Extendable tethers: skeptidrama and a lesson from Project Runway


If you haven’t read Greta Christina’s thoughtful, extrapolative recaps of Project Runway, the U.S. fashion-based reality series, you should – whether or not you’re a follower of fashion, talent shows or trash culture at large. Rifling through someone’s rubbish bins, as the tabloid press’s urban foxes will confirm, can be the fastest means of learning sordid truths about them; likewise, our culture’s attitudes to sex work, womanhood and cutthroatism show up most clearly crawling through its trash, and Greta’s posts dissect them. At present she’s in ‘writer hibernation’ working on her upcoming book, but since this week’s Runway offered a powerful lesson in conflict-response – one which brought various Deep Rifts and in-fights to mind – I thought I’d salute an absent friend.

Sitting comfortably? Let’s recite the parable of Ken Laurence, Runway‘s latest eliminee.

Placing last in a task where outfits had to be made for series fans rather than models, Ken went home in the tenth and last episode of the current series. The dress he gave the woman paired with him, an olive green above-the-knee affair, might feasibly have worked but was crammed with problems: its neckline was neither here nor there, caught as judges noted between plunging and scooping, its shoulders either side discordantly broad, faced with gunge-green leather; this same leather formed branching accent lines of inconsistent length on the dress’s front, which cut awkwardly across the wearer’s chest without continuing onto the back half; the garment’s length seemed slightly off, hem hovering in an odd place, its colour a touch-and-go choice. (Ken claimed his client insisted on the olive while he hated it, something both footage and her recap of the episode dispute; he now claims to have thrown the challenge so as to go home. Nor do I buy this: his dress seemed less than good, but not bad by design.)

By the time he left, Ken had placed quite consistently at the competition’s lower end. Barring a sudden, great leap forward, he probably couldn’t have won – but it wasn’t just due to his work that I’d spent weeks awaiting his departure. Throughout the series, Ken showed a disturbing, threatening attitude to those around him.

When another designer early on was angry, aggressive and abusive toward a colleague, Ken responded in kind; irrespective of how justified this was, and I wasn’t at the time unsympathetic, this inflamed an already heated, potentially dangerous situation. Teamed with two fellow contestants, one of whose technical skills seemed limited, Ken spent the challenge broadcasting his views of her uselessness – including to the series’ host and at length to its judges, covering his back when the group’s designs were slated – instead of working to keep the team afloat. When his individual work was criticised, he was often silent and contemptuous; when judge Heidi Klum disliked a dress of his, in particular, he fixed an intense, menacing stare on her which made her ask uncomfortably if he was ‘giving [her] a look’. (He didn’t respond.) When he made unpleasant comments to Helen, another designer, and she told him he was crazy, he replied she’d be crazy ‘if I come the fuck over there’ – a statement she very reasonably took as a threat, telling production staff she felt unsafe and prompting them to say they’d keep an eye on him. (Soon after he apologised to Helen. While she stated she felt it was genuine, his tone struck me as insincere, unremorseful and rehearsed.)

Finally, during the episode of his eventual elimination when fellow designer Alexander was moved into his room, attempting abrasively, presumptuously and insensitively to enter, Ken stood ironing in the doorway, intentionally obstructing him; once allowed in, Alexander shoved his ironing board aside and threw the iron across the room, at which Ken launched an extended, intense, threatening tirade against him and all nearby. Told by a production assistant to sit down, ‘take a breath’ and stay calm, he refused, continuing to swear aggressively at her, causing Alexander and another person to ‘run to [another] room, shut the door and lock it’. All other designers were shown next morning in the set’s green room, variously wearing sunglasses and under blankets, suggesting they hadn’t slept, where Ken flatly replied ‘I guess so’ when asked to discuss the night’s events with them. People moved previously into his room, Alexander among them, were separately accommodated, giving Ken his own multi-bed room, their placement together being deemed ‘too incendiary'; told he had ‘some anger management issues’, Ken seemed silent and contemptuous again, saying only that he ‘woke up fine’. Another contestant replied he didn’t, and that the group was ‘very shaken’, looking it himself. Helen worried about ‘another eruption’ and further ‘chaos’ when work resumed, but it nonetheless did, no further action being taken.

Ken’s elimination, so far as was shown, was due entirely to his lacklustre design. Despite his making others fear for their physical safety more than once, despite his apparently costing them sleep (and sleeplessness around sharp, hot, generally dangerous equipment is to be avoided) beside leaving them stressed and clearly nervous, despite his frequently lighting a match under heated situations in a stressful, strenuous environment, despite his absolute refusal to be calmed or learn from prior conflicts, no measures were taken against Ken, or for anyone else’s protection – had he managed a better outfit on the catwalk, he would still be in the competition. The biggest scandal here isn’t his conduct, it’s the failure of Project Runway‘s producers to address it.

