Some Thoughts on Beauty and Ownership

“At last, something beautiful you can truly own.”

jaguar xke in mad menThis is the fictional tagline that Sterling Cooper Draper Price comes up with for the Jaguar ad campaign in “Mad Men.” (It’s in the episode The Other Woman — warning, synopsis has spoilers. Yes, I’m re-watching old episodes, it’s getting me caught up on where we are in the new season.)

And it’s gotten me thinking: What does beauty mean?

So the idea behind this tagline, and the ad campaign, and indeed this entire episode, is that the Jaguar XKE is like a mistress: beautiful, sexy, desirable, impractical, temperamental, unpredictable. And the tagline is, “At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” The implication being that you can’t really own beautiful women, and that many men feel this is a sad sad thing (one of the major themes of this episode) — but you can own a Jaguar XKE. You can get that sense of deep satisfaction from it — and you can keep it, and own it, and have that experience of beauty whenever you like.

But the thing is, as Michael Ginsberg himself says (the copywriter who comes up with the campaign and the tagline): It isn’t just people who you can’t own and keep. It isn’t just people who are elusive and changeable. Possessions are like that, too. Or at least, the experiences of pleasure we get from possession are like that. As Michael says when he’s pitching this idea to Don: Even very rich men, who already own many beautiful things, are still dissatisfied. The beautiful things they have aren’t enough. The Jaguar ad promises that this thing — finally, at long last, unlike all the other things — will satisfy their longing for the unattainable.

It’s a false promise, of course. And I started thinking about why that is.

Beauty is, literally, in the eye of the beholder. And by that, I don’t mean that it’s a matter of taste or opinion (although of course, that’s also true). I don’t mean that different people experience different things as more or less beautiful, or that duck-billed platypuses see each other as beautiful and see us as fugly. Well, what I mean is close to that.

I mean that the experience of beauty is literally in the eye, or the brain, of the beholder.

I mean that beauty is an experience.

And that means that it can’t be owned, or kept, or held onto.

Some objects or people are “more beautiful,” in that they’re more likely than others to evoke that experience in more people. But the beauty doesn’t really reside in the objects or the people. It resides in the mind and the heart and the body of the beholder. And trying to hold and own and keep this experience of beauty is actually what makes it slip through our fingers. Letting transitory experiences be what they are is what lets them sink in deeply and resonate throughout our lives. Struggling to keep them, to make them permanent, is what makes them slip away — and makes us miss the point.

megan-don-draper-mad-menIt’s one of the themes of this episode (and indeed of the entire freaking series). When we try to hold and own and keep the people in our lives who give us pleasure and satisfaction and a sense of beauty, we actually drive them away. And when we take them for granted, when we act as if they’re ours forever and we never have to do anything else to keep them around, we drive them away. It’s only by letting people be who they are, by not taking them for granted and respecting their right to make their own damn decisions, that we deepen our connections with them — and increase the chances that they’ll stick around. If you love something, set it free, and all that. Except that if it comes back, it still isn’t yours. It never was. We don’t own each other. We can’t.

blue suede shoesEven with objects, ownership often doesn’t work. Often, the experience of beauty is one of surprise. We tend to get inured to the beautiful things that are all around us. (I think this is one of the reasons I like buying new clothes and putting together new outfits: I like seeing myself in a new way, so I can more easily see myself as beautiful.) Part of the experience of beauty is the experience of the extraordinary — and when something is in our life every day, it becomes ordinary. We can find the extraordinary in the everyday, but it takes more work.

And you know how, if you’ve had an amazing vacation someplace, you often have this desire to try to re-create it, to go back to the same hotel and eat at the same restaurants and visit the same museums — but if you do, it isn’t the same? And if the place is amazing again, it’s because you did something different, or saw something you weren’t expecting? That.

We can certainly load the dice. We can own beautiful objects. We can make connections with beautiful people (beautiful in all senses of the word, not just physical). We can create beautiful experiences for ourselves — or experiences that are likely to be beautiful. We can work to make a life that is more likely to create the experience of beauty.

We can own beautiful things. But we can’t own beauty.

“Is He Gay or Straight?” Bisexual Eradication in “Modern Family”

modern family posterIn the last few weeks, I’ve started intermittently watching the TV show “Modern Family.” There’s a certain amount that I like about it, as well as a certain amount that I don’t. (Often the case with fluffy mainstream-ish pop-culture entertainment. I want it to divert and distract me, but it often winds up annoying me and tying my brain into knots. Fluffy mainstream-ish pop-culture entertainment largely exists to reinforce cultural norms — that’s what makes it fluffy and comforting and mainstream — and I generally don’t find cultural norms comforting, they generally annoy me and tie my brain into knots.)

