Gay mainstreaming and the Oxford comma: Greta Christina and Alex Gabriel in conversation

A week ago Greta and I held a Google+ hangout to yak about things we like - BuffyProject Runway, queer politics. Technology, which we’re still trying to believe is our friend, let us down and she ended up being cut off mid rant.

Last night we got back on track and talked gay marriage, atheist tone wars, Oxford commas and So You Think You Can Dance.

We’ll be doing more of these in the near future.

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Project Runway: how (not) to avant garde

As if to quell the steaming rage of fans over last week’s attempt at punk, Daniel Esquivel got sent home on Thursday’s Project Runway.

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Images: Lifetime

The challenge, an insect-and-arachnid-style avant garde task, prompted better designs than the prior episode’s. Daniel’s even looked quite good from the back.

Flowy chocolate brown ball gown billowing as its wearer walks? I’ll bite. But to view this from the back first illustrates its problems.

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All Daniel did was make a gown, then add a see-through petticoat and neck brace. (‘You can do anything with silk organza’, he told us last time. I should have guessed he’d try.)

Beyond being as avant garde as porridge, it’s not even that nice a dress viewed from the front. If you’re doing a mullet dress, don’t do one with a drab upholstered bodice and a neckline that spells ‘M’ for ‘misconceived’. The one insectish aspect was the styling, most credit for which goes to hair and makeup.

No quarrel at all with this being sent home, though some viewers appeared to disagree – certainly, it wasn’t the worst thing on the catwalk. That dubious honour goes to this ensemble:

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Oh Jeffrey. You know your reputation’s in decline when your model mounts the catwalk with a bag over her head.

Conceptually, I actually quite liked this: fashion that hints at bondage (as full, opaque face masks can’t fail to do) has definite appeal, and it’s inarguably avant garde. The problem’s the construction: this headpiece is baggy, lopsided spud sack, the trousers woefully lumpy in the crotch and the covered shoe a poorly realised piece of craft project design.

Nothing about those trousers is okay, one leg made out of tacky tablecloth textile, the other inexplicably bright red, in what seems like a shot at edginess that ended up resembling school play couture. (The fit problem above the knee is frightening, too.) And why a huge toilet roll tube sporting a ginger mane of pubic hair tops all of this, I can but guess.

Even that less-than-minor detail’s poorly made, as the rear view shows:

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There’s scraggly, there’s raggedy and there’s just plain bad. (And if you’re making a head-covering mask, don’t leave your model’s bloody hair cascading from it.)

It’s a shame this all obscures the eye-catching, interesting print on the gold fabric of the top – it’s the one good element, but between the textile’s absence from the trousers, the giant cardboard wrap-around and the headdress’s bagginess, there’s almost none of it on show. Look at the texture of the sleeve: a whole, well-fitted bodysuit made out of that might well have won me over.

I’m seriously doubting Jeffrey’s skill at present. Not having seen any of him before this series, I struggle to see why he’s there – this week and last, his outfits have just been so badly rendered I’d be shocked to see them half way through a normal Project Runway series, let alone winning. On the other hand, I see why he survived while Daniel left.

Daniel, like Jeffrey, was a repeat offender in this task. While Jeffrey failed to step up his construction, Daniel failed twice in a row to grasp the essence of the challenge. Asked to do punk, he made a trouser suit and added straw; asked to do avant garde, he made a gown and added organza. It’s clear Daniel lacked range and versatility, making the same outfits we know him for week in, week out. That’s not someone who’s going to last a series. (Unless Jeffrey dramatically improves his execution, on the other hand, I doubt he will. Frankly, I’d send them both home if this weren’t an All Stars season.)

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Melissa: similar diagnosis to Daniel. Last week she made something expected, this week she did a cocktail dress with added veil.

While the judges were about right with their bottom three, I’d say this is the most forgivable. It’s better put together by miles than Jeffrey’s get-up, and involves more things I like than his or Daniel’s. It’s certainly not avant garde (though it might be more so if the over-the-top hips were better realised), but the combination of white lipstick, veil and quiff is somewhat chic, the tailoring mostly accomplished and the cutout on the bodice interesting – I only wish it were created in more eye-catching textiles.

