Despite its reputation among men, Project Runway offers an admirable display that all audiences can benefit from, Steven Axelrod writes.
Coming across on the boat from Hyannis last week, I saw quite a few married couples, but none of them were talking to each other. The wives were in one group, discussing who had gotten face work done, whose kid was getting suspended, and whose husband was sleeping with the Swedish au pair. They talked about books and movies, how to deal with their in-laws, and how short a skirt you could wear at age 40.
The men were talking about work.
Most of them were building contractors, so they were talking about the price of copper flashing and the difficulty of procuring clear trim white pine. I felt bad for them. Their conversations were boring, and they could have had the same boring conversations at Marine Lumber or any job site on Nantucket. Was there really nothing else to talk about? My dad told me that the best advice he ever got as a kid came from the football coach at the Hill School.
“You’ll never be any good at this game,” the old man told him. “You’re better off playing with the girls.” He had been doing precisely that ever since and highly recommends it. I hung out with the wives on that boat trip. The story of how one woman was breaking into her husband’s email and deleting messages from his girlfriend was way more interesting than the off-island price for a new table saw.
Then I came home and watched two straight hours of Project Runway.
I tell people that, and it’s like I just told them I was a cross dresser. “Hey!” I feel like saying, “I’m watching them make the clothes—I’m not wearing them!” (Not that there’d be anything wrong with that.)
It’s annoying because there’s nothing gender specific about Project Runway. On one level, it’s no different from American Idol, MTV’s True Life, or any of the many shows Project Runway has spawned (cooking competitions, hair-dressing competitions, even an upscale architecture competition on the Sundance channel). There are strong personalities: the diva, the snob, the hard-working loser, the modest visionary, the insanely self-assured disaster. (The most talented ones always have the least to say for themselves, whether they’re cutting fabric or singing Celine Dion tunes.) You have the judges, including the chillingly Teutonic Heidi Klum (“You’re OUT. Auf Wiedersehen”), you have the mentor (Tim Gunn), and you have the nasty remarks, last-minute panic attacks, and desperate overhauls at the last minute.
But on Project Runway you get something more.
Every week, the ever-decreasing number of designers accept that episode’s challenge and actually design clothes (whether its making evening dresses out of burlap, creating a garment made from material found in the grocery store, or making a garden party ensemble from whatever they could find in the flower district). We watch them create something new every week (whether it’s brilliant, awful, or somewhere in between). This is a level of ingenuity and invention we can fully absorb and judge for ourselves. The singers on American Idol don’t write their own songs; we can’t taste the food prepared on all those kitchen combat programs. But we can see the dresses, and watch them being stitched together, in an hour-long fugue state of vicarious creativity. There’s no reason why men shouldn’t enjoy this just as much as women. It’s like the vilified “chick flicks,” which are basically just stories about people, rather than explosions. Men are people. Cutting them off from so much of the fun of life seems unfair and absurd.
The again, I drink hazelnut coffee and wear pink Crocs. So maybe I’m not the best person to ask.
Originally appeared at Open Salon.
—Photo Cleveland.com (Bebeto Matthews/AP)