So I was watching the “Yard Sale” episode (I’m watching the show out of order in syndicated re-runs) — and I wanted to throw my drink at the screen. And I’m not even drinking these days. I wanted to mix myself a drink, just so I could throw it at the screen.

The plot line that was making me mad: Teenage daughter Alex has a new boyfriend, Michael, who she brings to the extended family’s yard sale. Her mom Claire is worried that Michael is gay, and she calls in the gay uncles Cam and Mitchell for a consultation on the matter: the three of them observe Michael’s stereotypically gay behavior, and agree that he’s gay. We see a scene in which Michael is alone with Alex, continuing to act stereotypically gay, but getting very defensive when she asks him point-blank if he’s gay or not.

And for the 787,266,456th time in my pop-culture viewing life, I wanted to scream, “Did anyone consider the possibility that he might be bisexual?”

Why are “gay” and “straight” the only options here? When the grownups decided that Michael was probably queer, why did that automatically rule out the possibility that he might be genuinely into their daughter/niece? Why did nobody consider the possibility that he might be a queeny queer guy who likes girls?

I have known some very queeny bisexual men. I have known some very dykey bisexual women. I know some very queeny bisexual men in serious or primary relationships with women, and some very dykey bisexual women in serious or primary relationships with men. (I’ve also known some queeny straight men and some dykey straight women, but that’s a post for a different day.) Why does tagging someone as “probably queer” automatically mean that if they’re dating someone of the opposite gender, they’re deceiving themselves or flat-out lying?

For the record, I do think gaydar is a thing. It’s not a magical thing, it’s not like some psychic connection queers have with each other: it’s more of an unconscious adding-up of lots of personal and cultural signifiers, it’s very culturally determined and it does go wrong. But yes, I think queers probably are, in general, better at figuring out who is and isn’t queer. (Although I’d be very interested to see research testing this theory.)

But queer guys can like girls. Queer girls can like guys. Even very classically queer girls and guys can like girls and guys. And we’re not even getting into people who are gender-queer, gender-fluid, or don’t identify on a gender binary… and who have all sorts of orientations in terms of what genders or lack thereof they’re attracted to. Not to mention people who are traditionally gendered, but who can be attracted to people who aren’t. Queerness comes in lots of different flavors: simple homosexuality is only one of many.

I think this bugged me even more than it might have because “Modern Family” is supposedly all about breaking down standard gender and family expectations. It’s supposedly all about how modern American families aren’t Ozzie and Harriet any more (not that they ever were): they’re commonly blended, multi-racial, mixed-generational, adoptive, and/or same-sex. And yet here it is, reinforcing the tired old notion that everyone is neatly divided into two groups, gay and straight, and never the twain shall meet. Eradicating even the possibility of bisexuality along the way.

One of the things that sucks most about being bisexual is not being recognized by either straight or gay people. It sucks having it assumed that having sex with both women and men means, at best, that you’re confused or experimenting or trying to find yourself. It sucks having it assumed that if you’re in an opposite-sex relationship, you’ve sown your wild oats (and have renounced any right to be part of the queer community; that if you’re in a same-sex relationship, you’ve finally found your true gay self. It sucks having past relationships seen as false, depending on whether they were with the same gender you’re with right now.

It sucks to be treated as invisible. It sucks worse to have even the possibility of who you are be eradicated.

(And yes, I know. This is fluffy mainstream-ish pop-culture entertainment. It’s just replacing an old set of cultural norms with a new one. It still bugged me.)

“Mad Men,” and How Kink Gets Used as a Marker of Evil — or Damage

Mad Men DonI want to talk about “Mad Men.” I want to talk about how kinky sex and sadomasochism get used in pop culture as narrative markers to show, either how evil a character is, or how damaged a character is. And I want to beseech the producers of pop culture to please, please, knock it the fuck off.

I’ll get this out of the way first: I love “Mad Men.” I think it’s one of the best programs currently on TV; actually, I think it’s one of the best programs that’s ever been on TV. This isn’t a “Mad Men did this thing, therefore they suck” piece. This is a “”Mad Men did this thing, and I still love the show, but I really wish they wouldn’t do this, especially since it’s such a depressingly common pattern” piece.