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The mossy knoll mounted for some reason astride the back is a mistake, as are the garish olive bangle and the dress’s oh-so-strappy straps. It’s a better dress than Daniel’s though, something that might another week be passable – not enough, at any rate, for a red card.

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JESUS FICTIVE CHRIST, CHRISTOPHER. The challenge was about living things. LIVING things. DO NOT MAKE YOUR MODEL LOOK DEAD with pallid makeup, then shade her neck so her whole head looks as if it’s floating morbidly. (I know it’s Hallowe’en week, but just don’t.) Also, like I said last week: edit.

This competed with Melissa’s dress for entry to my bottom three. Eventually it stayed out, at the low end of the middle, since like Jeffrey’s dress this aimed at least for avant garde, even if not perfectly realised. Where ordinarily, Melissa’s dress (and Daniel’s at an absolute stretch) might survive on being competent but dull, this is the avant garde challenge – better, I’d say, to attempt the right aesthetic and go wrong than not engage with it at all.

I don’t know what the Batman-style fins are doing everywhere. I don’t know what the see-through plastic underskirt is for. I don’t know why the model has been given actual saddlebags on her thighs, or why the middle section of the dress is shorter than the sides. The graphic on the front offers some interest though, as do the sandals, the ankle adornments and the Sharon Needles style fingernails visible here:

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If Christopher could only calm things down, he might be a contender.

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Seth Aaron… is it me, or does it seem like he and Jeffrey are here not to intensify the contest, but to prove the winners aren’t always the best?

I’m not sure what to make of this – it looks like a leather and lace petticoat with linoleum tiles set artfully around it. The latter detail is intriguing, and the former might, I guess, have worked, but I don’t see the connection. Apart from confirming numerous designer’s instinct that ‘avant garde’ means ‘whacky makeup’, there’s not much here I find remarkable.

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Mychael: nineties Zygon nun at a rave, in war paint. Seriously, were the judges smoking crack on giving this the win?

There silhouette does, granted, boast an authentic cutting edge aesthetic, but the fabric looks like cheap grey felt to me, green bits stuck on to make it interesting. This might really have worked for me in different fabric, but it just looks sad, and the colour clash combined with the textile means we’re back in school play territory.

Ever since Olivier’s furry blonde caterpillars in series nine, I’m also primed to hate eyebrow embellishments. Even with that moustache, it just looks desperate and tacky.

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More here from Irina on the theme of attempting avant garde by giving mainstream outfits space-age accessories – in her case, what seems like a giant, furry cock ring. (Notice also the return of last week’s wrist-ribbons, working admittedly somewhat better here.)

There’s a lot, in fact, that I like about this outfit: the eye makeup and nails, the boots, the bodice and the details on the skirt. In fact, if that headpiece had been lost in favour of perfecting the skirt, this might have edged into my favourite three – the stiffness with which it’s held above the model’s legs has definite avant garde potential.

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If only some form of extra architecture (wires, perhaps?) had held this skirt a few degrees higher, to just out near-horizontally – that might have worked for me.

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I should probably admit my crush on Viktor, whose brown eyes and bow ties seduce me every time, but this would have been my pick for the win. I’m not sure I’d have gone with both the yellow forehead and the yellow lips, but I adored this.

Radical, somewhat gender-bending neckline? Check. Intriguing, perfectly painted details on said neckline? Check. Actually-convincing, non-cringeworthy use of nude textile? Check.

The thin braids of the hair are one of the only features in this week’s designs which look insect-inspired, as does the outfit at large, and the draping of the white cloth is exquisite:

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At quite the other end of the aesthetic spectrum…

KORTOobverse…olé, tarantula: Korto‘s ensemble was a winning number too. Why both this and Viktor’s outfit were named safe and not placed in the top eludes me.

The trousers are the clear highlight. The way the spiralling ribbon holds the line of lemon on the seam and how it’s maintained in top half of the garment are breathtaking, and the sleeve embellishment on the model’s right wrist is equally arresting. I’m not sure I’d have kept the chunky belt, however – a simple button on the jacket would have left the other details in the spotlight.