Why did this happen? What made them fail to deal, in any clear way, with someone who was obviously, inarguably a danger to himself and others, as well as the competition’s smooth procedure? I’m fairly sure desire to manufacture drama played some part – less talented but provocative contestants being saved over proficient-but-demure competitors is a recognised phenomenon on series like this – but I can’t believe, even in mercenary U.S. TV producers, this would overpower all duties of care. Ken’s outburst this week should have been the final straw, but clearly wasn’t. However much he acted up, whatever the results, another chance was always given. People in charge, instinct tells me, never asked themselves what they’d penalise if not the actions at hand: they never counted their straws, not reaching the end of their tether, to switch metaphors, because they didn’t know where it was – or worse, because their tether had no end.

I’ve seen my past self doing much the same, and here skeptidrama becomes relevant. In recent bouts of antipathy toward him, those of us who criticised Richard Dawkins were described at times as nobodies seeking attention, trying to manufacture drama or rebuking him obsessively, finding any excuse to do so. In many cases, mine among them, this couldn’t be more distant from the truth: while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I ever heroised or idolised him, Dawkins was for a long time someone I admired strongly. His writing, however I might now appraise it, played a clear part in my leaving religion, lending me confidence I needed about living godlessly; my breath still catches when I read the extract on mortality from Unweaving the Rainbow, arguably his best book. My experience of work with his foundation was, though brief, broadly extremely positive, and its funds have gone to causes like QEDcon, Camp Quest UK and British Council of Ex-Muslims. I never wanted to knock Richard Dawkins’ views or conduct. Only in recent months have I become prepared to do so publicly, something which when I first did it spurred earnest fears of legal action in two colleagues. (Not, I should clarify, at Freethought Blogs.) As a consequence, like Project Runway’s makers and Ken Laurence, I gave him far too many breaks.

I let ‘Dear Muslima‘ go, when Dawkins trivialised and dismissed a woman’s discomfort at an unwelcome proposition. I let his statement ‘I’m not saying anything about her‘ go when asked this June if, two years later, he stood by his comments – refusing even to acknowledge or condemn the violent threats directed at her after her complaint, many of them from fans of his. Before that, I let his part in setting up a private, £18,000-a-year university with A.C. Grayling go. (This came a time of higher education’s stepped-up privatisation and marketisation. New College of the Humanities, the resultant university, belongs to only a handful of private ones in the UK.) I let his stated contempt for sociology go, despite the college’s name, along with his epistemological dismissal of philosophy and animus, based seemingly on very little knowledge, for anything he deemed ‘postmodernist’ – the latter especially ironic in the face of meme theory. (What is the notion social topoi self-perpetuate with no prior logic, if not fundamentally postmodern? Certainly not groundbreaking or new when Dawkins stated it.) I let his blind spot for the Church of England’s failings go, in particular its and Rowan Williams’ collusion with reprehensible Anglicans outside of Britain, and his strange affection for its schools; I let it go when I heard him say in 2011 that, should numbers ticking ‘Christian’ in that year’s census drop, the country’s Muslims might outnumber them, a fear as racist as it was ludicrously paranoid. I let his well-meant but unhelpful comments on non-monogamy go; I let his mocking anti-harassment policies go; I let his minimising sex abuse, years prior to this month’s controversy, go – in fact, I let his habitual use of child abuse, homophobia and violence against women as sticks with which to bash religion go, caring seemingly all too little for feminism, sexual politics or child protection on their own terms. I let his description of Atheism Plus (and certainly there are fair criticisms of it) as non-believers’ clearest mistake go, while saying nothing of the problems in our circles it aims to solve.

All this I tolerated. Each single grimace I saw as trivial, a minor misstep from a figure I admired, a caveat to my high regard for Dawkins which still didn’t outweigh it. In hindsight, that high regard blinkered me. How, I ask myself, did reaching the end of my tether take quite so long? That tether was, I answer, extendable: the admiration tying me to him stretched endlessly, mark of a Dickhead, whatever Dawkins did. However flawed, unwieldy or appalling his behaviour, however far he strayed from my core standards, tension never tugged at me. The tether of limitless patience, by which I clung to a figure I respected however far he went, whatever territory he entered, gave and gave.

This surfeit of tolerance wasn’t skeptical. It certainly wasn’t rational. In the cold light of day, I’m embarrassed to have erred so colossally. I’m not convinced, though, that it stemmed solely from hero-worship – I never thought of Dawkins as a hero to begin with, and I’ve seen the phenomenon elsewhere (not just Project Runway, either). On one basis or another, several friends this summer considered leaving secular bodies they had links to; some did, others didn’t, but in each case the deciding question was whether the end of their tether had been reached. Some had stayed put up to that point, and felt unsure, since they hadn’t asked themselves that question; not having had cause to ask themselves before what would be too much, they lacked a clear sense of whether the issues to hand were.