So. In last Sunday’s episode, “Man With a Plan,” Don Draper and Sylvia Rosen take their torrid affair into a hotel room… where things get seriously kinky between them. Don orders Sylvia to crawl on her hands and knees and fetch his shoes — and although she declines to crawl, she does fetch his shoes…s and gets on her knees in front of him, to put his shoes on his feet. And thus begins a very intense interlude of sexual dominance play between them, in which Don orders Sylvia to undress, get back into bed, and stay there in the hotel room waiting for him, while he comes and goes at his leisure. In which he phones her, instructs her that she’s going to wait for him without knowing when he’s coming back, and then orders her not to pick up the phone again — an order that she obeys. In which he sends her a beautiful and sexy evening dress from Saks Fifth Avenue, and then, instead of taking her out to dinner, orders her to take it off for him, right there in the room. In which he takes her book away from her, controlling even what she thinks about when he’s not there. In which she asks him for instructions, asking, “What do I do now?” — and he tells her, “You fall asleep the minute I close that door. I’m flying upstate — and when I come back, I want you ready for me.” In which he tells her, “You are for me. You exist in this room for my pleasure.” In which both Don and Sylvia both seem to be getting off, hard, and at great length.

We’ve seen Don’s kinky side come out before. When he and Betty broke up and he was living alone, he hired a prostitute to slap him in the face while having sex with him. And he and Megan have some sort of kink going on in their sex life… kink they only talk about obliquely (when Don suggests that Megan is picking a fight so they can have rough sex, she uncomfortably says, “This isn’t about that.”) But this episode spells it out much more clearly, and at much greater length, than the show ever has before. And I won’t deny it — as a kinky person, I found last Sunday’s sequence incredibly sexy. The fantasy of having a willing human sex toy holed up in a secret room, for you to enjoy at your whim — or the fantasy of being that sex toy — is, for many kinky people, super-duper-hot. Myself included. And it’s a fantasy that could easily be acted out consensually, by any number of sane, ethical, happy sadomasochists.

mad men sylvia and donBut here’s the thing. In this scene — in all of these scenes — Don’s kinkiness is used as a narrative marker for how broken he is. The fact that he wants to dominate and control Sylvia in the bedroom, and keep her secluded and away from the world for his use only… it’s used as a marker for how he wants to isolate and control the women in his life generally. The fact that he and Megan play dominant/ submissive sex games… it’s used as a marker of how screwed-up the power dynamics are between them. The fact that Don hired a woman to slap him in the face… it’s used as a marker of how guilt-ridden Don is, especially when it comes to women and sex, and of what a dark place he is at this moment in his life. It’s not just that Don is kinky, and is also emotionally broken. It’s that Don’s kinkiness is being used specifically as an indicator of how broken he is.

And I am sick, sick, sick of this shit. I am sick to freaking death of kinky sex — or even just a display of the outfits and equipment of kinky sex — routinely getting used as a cheap, easy, quick-and-dirty way to indicate that a character is either evil, or damaged, or both. [Read more…]

Blogathon for SSA Week: “Mad Men,” “Homicide,” and What We Want From TV

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This post continues my leg of the Blogathon for SSA Week! From now until 9pm PDT, I will write one new blog post every hour. Plus, for every $100 raised during that time, I will post one new picture of our cats! And all donations will be matched by SSA Supporters Jeff Hawkins and Janet Strauss — so whatever you donate, it will be doubled!

As of 5:07 pm PDT: 438 Donors, $71,693.02
As of 6:08 pm PDT: 438 Donors, $71,693.02

mad menI got immediately sucked into “Mad Men,” as soon as it came on the air. I think it’s brilliant. I think it’s one of the best things on television. So of course, I tried to get Ingrid sucked into it. She watched a few episodes… and said, “Yes, I agree that it’s brilliant, it’s one of the best things on television — and I just don’t want to watch any more. It’s too depressing.”

I had a sad. I don’t have that many friends who are into the show, so I don’t have that many people to yak about it with and dissect it endlessly. But the thing is… I knew exactly what she meant.

Because I feel the same way about “Homicide.” Ingrid loves that show, she’s running through the DVDs and is totally into it. She thinks it’s brilliant, one of the best things on television. I watched a few episodes, I totally agreed… and I just didn’t want to watch any more. It was too depressing.

So I’m pondering two different questions here. One: What makes a TV show (or movie, or book, or whatever) intolerably depressing for some people and not others? And what are we looking for from television?

For me and Ingrid, what we’re often looking for is reasonably intelligent distraction. We don’t want to be talked down to or patronized… but most of the time, we also just want to relax. We watch TV after long days of work, and we often watch it just to unwind. That’s sometimes true of other forms of entertainment… but for some reason, it’s more true of television. Maybe because we bring it into our home instead of going out to get it… but then, I don’t feel that way about books.

Homicide DVDSo I’m not sure why I feel differently about TV than I do other forms of entertainment. And I’m not sure why I find “Mad Men” to be a near-perfect balance between challenging and entertaining… and why I find “Homicide” unbearably sad and awful. Or why, for Ingrid, it’s the other way around.