That credit Viktor gets for using nude fabric well? Likewise, kudos to Korto for making eyebrow makeup work. The spidery hair is a sight to behold too, and I’m in love with how androgynous this looks from behind:

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There’s possibly a little too much going on in the midsection, though nothing like as much as in Christopher’s case. Still, this was a hit with me.

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Was I the only one who thought Elena styled her model after herself? This was the look, other than Mychael’s, the judges came closest to naming the winner – I’d have had no objection at all.

I might somewhat have preferred if the shoulder embellishments had been mounted on ordinary upper sleeves, rather than such bulky, tubular ones. (These bring back unpleasant memories of Elena’s outfits in her season.) The print and the construction are superb, though.

When Project Runway tried to do punk

Shortly after Dom Streater’s unexpected but not undeserving Project Runway win, the programme’s latest ‘All Stars’ series is upon us. Greta remains in hibernation; Tom and Lorenzo, citing fatigue, have opted out of coverage. It falls to me then, I suppose, to talk about it for the moment.

‘Your first challenge starts right now’, contestants from past seasons were informed as things began, ‘and it features one of the biggest trends of the year; punk!’ Alyssa Milano, Heidi Klum’s less German counterpart for All Stars, deserves praise for delivering this line without a shred of irony. Punk isn’t punk, near-necessarily, if it’s a trend – mass producing its aesthetics for commercial gain perverts literally wholesale an intrinsically anarchist, anti-consumerist approach to art and fashion.

Project Runway in particular is everything punk isn’t: corporate, profit-oriented, concerned with ‘looking expensive’ over ‘looking cheap’. It prizes quality designs tailored expensively from costly fabrics, favouring ones its experts see ‘flying off the shelves’, offering luxury technology, gainful employment and thousands of dollars to its winners – emerging triumphant from the current series, we were told within an instant of the ‘punk’ task’s introduction, will mean $750,000 worth of rewards.

It’s a series, moreover, whose stylistic impulses are painfully mainstream. Runway punishes clothes in which its wispy models are found to look ‘fat’, which bear overtly sexual overtones or aren’t ‘age-appropriate’, or which appear the products of untrained, inexpert, do-it-yourself labour. How any well-received design it featured could conceivably be punk is hard to know. Guest judge Debbie Harry, as she perused the challenge’s results, noted how high-waisted most ensembles were, suggesting the preferred ‘hourglass figure’; you wouldn’t see it in such excess, almost certainly, on visiting a punk bar, and a collage of women’s footwear there, we can be sure, wouldn’t look like this.

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How many women in the punk scene wear high heels like these? And isn’t it time Runway had a ‘flat footwear’ challenge – sneakers, sandals, Doc Martens, Brogues? (Images: Lifetime)

The real challenge here was to approximate - actually, appropriate – punk in a catwalk-friendly way, drawing on its outer hallmarks while in keeping with the fashion industry’s particular ideals, eschewing any deep sense of counterculture. That’s a hard balance to strike, and no doubt a harder one to judge. How do you mark designs consistently with Project Runway‘s main criteria (flawless and expert execution, saleability, a veneer of wealth) while asking that they mimic a style deviant by definition from those aims?

Contestants’ work and comments on it, perhaps due to this paradox, both ended up all over the place. Even the top-ranked trio of outfits looked wildly different from each other.

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Third season winner Jeffrey Sebelia‘s design was, true to his roots and to his credit, the only one that really looked punk. That’s why I might well have sent him home for it.

I see a real punk woman wearing this dress; I see her making it herself, and I watched a bona fide punk rocker cut it. It looks pulled together from found material, sewn in a cellar with a foot-powered machine or else by hand; it’s owner didn’t buy it, dons what she likes and doesn’t care about what’s in.

It does not look like a winning Project Runway dress.

The shoulders aren’t even; the peplum seems pointless, and pointlessly huge at that; it looks lumpy, formed from disobedient fabric which is probably one textile too many here. The leopard print lapels are similarly shapeless, and Jeffrey had to fight pre-catwalk to press them into serviceable shape; the organza skirt looks amateurish, added perhaps to cover up an error in the black skirt underneath, and doesn’t seem to go with them or the black leather of the jacket. Though it doesn’t show up in this image, its finish looked rough and ready on the programme, nowhere more than in its messy-looking hems.

