What made me mad is that they totally gave away that Vincent was staying in the tease before the last commerical break. The showed him telling dominatrix to shove some Harry Winston's up her nose while sitting on the couch. The dismissed designer never makes it to the couch.

My wife and I decided that Kayne stays because he's won a previous challenge. Had Allison won one before? I cannot remember for the life of me right now. I think Allison got caught not in gender politics but she's one of the grey area talent right now who's designs have been conistently good but no so good as to have won a challenge. The other grey area that she is caught in that she's a bland character, while the others sell for television.

I don't confess to be the expert on high fashion, but Jeffrey's dress was crazy good, to quote the kids of today. Michael's was eh to me. I thought Uli's was better.

Word Verification: Cosmxam: Industry short hand for the number one women and men magazine purchases in airport shops, Short for Cosmopolitian and Maxim.
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