Thoughts? What do you turn to TV for? And where do you find the line between “interestingly challenging” and “shoot me now, life sucks enough without voluntarily putting myself through an emotional wringer”?

If you like this post — or indeed, if you don’t — please donate to the Secular Student Alliance!

Runway Recap: “I’m Not Here to Make Friends”

“I’m not here to make friends.”

If you’ve ever watched any competition reality show, you’ve almost certainly heard this line. There’s even a YouTube video montage of dozens of reality show contestants saying the damn thing. More than one. This week, on Project Runway, it was Richard’s turn to utter these timeless words.

And it is one of the dumbest things anyone on these shows can say.

You know what?

You are here to make friends.

If you are on a reality show centering on competition in your professional field — Project Runway, Top Chef, etc. — you are here to make friends.

The chances that you are actually going to win the big prize — the big cash, the equipment, the profile in the major magazine, etc.? They’re very, very slim. There were, to give just one example, 16 contestants at the start of this season of PR: the chances that any one of them would end up as the winner were 6.25%. Not very high. (And that’s assuming the outcome isn’t rigged.)

But the chances that, if you stay on the show for at least a few rounds, you’re going to have an opportunity to make huge advances in your career? The chances that you’ll meet major opinon makers in your field, from editors to celebrities to established names in the industry, and will be able to make an impression on them? The chances that you’ll meet potential employers in your field, and will be able to make an impression on them? The chances that one of your fellow competitors will do well for themselves in the future, and will be able to give you a leg up? And maybe most importantly: The chances that you’ll be making an impression on hundreds of thousands of potential customers who are watching the show, people who might buy your clothes or buy your records or go to your restaurant or whatever?

Those chances are huge. If you make it onto the show, and you don’t get kicked off in the first couple of weeks, the chances that you’ll be able to do any or all of these things are excellent.

But here’s the thing. The opinion makers and potential employers and future customers aren’t just interested in whether you won the contest. In fact, they’re probably not interested at all in whether you won the contest. They’re interested in whether you have talent. They’re interested in how well you handle pressure. And, very importantly, they’re interested in your interpersonal skills. Fashion is a collaborative art form, and even the most high-strung divas have to have some basic ability to function with other people. They have to be able to work with colleagues, with staffers, with bosses, with suppliers, with service providers, with media, with clients, with clients, with clients.

And if you come across on the show as a self-involved, high-strung diva who schemes and throws fits and talks trash about their clients and makes excuses for their shoddy work and stabs their colleagues in the back? If you make everyone who watches the show hate you and never want to have anything to do with you? You’ve wasted that chance. ([cough] Ven Budhu [cough])

You are, in fact, here to make friends.

Okay. Rant over. There was also some fashion on display in this week’s show, so let’s talk about that. This week was the Lord & Taylor challenge, which translates as “make a pretty dress that could sell in a department store.” Which is kind of ironic, since in pretty much every other challenge, “I could buy that in any department store in the country” is a kiss of death from the judges. And which also makes it kind of sad when the designers fall flat: if you can’t just crank out a pretty dress at this point in the competition, WTF are you doing here?

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Michelle 1

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Michelle 2

No argument with the win. Michelle was the clear winner. A very nice dress. The back means you probably can’t wear it with a bra, which seriously limits the number of women who can wear it, which is kind of dumb for a “department store” challenge. Still: very nice.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Daniel

Daniel is so fucking lucky he got teamed with Michelle this week. This looks like a waitress’s uniform from the 1980s. It somehow manages to be shapelessly boring and garishly hideous, all at the same time. It was embarassing to see the judges try to find something to praise about it: they clearly wanted to give Michelle the win, and had to give Daniel a pass so they could do that. Also, I don’t buy his Mr. Nice Guy act any more. The veneer snapped this week, and what’s underneath is not pretty. I’m done with him.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Patricia

I liked Patricia’s look more than I expected to. And kudos to her for not just making a dress like everyone else. But she also needs to quit the passive-aggressive number, stat. Stanley saved her bacon this week — he was something of an asshole about it, but his critiques of her work were absolutely on target — and she needed to quit whining about it. Also, if she didn’t agree, she needed to say, “I don’t agree,” instead of just nodding and saying “Yes” and then going ahead with what she was going to do anyway until it was almost too late. Every week she berates herself for screwing up her time management and screwing over her teammates… and every week, she does it again. Go away.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Stanley

A perfectly nice dress, and very well-made, although the length is a bit awkward. But come on, Stanley — a sheath dress? Without anything at all to liven it up? Boring, boring, boring. There is not a single element in this dress that would make it jump off the rack and scream, “You must have me! You cannot live without me!” This dress screams, “I need something tasteful and dressy and on the conservative side to wear to my sister’s wedding.” Snore.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Richard