It’s a great dress by punk standards, but a misfire by Project Runway standards (at least, those which it usually applies). Crucially, the fact it sails so far into authentic do-it-yourself aesthetics means it fails to tread the fine line between punk and catwalk which this challenge demanded.

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Seth Aaron Henderson, winner of season seven, had the opposite stumbling block. I see some punk here – the tartan and the braces in particular – but it feels obvious to the point of superficial gimmickry, and the rest has serious problems for me.

Coupled with the belts’ chunkiness and the deeply un-punk PVC-esque sheen of the jacket’s fabric, the fact we’d see bare breasts on its removal drives things overtly into sex shop territory. There’s nothing wrong with this, particularly – plenty of well-made fashion hints at kink – but since clothes like the ones evoked here (fitted, rubber, explicitly sexual in function) are found mainly in commercialised kink, on sale in red light districts, and not worn day-to-day, it teeters into looking costume-like.

The gothic horror style of the sleeves, straitjacket-like, and their red, Dracula-style lining doesn’t help – and costume qua costume, especially the kind one pays to rent and wear, isn’t a punk reference point.

More positively by far…

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…I’ve no dispute at all with Elena Slivnyak being named the winner. Initially unsure of how to give her look an edge, she turned the jacket backwards when her model mentioned wearing clothes the wrong way round from time to time. See the reverse:

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Perhaps what I like best about this concept is that while not focusing too much on the details, one could almost think the model – typically slender and small-chested – was facing forward, before noticing seemingly twisted, mutilated limbs.

That subtext’s gruesomeness means the outfit somehow speaks to the tortured, mangled aesthetic collision of the challenge, as if Project Runway itself had to be twisted out of shape to make punk work. The implications of violence and, again, a straitjacket give the garment an air of confrontation and discord at total odds with its colour palette, that of a Twister ice cream.

That aggression, channelled into style and grace despite itself, is definitively punk – a clear winner.

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A close second for me was Christopher Palu‘s design. Ordinarily, I’d say judges were right to rule this ‘safe’, but the absence of anything else I liked beside Elena’s look bumps this up into my top category, even if still a rank below her design.

It might have been a winner, had Christopher not snatched defeat from victory’s jaws by overworking it so much – the entire getup, an intriguing jeans-and-cardigan-of-post-apocalyptic-future number, was simply in dire need of edition.

Credit indeed for making something interesting and graceful out of safety pins, rather than using them for use’s sake (see below), but between those, the asymmetric layering, the the cape effect, the unorthodox hem of the grey tunic and the strange chain cross-formation, there’s just too much going on here.

Things only get more hectic when the model turns around:

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Christopher. Really. Edit.

A good catwalk piece nonetheless – perhaps the attire of a drama student in the eighties, punk-inspired dystopia of Mad Max.

The judges’ other picks for safety were, to quote Bill Bailey, about as punk as Enya.

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Daniel Esquivel made a fitted black trouser suit! Not that he’s ever done that before.

Don’t worry, though – he put a garish, hot pink bale of straw around his model and a stripe across her face to stop us noticing. Somehow, I still did.

If anything this is futuristic, but even then, it’s only because of those details and the over-the-top shoulders. Very well made, but the thousandth time round, who cares? It’s not interesting, and it’s definitely not punk. Clear bottom two material for me, and might very possibly have gone home – I’d certainly rather see more from Jeffrey than from Daniel.

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Neon straw does not a punk aesthetic make, Irina Shabayeva, nor tortured ribbons around wrists.

This was a confused look. The hair is punk, the ribbons reminiscent of Avril Lavigne ten years back and the dress more goth in my eyes than anything. Points here too for using zips interestingly, but they feel arbitrary. Without that pattern of clenched metal teeth, what would be punk about this?

The crisscrossing straps don’t help, and things take a serious turn for the worse from the rear view.

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Those points for using zips interestingly? Lost, for failing to use one as, well, a zip. That undone fastening looks like the model got caught undressed, perhaps with an attractive stranger, fleeing the scene without stopping to do things up. (Punks don’t flee, and when they show things, it’s on purpose.)

