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Project Runway, Second Season: The Not-So-Glorious Fashion World in Reality T.V.

Working on the reality television project was somewhat challenging for a cabelless television hater like me, but when I thought everything was lost I fell upon Project Runway: Season II and the first chapter of this season became the subject of my feminist inquiry. Project Runway is a reality television show that puts 16 new and established fashion designers in a competition for a prize of $100,000 and the opportunity to design their own clothing line. The big sponsors of the show are Banana Republic (which is owned by Gap Inc.) and L’Oreal, and the host is the model/actress Heidi Klum (armed with a slight German accent and a 2nd or 3rd trimester pregnancy as the show begins, which is actually the first time I can recall seeing a pregnant women host a fashion show on American television).
Like most reality shows (if I understand the concept right) there is a bitter and high tension competition between the participants, a few of whom are eliminated in each chapter of the season, and both competitors and fashion “judges? address the cameras and speak to the viewers at home about their feelings and opinions about the fashion designers, models and of course, the designed clothes.

The intended audience for this show is probably young people (mostly women and gay men, if we fall into the old stereotypes) who are interested in fashion and in the last fashion that is the most trendy right now (at this moment as we speak, or in case of late bloomers like me, in the last season of the Runway Project). In a way it was a pretty hard show to evaluate critically since it diverged from other forms of reality television in its diversity and relatively equal representation of men and women (at least among the competitors). The show also presents people (mostly women) in a wider variety of ages and roles than the average RTV show. According to Judith Halberstam, “all (participants) tend to be young, good-looking and financially secure? in RTV shows, but among the competitors in Runway there are at least two women there who are more than 35 years old (one who is more than fifty years old), and the youngest competitors are in their early 20’s (when on most reality shows they would be the “old fellows? of the show).
So Project Runway shows men and women, including gay men, non-white men and women, and even older women, so is it all good from a feminist point of view? Well, not quite. There are some issues that linger even in this (relatively good, feminist-wise) RTV show, the first of which is the average body weight of the models (e.g. the young women that are there only as clothes hangers, or mannequins, for the competitors’ designed clothes).
I would prefer to see women of healthy weight on television and ads, but I understand that making ninety percent of the women in the world feel bad about their body weight and shape is part of the job of fashion models today. The women in the show were mostly good performers of the “walking-skeletons? fashions. One or two of them maybe were somewhat close to normal weight (from the very skinny side) but most were tall, walking skeletons. When you can see the ribcage and shoulder blades of a model on the runway you may start feeling she may be sending a unhealthy message about body image and weight to the viewers at home, but when they stand near “their? designers (without saying a word, of course, they are not there to talk) and their wrists are about half the wrist size of “their? designers (non of whom was fat, even though the two that were first eliminated in the first show had healthy figures) you definitely notice the models are extremely skinny.
The young and skinny models are not the only women figures in the show, though, and Heidi Klum (the show’s host and one of the designers’ judges) does provide a somewhat different image of women, maybe. She is very visibly pregnant in this first chapter of the show, but still wears “sexy? clothes that are light in color and show a lot of skin (especially breasts and legs). Ms. Klum shows that even pregnant women can (or should?) be sexy, blond, big eyed and well dressed. It is good and refreshing to see pregnant women on television (and not as a “bad girl? or murder victim in CSI) but I also think she must look much better than any real pregnant women in her second (or third?) trimester. Most women cannot usually afford an army of dietitians, personal trainers, makeup artists, clothe and hair designers, and who knows what else that make Heidi Klum look so good “in her condition?.
The thing that makes the show “real? and makes it work is the strong emphasis on the competitors’ emotions, hopes, faces and body gestures as they stand in front of the judges to hear the verdicts on their designs or their participation in the show (or removal from it). The more raw emotions in the show, the more attraction and “reality? it reflects to viewers. This drive to see “reality? (even if it is a well scripted, edited and acted “reality?) in television thus becomes a main drive for the reality television to show “more?: more emotions, tears, anger-tantrums and cut-throat competitions, and also more joy and happiness of the winners in the shows.
Project Runway is now in its 3rd season (I think) because it provides viewers with what they want to see: according to a study “conducted for Psychology Today…RTV viewers place a very high value on both revenge and competition; most prominent among the attitudes expressed by fans surveyed, however, is the desire for prestige and status? (Mandible, Myra) . This show has both bitter competition and a struggle for success and prestige, and it is therefore as attractive and interesting for RTV viewers as any other show of this kind.
Reality television has not become any more liked by me after watching Project Runway and attempting to analyze it through feminist lenses. This show happened to be better than many others in its representations of race, age and sexual diversity, but it still portrayed mostly unhealthy images of women among both models and competitors in the show. It is important to end with the little reminder that “reality TV? is no more “real? that any other movie or program on television or in cinema. The effects of RTV are greater because many people believe what they see is “real?, and this is also the reason feminist cultural critics have to continue educate themselves and the public around them of the true nature of the reality TV shows like Project Runway.

Comments

i think you are right, this is the first time i have seen a pregnant tv show host. also, the piece about making people feel bad about themselves as a part of fashion - that's consumer culture - you NEED this product, this pill, this cream - BUY BUY BUY.
great post!