Richard. Richard, Richard, Richard. If you’re going to throw an “I’m not here to make friends” hissy-fit, do it over something more interesting than a beach cover-up. The same damn beach cover-up you’ve now made three times. And a fugly beach cover-up at that. The swoosh doesn’t look elegant or graceful or exhuberant, it looks awkward, like it’s tugging at the hip and tugging at the boob, a half-assed compromise between curves and angles. Go away.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Samantha 1

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Samantha 2

Okay. This was hideous. This was vile. Ingrid and I have been arguing over it: I think it makes the model look like a waitress in a really cheap theme restaurant; Ingrid thinks it makes her look like a hot dog stand girl at the state fair. Bad ideas, poorly executed: those layers in the skirt are sloppy and flat and sad, and the heart cut-out in the back would have been tacky and laughable even if it hadn’t been poorly-placed and saggy.

But I also think Samantha got the shaft this week. As a rule, when the PR judges are choosing between “hot mess, but at least they were trying something interesting and had some ideas in there” and “sleeping pill in fabric form that isn’t even made well,” they usually get rid of the sleeping pill and give the hot mess another chance. Especially if the hot mess designer has done interesting and beautiful work in the past, and the sleeping pill designer has done jack. Hard to escape the conclusion that Richard was kept on because he creates drama.

And finally:

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Layana 1

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 9 Layana 2

I liked Layana’s dress, and didn’t understand why the judges were hating on it. No — strike that. I loved Layana’s dress. I actually thought it gave Michelle’s dress a run for its money. And I don’t get them hating on the print: it didn’t make me swoon with delight and yearning, but I thought it was fine. Again, though: another dress you can’t wear a bra with, which means most of the women in the store are going to pick it off the rack, go “Oo! Pretty!”, realize you can’t wear a bra with it, and reluctantly put it back.

But I love the way the leather detailing frames the bosom. It’s a clever way to be sexy and body-conscious, without showing a lot of skin. And I really like how gracefully it combines both a flowy resort-wear look and a strong, edgy urban look: you could wear it in the city at a party in the summer when it’s way too freaking hot for anything other than something loose and flowy, or you could wear it on a cruise and look way more stylish and awesome than anyone else there. Thumbs-up from me on this one.

Runway Recap: Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Love

How do you make men look sexy?

This week’s Project Runway challenge: Make performance wear for the Thunder From Down Under male stripper group. It was a difficult challenge for a lot of reasons: making men’s wear is always hard on designers who mostly make women’s wear, what with the different body shapes and all. Add to that the fact that they had to make, not just men’s wear, but men’s wear that was both stretchy enough and durable enough for vigorous stage performance… while still having enough structure to not look like pajamas. Add to that the fact that the outfits weren’t just dance wear, but stripper wear, and they had to tear away easily and completely at a moment’s notice. Add to that the fact that the men they were making clothes for had giant muscled beefcake bodies, with huge chests and arms: bodies that were far from ordinary, and that are unusually hard to fit.

But then, in addition to all that, add this challenge:

How do you make men look sexy?

Specifically, how do you make men look sexy in a heterosexual context? (As far as I’m aware, Thunder From Down Under aim their performances primarily at women.)

In a sexual culture where women are assumed to be the objects of desire and men are assumed to be the subjects, where women are expected to be looked at and men are expected to do the looking, it’s very difficult to make men look blatantly sexy. In a heterosexual context, anyway. It’s one of the main reasons that men’s wear is so often such a snoozefest. The very act of trying to look sexy, the very act of trying to make one’s body and one’s self look sexually desirable, is seen as a feminine act. (Or a gay act. More on that in a sec.) It’s a weird double bind/ balancing act: straight men are supposed to look good, or not look like slobs anyway, but they’re not supposed to look like they’re trying, or like they care.

There are, as I said in my original piece on men’s wear, some exceptions to this: the historical costuming community, the kink community, some others. And gay men have largely untied this knot and re-woven it into a sexual culture where everyone gets to be both gazer and gazee, mutual objects and subjects, in turn or simultaneously. (A somewhat problematic sexual culture, if my gay male friends are to be believed, in which a high premium is often placed on fitting into one of a handful of ideals of male sexuality and attractiveness, many of which are hyper-masculine in their own way — but still, one in which men can openly express their sexuality and their desire to be desirable, without it being seen as undercutting their masculinity.)

