I’m a writer, and I know that reality TV is not good economics for writers, and I still watch it. I know it’s partially or totally staged and edited and I don’t care. I’m fascinated by the truth of it, and it does contain a kind of behavioral truth that exists nowhere else (or everywhere else, perhaps): we all know this.
But where I’m going is to the recent episode of Project Runway. This is a show that I resisted for some time. Then I got hooked: Bravo was hip to binge TV watching even before Netflix; it’s no accident that they frequently play 10 hours of their reality shows back to back. TNT does this with Law and Order too, of course, but that show doesn’t have the competition thru-line to grab you.
And reality TV is based on competition. Even Real Housewives – I was hooked on that for a while, trying to see if the Orange County girl who was married to the cancer guy was going to get away with it – has a kind of competition. We root for certain people and not for others. And as much as I like to watch Top Chef or Project Runway for the tidbits I learn about cooking and fashion, I also very certainly enjoy seeing who rises and who falls, and seeing if I agree with Heidi Klum or not.
It’s fitting that I write this trash TV confession as the Olympics draw to a close, since I find myself watching those events and hoping for any and all American athletes to grind the Chinese into the dust. I am not a patriotic person, so this fervor confuses me in part, but a lot of it boils down to that unforgiving medal count that NBC loves to wave in front of your nose. WE MUST WIN.
This week on Project Runway, however, not one but two contestants decided that, actually, one does not have to win, in order to have an adequate life, even as a fashion designer.
And then the show devoured them.
Michael Kors, responding to the first dropout, announced, “Fashion is not for sissies!” The word sissy has a clouded etymology, but seems (logically) to have derived from sister, and thus to be particularly insulting to men. Wikipedia has a delightfully raw description of sissyish, effeminate behavior: “e.g., saying ‘mua mua’ before hanging up the phone or using creams.” Using creams? Who wrote this? Fez?
Andrea was the first dropout. She is a teacher, somewhere, which was further used against her – she’s setting a bad example by QUITTING. In the previous week’s episode, she had been paired with one of this season’s two bitchy queens, and he had, in his own words, thrown her under a bus during the critique session. And you could watch her come to the realization – thus the fascination with reality TV, it happens right in front of you – that she didn’t give a shit, really.
I looked at it a different way than the carping designers, being the 27-year-old retired teacher that I am. I thought, if I were a teacher and went on that show, I would have a lot more “fuck you” in me when it came to the judges. You know? Andrea was older, she knew what was up, she knew which way was which, and she wasn’t going to bend over and ask Nina Garcia for another.
And then another contestant left: Kooan. In the first few episodes, this guy was so weird, he was like a mix of a Tamagotchi (yeah, you had one, you big sissy, so did I) and William Hung, the American Idol “She Bangs” freak of years past. I call him a freak because that is what American Idol offered him up as. We’re all too cynical to buy the subsequent success story that they tried to hatch around his broken shell – look Ma, a record deal! He was carved up and put on a platter for us, and we ate him. And I thought Kooan was a similarly savvy choice by the producers. In the same way that The Glee Project chose to have a transgender contestant, a paraplegic, a blind man, and a girl who looked like Justin Bieber, all on one season.
But Kooan quickly retreated from his wacky persona and became very moody, especially after Andrea left. And then, despite cajolings to the contrary, including one from Tim Gunn (and it must take moxie to say no to those pursed lips), he literally bowed out of the competition. He said he knew there was another way to make it as a designer, and he was going to pursue that way.
All of this struck a chord with me since right now I have forked over money and time to put up a show at the Fringe Festival. There are all kinds of competitive instincts that come with that. There are basic ones that come up any time with the theater, and then Fringe ups the ante by offering “Best Of” awards, and “Audience Favorite” ballots for you to harangue your spectators with. Those poor folk who have already surrendered their time and money to watch you express yourself.
You can easily get caught up in it. Perhaps you should, if you want a career in this business, or any business. Or maybe that’s just a New York mentality.
It’s made me think about the one act competition that I watched as a high schooler and then participated in as a teacher. It felt awfully good to collect a second place trophy after all that toil.
But you can also look at it like Kooan did. And decide that there is another way – not only to gain success, one assumes, but also satisfaction.
Ah yes. Satisfaction. Win all the awards you want, you can still be hollow at the core. Just ask Meryl, that poor skeleton of a woman.
No but really. This is building a house with a foundation of sand.
It’s true that Andrea probably would have shown more grace and class (and perhaps integrity, the way Didion describes it in “On Self-Respect”) by announcing to everyone that she was leaving, like Kooan did. But I still think the contestants, and Michael Kors, did her greasy by treating her like a coward and a sissy. It was an abuse of the term. He should have said, “This little competition isn’t for every asshole on the street!”
Unless he was thinking of the way sisters can be, like when your big sister gracefully exits stage left and lets you have your moment. Sometimes being a sissy can be great.
As for competition, the M-W etymology for compete is enough to make you weep:
Late Latin competere to seek together, from Latin, to come together, agree, be suitable, from com- + petere to go to, seek
To seek together.
Ah, dear. We have lost the original sense. And I think that’s what the other Runway designers were responding to, when they found themselves a bit psychically dizzy from the double quittings. Why were they so upset – in reality TV competition, it’s a good thing to lose other contestants – if not because they peered into the center of their enterprise, and realized it was hollow?
I am going to finish my run in this theater festival with the words “to seek together” in my mind.