We don’t, in general, like asking this of ourselves – burning bridges of important personal or social value is a form of conflict to which most of us feel reasonably averse, so contemplating it is less than comfortable. Defining boundaries of foundational relationships, asking what would end ones we rely on for stable environs or identities, means thinking of them ending, and that thought means psychic dissonance – craving by instinct their preservation while rehearsing their demise. We need to do so, though: need to ask, when those we admire disappoint us, what would bring our admiration to an end; need to ask, dissatisfied by organisations, when we’d leave them, just as Runway‘s producers should have asked when they’d axe Ken. The option, otherwise, may never be available.

If you won’t consider when to sever ties, there’s a strong chance you never will. When we value an association, but the associates at hand don’t meet our standards, cognitive instinct can at times prefer the former: we opt not to dwell emotionally on their transgressions, tolerating them in practice if condemning them in theory, as was true both of me and Dawkins and of Ken on Runway – making our standards, almost axiomatically, stretchier, more flexible, less taut or rigid. There has to be a limit here of which we’re conscious: our tether must have an end and we must know where it is, because if not, we’ll never reach it. Our tethers of tolerant, patient approval will become extendable and limitless, our standards so flexible they hold no shape or form. If Project Runway‘s taught us anything, it’s that shapelessness seldom looks good.

Comments

  1. says

    I had been wondering what had been going on behind the scenes with Ken, and what they had edited out. What they showed us was that he has been obnoxious and verbally abusive, but as far as I can tell had not physically threatened or injured anybody. But I don’t know whether that’s because he hadn’t gone that far, or whether they had edited it out. I dislike how it seems that the producers keep some designers around specifically to add to the drama, and I was wondering if that was the case here. Anyway, I’m glad to see Mr. “you need to be quiet because I am speaking” be “aufed”, because he’s more than shown he’s not up to the challenge.

    I feel somewhat the same way you do on Dawkins. I had overlooked when his flaws showed, because I really respect his writing, and The Selfish Gene is still on my list of the most amazing books I have ever read. But his “Muslima” comment and his follow-up remarks were the game changer for me. When I first read that thread on Pharyngula at the time, my first instinct was to think that some troll was posting using that name, because it was hard to think that somebody I respected was being so dismissive of another leader in our community. When I found out that it was actually Dawkins, I couldn’t overlook that, my tolerance wouldn’t stretch that far. I’ll probably still read his books, but that’s it.

  2. says

    I know this isn’t exactly germane to the point of your post, but…

    Ken should have been ejected as soon as he threatened Helen. Assault or threats of assault* should be grounds for immediate expulsion from the competition. Even worse, Sandro, in an early episode, grabbed a staff member by the wrist and pulled him through the workroom. He should have been eliminated then and there, but, at least from what the audience could see, he faced no consequences at all. When he stormed off the set in a later episode, he assaulted a cameraperson. Then Tim Gunn was shown telling the judges that he’d left and they couldn’t find him, so he was being eliminated. No mention of the assault at all, and we’re left to assume that if he had returned immediately he might have been allowed to remain.

    Several years ago on Top Chef, one of the competitors, Marcel, was assaulted by another competitor, Cliff. Cliff was kicked off, and the others who’d conspired with him…got a stern talking to. I was glad he was at least eliminated, but I didn’t understand why the people filming the assault did nothing to stop it.

    (And incidentally, it bothers me that they make these people live in what are essentially shared dorm rooms. They’re adults and professionals in an intense competition. They don’t need added drama over their living conditions, and I don’t think the audience cares about it, either. Just give them their own rooms.)

    *Against anyone. You can’t assault or threaten the other competitors, Tim Gunn, the judges, the crew, the people at Mood, Swatch (especially not Swatch!),…

  3. says

    The “Alexander” person, whoever the fuck he/she is (I really don’t care enough to read more closely), who THREW AN IRON, should also have been given the boot. Those things are hot, and even when they’re not hot, they’re still hard, heavy, have one sharp point, and can be pretty harmful when they hit you. American Footbal players can be dumped for far less threatining gestures toward officials, so there’s no excuse for the fashion biz, on or off TV, not to have a similar policy. That’s fucking outrageous even by “reality TV” standards.

  4. says

    And incidentally, it bothers me that they make these people live in what are essentially shared dorm rooms.

    That serves no purpose but to intensify conflict. It certainly isn’t necessary to save money — they could give contestants posh separate rooms, and get ad revenue and sponsorships from whoever wants to furnish them.

  5. pleasebereasonable1 . says

    @ Raging Bee “he/she”?!?! Classy. I expect comments like this from the WND crowd. Seems that I was mistaken in my belief that folks here might be a little more thoughtful and intelligent…….What a disappointment.

  6. John Horstman says

    Brilliant (in both the UK and US senses) post, Alex. I hadn’t heard Dawkins broadly disparaging anything ‘postmodern’, and the irony you identify is delicious, if *headdesk*-wothy.

    @pleasebereasonable1 #7: Huh? Are you objecting to the non-assumption of gender identity? The particular gender-indeterminate pronoun? I dislike “he/she” because it still presumes a binary, but without self-identification of gender, it’s probably still better than assuming a particular gender ID on the basis of a name.

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