But the very fact that gay male culture has embraced the conscious display of male sexuality and created a space for it makes it harder for men to do in a heterosexual context. Given the homophobia of our culture, anyway. Looking sexy and trying to make your body look sexually desirable is seen as something that either women do or that gay men do — and since our culture is both so sexist and so homophobic, straight men are strongly discouraged from doing anything that would make them seem gay, or feminine, or both. I find it very telling that the usual route for male strippers in a heterosexual context is to go hyper-masculine: super beefcakey, huge muscled chests, huge muscled biceps, often in costumes that represent iconically male roles, from construction workers to cowboys to suits and ties. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this hyper-masculinity is done to offset the automatic feminization that comes in our culture with sexual display. (Not consciously, I don’t think, but still.)

So of all the challenges this season, this should absolutely not have been a one-day challenge. The designers had to make clothing for unfamiliar bodies — unfamiliar because of gender, and unfamiliar because of huge muscled beefcake-ness. They had to make said clothing work as stretchy and durable stagewear. They had to make said clothing with a design spec that they almost certainly had never dealt with before — namely, making the clothes tear away in a second. And apart from all these technical challenges, they had to face a serious conceptual challenge: making men look conventionally sexy in a conventionally heterosexual context, displaying their sexuality without undercutting their masculinity, maintaining their masculinity without being a bore.

In this, of all challenges, the designers should have had an extra day. Nobody — not the judges, not the producers, nobody — should have been surprised that this week was such a universally miserable and laughable fail-fest.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 8 Daniel and Patricia [Read more…]

Runway Recap: But What Do You Mean By “Prom Dress”?

There’s this basic problem with certain design challenges: on Project Runway, and in life.

The problem is when people don’t give you clear specifications for what they want — and then judge you for not having accomplished it.

This week’s PR challenge (okay, last week’s, I was on a speaking tour last week and only watched last week’s episode last night): Design a prom dress out of duct tape. This challenge wasn’t invented out of the fevered imaginations of the Project Runway producers: it’s riffing off of an existing phenomenon. Do a Google image search on “duct tape prom dress.” You’ll find zillions of them. This is a thing.

So okay. Make a prom dress out of duct tape. Straightforward enough. Except when you get to the question: What do you mean by “prom dress”?

If you do a Google Image search of “prom dress” — minus the “duct tape,” or indeed with it — you’ll find a ridiculous variety of styles. You’ll find dresses inspired (apparently) by storybook princesses, and movie stars on red carpets, and music video vixens, and beauty pageants, and saloon girls, and national costumes, and va-va-voom screen sirens, and science fiction/fantasy, and Elizabethan costume, and Victoria’s Secret. You’ll see huge billowing Cinderella ball gowns and slinky strappy things with leg slits up to here; fluffy little cocktail dresses and short tight shiny numbers that look like the Kardashians on a bad night. It varies by region, by class, by (I’m guessing) trends within a particular school, by the imagination or lack thereof of the girls wearing the dresses. Pretty much, the only common theme among them all is “fantasy life of teenage girls.”

So when you’re a designer, and the concept you’re given is “prom dress made out of duct tape,” you don’t actually have much to go on. All you really have is “festive, special-event dress for someone around age 18.”

So it’s kind of ridiculous for the PR judges to scold designers for creating a look that isn’t “prom.” Scold them for ugly; scold them for poorly-fitting; scold them for deranged; scold them for boring. But don’t scold them for not being prom. There is no template, no iconic ur-prom-dress. You have an idea in your head of what a prom dress should look like? Good for you. So do millions of teenage girls around the country. For once, you’re not the expert here. I don’t care if you’re a renowned high-fashion designer or fashion editor. You’re not the expert.

So. On to the designs.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 7 Amanda and Michelle 1 [Read more…]

Runway Recap: Aging Out

So since last week’s Runway Recap was all about one of my most loaded, most complicated, most compelling fashion topics — namely, fashion and size — I suppose it’s only fair that this week’s should hit one of my other gigantic hot buttons:

Fashion and age.

For this season’s “real woman” challenge (serious air-quotes, I hate hate hate that phrase), Project Runway did something they’ve never done, and it’s about high fucking time they did: They asked the designers to design for old women. Each client had a different design request — one wanted something comfortable, one wanted something festive and celebratory, one wanted something dressy she could wear on cruises, etc. But for all of the designers, the basic challenge was the same: Make something for your client that’s beautiful and exciting and fashion-forward… and also age-appropriate.

Which is really fucking hard.

I’ve written before about how hard it is to say “sexy older woman” in the metaphorical language of fashion… not because the words and grammar aren’t there, but because our culture considers the very concept of “sexy woman over fifty” to be nonsense. I’ve written before about the whole question of what it even means to be “age appropriate” in the first place, and whether the very notion is ageist and oppressive, or whether it’s a way to express love and respect for your age, or whether it’s some of both. And as a fifty-one year old woman who cares deeply about fashion and sex and feminism and ageism… this is not an abstract point for me. This is a paradox I live every day of my life in. It sometimes drives me up a tree that I started getting seriously interested in fashion in my late forties, right when fashion was losing interest in me. (Of course, as someone who was fat for much of her adult life, fashion has never been all that interested in me… so there’s that.)