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Film noir Amy Winehouse, bouffant drearily deflated. Earnestly though, this silhouette says fifties housewife and the details on top do nothing to obscure that.

The collision of a pleated-looking skirt, sultry cutouts and chains in the back is jarring, too.

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Nul points, Korto Momolu.

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True of Korto’s chains and just as true of Mychael Knight‘s safety pins, holding a bodice together that appears to be made from low grade serviettes. Impeccably cut perhaps, but this is a cocktail-cum-sundress with steampunk eyewear, and ‘steampunk’ isn’t ‘punk’.

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Melissa Fleis made something I liked, and which felt punker by far than most of its competitors. Like Daniel’s work here, of course, I liked it the first five times I saw from her too, but something about the dress – its mixture of print and asymmetry, perhaps? – very much works, and the jacket frames it edgily.

It might be that Melissa’s familiar aesthetic was just suited to this challenge, and I shan’t blame her for that. Top three for me, if the least of those three. Judges didn’t care for it, but I did.

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Ari South. Oh Ari. You should not have gone home for this.

I’ll admit Ari – Andy when she placed third, prior to transition, in season eight – is a personal favourite of mine. I’d looked forward eagerly to seeing what she’d offer this time round, and will defend her to the death.

Granted, it’s far from exquisite. I don’t know what the swathe of lime green fabric there is doing, and I want to get rid of the necklace. The jacket has unmined potential. The shorts are well made, if not very punk.

I can’t agree with the judges that nothing here was punk in any way – the jacket’s collar and lapels feel vaguely biker, which developed further might have chimed with the relaxed shirt underneath. Turning what were trousers into the jacket’s sleeves was a stroke of brilliance; I only wish I could tell that’s what they were. (Some pockets or turnups featured there, say, could have saved this.)

In any case, this was competent if uninspired, and the styling hits the right note. This should not have placed in the bottom two.

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Neither should this, Viktor Luna‘s equally pedestrian-but-inoffensive effort. I can’t say how much it pained me seeing him and Ari, two champions of mine, as bottom two.

Yes, there are definite problems with this. The styling – bag, hair, shoes – kills the entire outfit, particularly in the latter case. (Team those trousers with a sneaker and their punk potential would light up.) If the jacket had shorter or more fitted, that might have saved it, and as judges said, the copper details needed more establishment.

But this ensemble and Ari’s, worse than Daniel’s tranquiliser of a trouser suit? Irina’s era-confused party dress? Korto’s waitress-at-a-funeral, Mychael’s heiress in space, Seth’s kinky vampire sex pirate? Viewers were spoilt for choice as far as better candidates for offage go.

One can’t help wondering if the poorly-defined, paradoxical nature of the challenge allowed judges freer rein than usual to expel contestants of their choice, criteria for success being less clear and more open to debate than ordinarily they’d be.

Let’s hope for a return to normalcy next week. My verdict, in the mean time:

Winner: Elena
High: Christopher, Melissa
Safe: Viktor, Ari, Seth, Irina Mychael
Low:
Jeffrey, Korto 
Eliminated: 
Daniel

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.

What Jaymi Hensley’s coming out reveals about the closet and fame

Among the queer politics crowd, reality TV is frequently bashed; moving more in those circles than between the cocktail-serving clubs of Soho and Shoreditch, and being unabashedly a regular viewer, this is an awkward fact for me. The ‘bread and circuses’ argument – that light entertainment culture on Saturday nights acts as a political narcotic – has its merits, but I’d argue that if you want to find out how societies work, their circuses are the best place to look.

Like freak shows from the early 20th century, reality competitions are so often the home of the marginalised, helping for better or worse to form their role in public consciousness. It’s the X Factor stage specifically, with its annual quota of mincing queens and sensitive closet-dwellers, on which queer people’s social role in Britain is most publicly played out, and as with pop culture in general, tuning in can tell us much about the things that really matter. The widely reported coming out of Union J member Jaymi Hensley, who yesterday thanked his bandmembers and mentor Louis Walsh for ‘supporting his decision’, is a case in point.