And since “age and fashion” is so loaded, not just because of how fashion is designed, but because of how fashion is criticized, I want to spend more time than usual this week talking, not just about the designs, but about the judging.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 6 Stanley [Read more…]

Comedy Does Not Win a Free Pass: Seth MacFarlane at the Oscars

I am sick to death of the idea that “it’s just comedy” somehow gives you a free pass when you’re saying things that are racist and sexist.

And I am sick to death of the idea that any transgression of social norms — no matter what those norms are, or why they exist — automatically transforms you into a comedic genius.

I thought I didn’t have anything to say about Seth MacFarlane’s performance as Oscar host that Spencer Kornhaber at The Atlantic didn’t already say. If you haven’t read his piece, read it now. Money quote:

It shouldn’t be hard to come up with a sensible position on this. Everything, including punchlines about the Jews cutting non-Jews out of Hollywood, snickers about women faking the flu to lose weight, and cracks that there’s no need to try to understand what Salma Hayek’s saying because she’s so hot, is “OK.” It’s a free country, etc. But that doesn’t mean those jokes aren’t hurtful, obvious, or dumb. It doesn’t mean they don’t make the world a worse place. Humor, after all, can be an incredible weapon for social progress, but it can also be regressive: The more we pass off old stereotypes, rooted in hate, as normal—as MacFarlane did again and again last night—the longer those stereotypes, and their ability to harm people, will be in place.

But I’m realizing — after linking to Kornhaber’s piece on Facebook and getting into depressingly predictable debates as a result — that I do have something else to say. It’s this:

I am sick to death of the idea that “it’s just comedy” somehow gives you a free pass when you’re saying things that are racist and sexist. And I am sick to death of the idea that any transgression of social norms automatically transforms you into a comedic genius.

Yes, artistic freedom in comedy depends on the ability to say or do anything, even if it runs counter to social norms. That’s true of any art form. Comedy isn’t special in that regard. And yes, of course, comedians should have the legal right to say whatever they want (within the obvious limits of libel laws and copyright laws and such).

Does this mean that comedians should get a free pass when the things they say and do are screwed-up? Does it mean that comedians — or any artists — should be exempt from criticism when the things they say and do dehumanize, trivialize, shame, reinforce harmful stereotypes, support and rationalize the unequal status quo, and otherwise injure entire groups of people? Especially groups of people who have already been hurt a whole hell of a lot, in this exact same way, for centuries?

Lenny_Bruce_arrestI think there’s a bad logical fallacy that some comedians make. They think that being transgressive and cutting-edge and iconoclastic typically means offending people… and that therefore, if you’re offending people, it somehow automatically makes you transgressive and cutting-edge and iconoclastic. They think that because they’re offending people and making them angry, it means they’re Lenny Bruce.

It doesn’t work that way. To be iconoclastic, you have to destroy icons. To be cutting-edge, you have to push cultural boundaries in a way that moves society forward. To be transgressive — at least, to be transgressive in a meaningful way — you have to cross lines and break rules that deserve to be broken and crossed.

And to be Lenny Bruce, it’s not enough simply to offend people. You also have to be brilliant. To be Lenny Bruce, it’s not enough simply to say things nobody else will say. You have to say things nobody else will say — and which are also the truth.

The notion, expressed in Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance, that all African-Americans look alike? That Hispanics are hard to understand, but that’s okay as long as they’re attractive to look at? That women are unforgiving in relationships, and never let go of anything? That Hollywood is run by a Jewish cabal that only hires other Jews? That the nudity of female actresses exists primarily for the sexual enjoyment of men?

That’s not breaking icons. It’s reinforcing them. That’s not pushing our culture forward. It’s dragging us backward.

It’s not brilliant.

And it’s not true.

Kika posterWhat’s more: I’m sick to death of the notion that, if you critique something a comedian says or does for being hurtful and fucked up, you need to “lighten up,” “stop taking things so seriously,” and “get a sense of humor.” I remember years ago, Pedro Almodovar responded to feminist critiques of one of his movies (the critiques had to do with rape jokes, if I recall correctly) by saying something along the lines of, “Why are feminists like this? Isn’t it possible to be a feminist and still have a sense of humor?” To which I wanted to respond, “Isn’t it possible to have a sense of humor and still not think your jokes are funny?” This idea that having a sense of humor means giving all comedians a free pass on criticism for anything they say, ever… it’s bullshit. It’s a “Shut up, that’s why” argument. It’s a reflexive attempt to shut down any criticism — artistic as well as political or moral — before it ever starts.

Well, you don’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to say that comedy is an important form of artistic expression, a valuable contribution to our cultural landscape in which artistic freedom is necessary and paramount… and then say that everyone just needs to lighten up, and what comedians say and do isn’t that big a deal, and it’s ridiculous to call them to account for it.

Some social norms are there for a reason. The social pressure to (for instance) not act like a racist asshole — that’s there for a reason. It’s there because racism is bad. It’s there because, as a society, we are in the process of changing our minds about race… and exerting social pressure against racist ideas and behavior is part of how we learn to do that, and teach each other to do it.

And this idea that any violation of social norms automatically makes you courageous and transgressive… it’s childish. It’s adolescent. It’s a cheap, easy way to make yourself feel rebellious and edgy… when you’re actually squarely in the center, reinforcing the very structures you’re pretending to rebel against.

Runway Recap: Sizing It Up

If you’re going to design clothes for a bigger woman, you need to use a bigger dress form. And you need to showcase them on bigger models. Period.

I mostly liked this episode. I think the “teams” concept is working out well, way the hell better than I’d expected. I was worried that when the designers got split into two-person teams, the co-operative love-fest would wither on the vine; but they mostly seem to be getting along and working well together, and it’s paying off — both in the quality of their designs, and in how much fun the show is to watch. The “performance outfit + red carpet look for Miranda Lambert” challenge was a bit limited in terms of creativity — any time you’re designing clothes for one particular person, you’re working in a pretty narrow window, especially when that one person’s aesthetic isn’t all that creative or interesting — but it is the kind of challenge that designers have to face in the real world, and it’s always interesting to see how the PR contestants work their personal visions into someone else’s style. (Or laughably fail to do so.)

So I was trying to put my finger on what it was that was bugging me about this episode… when I read this comment from Qitkat, one of Tom and Lorenzo’s Bitter Kittens commentariat, in a discussion of how the challenge would have worked better if Lambert had done an in-the-workroom consult during the design process:

A consult, absolutely. When a challenge has been *make a dress for Heidi or Nina*, they have always come into the workroom. SJP came to the workroom for a consult for her line; I’m positive there have been other consults. At the least, a video conference.

Along with models who more resembled Miranda’s size.

Emphasis mine.

Along with models who more resembled Miranda’s size.

miranda lambert project runwayMiranda Lambert is a pretty average-sized woman, from what I can tell. Probably smaller than average. But she’s not an average-sized celebrity woman. She’s bigger and curvier than most high-profile actresses/ singers/ models/ celebutantes. And when the designers were given this challenge, they were specifically told that Lambert loves her curves, and embraces them. (The look she had on the PR judging panel was doing her no favors, IMO: but in general, she’s a nice-looking woman who seems to love her body as it is, and seems to have fun with it.)

So why the hell were the designers designing for the same damn rail-thin model size they always do?

Speaking as someone who has been many different sizes over the course of her life — hell, someone who’s been many different sizes in the last few years: You cannot — repeat, CANNOT — just design an outfit for a Size 0, and expect it to work on a bigger woman simply by expanding it in all directions. Different cuts and styles look good on different-sized bodies. What looks good on a size 18 isn’t generally what looks good on a size 12; what looks good on a size 12 isn’t generally what looks good on a size 6; what looks good on a size 6 isn’t generally what looks good on a size 0. And you can’t always tell which is which just by picking up a dress and looking at it. At various sizes in my life, there’s been many a time when I’ve picked something off the rack that I thought would be a disaster but that caught my eye as being worth a shot; tried it on; and fell head over heels in love. And of course, the opposite is true: there’s been many a time when I’ve picked something off the rack that I was sure would be hot shit, tried it on, and couldn’t shudder out of it fast enough.

(This principle doesn’t just apply to weight, by the way. Different clothes look good on people of different heights, different body structures, different skin colors, different hair colors, different ages, etc.)

So if you’re designing an outfit for Miranda Lambert, you really need to think about questions like, “What would look good on Miranda Lambert?” Not just, “What is Miranda Lambert’s general sense of style?”: that should be your starting point, of course, but you also need to ask, “What will make Miranda Lambert’s curves look popping and voluptuous and hot, and what will make them look boxy, or cheap, or just out of proportion?” And you bloody well need to showcase it on a model who looks at least vaguely like Miranda Lambert.

So given that we had to look at outfits made for a curvy, voluptuous woman, showcased on standard rail-thin models… how did the designers do with this concept?

Project Runway Episode 11 Season 5 Richard 1

Project Runway Episode 11 Season 5 Richard 2 [Read more…]