The programme has a history of queer contestants, many of whom had noted comings out during or after their time on it, including Rylan Clark, Jade Ellis, Lucy Spraggan and MK1’s Charlie Rundle in this year’s series. At this point in the run, the usual onscreen comments that each act has ‘grown as a person’ are being made, and coverage of Hensley’s statement fits the X Factor-as-therapy mould. Attention has been paid to his account of a teenage fan’s tweet prompting his disclosure, and to Walsh’s encouragement; as in the cases of Marcus Collins and Joe McElderry before now, whose success there led to public self-outings, it paints the programme as a positive force for queer liberation, which embraces and values non-straight identity.

I’m sceptical, of course. It’s first of all a troubling idea that anyone should require fame and financial opportunity for coming out to be an option – and, of course, I’m still not sure why Robbie Williams appeared alongside Collins’ parents last year to express love and support, but his boyfriend was conspicuously absent. Most troubling here though is all the evidence suggesting Hensley was out when X Factor began.

Reports quote him as keeping his current partner’s identity under wraps, which is, of course, his choice, but the party in question is on searchable record supporting Union J via social networks throughout the competition, including making public declarations of the relationship; there was Hensley’s now-deleted Myspace page, which listed him as gay, and there remains the YouTube video from two years ago (now with over twenty thousand hits) of him performing at a Pride concert. Is this the public profile of a closet case? Probably not. In which case, why only make the announcement now?

From their very first appearances, both Union J and erstwhile competitors District 3 – next year, I’m hoping for an act named Jurisdiction π - were marketed explicitly in heterosexual terms. There was their first audition, where a guest judge commented, ‘I think the girls will love you’. There were scantily clad, gyrating female dancers in their numbers. There were stories in the press of girls ‘mobbing’ the band members and invading their hotel room. There were interviews about ‘how a girl can impress them’ – and in the latter one, Jaymi Hensley played along, as he seemed to when he stated in the press, ‘I’m in a relationship and have been for three years… she wears the trousers‘.

I don’t know if X Factor producers knew all along that Hensley preferred guys. Given how public that apparently was, it wouldn’t surprise me. But I am struck that by not acknowledging that – and, in fact, by airbrushing it out of all publicity – they necessitated a coming-out: if his orientation had been shown matter-of-factly from the start, as Lucy Spraggan’s was, there would have been no need for a headline-winning revelation. Straightwashing Union J like this seems effectively to have put one of their members back inthe closet for three months. It suggests that on X Factor, gay men are only allowed to be comedy acts or victims who need support: if they’re neither straight nor bothered by that, there might not be room.

It also shows that heteronormativity still operates at the highest levels. In workplaces and universities, we might have started to chip away at the assumption that any given person is straight; among the great and good (or at least ITV), this isn’t yet the case. A presumption still exists, evident right from the beginning of this year’s series, that conventionally handsome boybanders must be as interested in girls as girls are in them; that while lots of young men like other men, lots are indifferent to gender and lots aren’t interested in anyone, none of that could possibly apply to the budding rich and famous.

In common use, the phrase implies something into which people are born: before we came out, we were always in the closet. The truth is, closets come in flatpacks, and straight authorities – our parents, teachers, television producers – build them around us by stigmatising queer expression. Jaymi Hensley never made his relationship a secret, but X Factor turned it into one, like a homophobic teacher in whose classroom certain crushes discussed at break time must be hushed up. However ‘out’ we are, spaces of necessary nondisclosure remain: the living rooms of bigoted relatives, for example, or train seats next to aggressive groups of drunken straight men. When we’re told in infancy that we’ll grow up, marry ‘members of the opposite sex’ and procreate, advised about what boys and girls do differently and generally labelled as straight, that nondisclosure is made similarly hard to avoid.

I’m glad Jaymi Hensley’s found his way out of the closet X Factor constructed around him, but I’m angry that he had to – and that his sex life could only be discussed on the producers’ terms.

So many of our parents, after all, have raised us to believe we’re straight and made it hard to say otherwise, only to proffer words like ‘I support you’ once we have. The way to support us, straight people everywhere, is not to make us invisible.

Kaftans and camp eunuchs – pop culture’s neutering of visibly queer men

“This”, Stanley Tucci says of fashion in The Devil Wears Prada, “is a shining beacon of hope for oh, I don’t know… let’s say a young boy growing up in Rhode Island with six brothers, pretending to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class.”

A cursory lunchtime viewing of Project Runway will more than confirm it’s an industry of gay men – and more than that, the natural home of unreconstructed queens. On the catwalk, if not currently on Grindr, extravagance is a virtue, and it’s no doubt helped the careers of many designers that their mannerisms are as vibrantly theatrical as their work. This is a field where camp is not a problem.

Perhaps because of this, many influential gay men in popular fiction have been fashionistas. Tucci’s aforementioned character, Nigel, Glee’s Kurt Hummel, Marc St. James and Justin Suarez from Ugly Betty, mincing Alexander from the British Queer as Folk – no series now seems complete without such a figure. Alexander, in particular, owns one of TV’s best ever throwaway lines: “So, I’m stood in Battersea Power Station in nothing but me Tommy Hilfiger pants, when he comes back in…” Unlike some, I’ve nothing against camp men being visible, but I do want to point something out.

Where they appear, these characters are often shown as objects and not subjects, reactive and not proactive, done-to and not doers. They’re depicted as victims, or as lacking sexual agency – especially compared with their “straight-acting” peers.

Justin doesn’t kiss straight-acting Austin, but is kissed by him…

Just as Kurt doesn’t kiss the “manlier” Blaine, but is kissed by him…

…and when Kurt is bullied, Blaine is the one who comes to his aid.

Alexander, similarly, is passive when his family disown him; Stuart, mistaken for straight at times, confronts his mother and destroys her car.

In The Devil Wears Prada, it’s Nigel who is ultimately victimised; in United States of Tara, pouting Lionel dies a violent offscreen death, outlived by his less flouncy boyfriend, Marshall; in Torchwood, sensitive Ianto’s relatives confront him over who he dates, before he dies in lantern-jawed Jack Harkness’ arms. Justin, unlike self-assured Austin, agonises over coming out.

The trope is inescapable. So how should we interpret it?

When gay male characters who are camp always seem to suffer more, it’s tempting to cry overt bigotry. Queeny, gender-atypical fashionistas are often those most accused of “flaunting it”: as long as Neil Patrick Harris or Anderson Cooper don’t get flirty or make penis jokes, homophobes don’t have to acknowledge they’re gay, whereas in Chris Colfer’s presence or Louie Spence’s, there’s no dodging the issue. Camp men in fiction are most visibly queer, so it makes sense their storylines would be hardest hit by prejudice – then again, many of those mentioned were created by gay writers.

The alternative is still more troubling. Are we to conclude from these characters’ misfortunes that a harder life is to be expected if we don’t perform our gender conventionally? That Justin, Kurt et al. might have avoided pain by simply “butching up”? If so, queer liberation’s still a distant goal.

Certainly, their desexualisation speaks volumes. On Glee, the closest Kurt gets to making a romantic pass is a tribute in song to a dead canary; it’s Blaine who initiates their first kiss, who first instigates sex and who is led astray by the similarly “straight-acting” Sebastian; he, Nigel and the gay men of Ugly Betty are shown centrally as eunuch-esque GBFs, whose main role is to entertain and to make things – especially women – pretty, not to be players. Their sexual identity is worn proudly, a must-have accessory, but rarely played out.

Think what this says about gender roles. Sex, the constant subtext tells us, is the domain of manly men and womanly women: if you’re not the former, you don’t get to be a sexual being, and you’ll have to wait patiently until one chooses you.

It’s enormously disempowering, because camp male sexuality is radical. The mere sight of Julian Clary makes straight men in my family squirm, or sometimes change channels – the notion of being subject to a man’s sexual advances, as women are to theirs, genuinely disturbs them. Clary’s famous single-entendre about Norman Lamont was powerful and shocking, I’d suggest, largely because of his effete demeanour: the audience had no doubt he was really capable of penetrating the then-Tory chancellor. At Stonewall, too, it’s said the first bricks were thrown at police by drag queens.

Camp gay men are an essential part of our community, and fears of stereotype threat are misguided – if pop culture doesn’t show the full queer spectrum of gender expression, why infiltrate it? But these characters can be more than passive victims. Let’s give them the power their transgressive, real-world counterparts wield so well.