"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why Mondo Should Have Won: Project Runway, the American Dream, Mondo Guerra, and the depiction of difference in reality television

you'll always be a winner in our eyes, Mondo

I just can't believe that Gretchen, who seemed to only skate by challenge after belabored challenged, made it to the final, and then was declared the winner. It felt like I was being slapped in the face. I feel insulted as a viewer of the show. Forget about fashion and aesthetic, because that is all, as Kors said, "subjective." It''s sometimes painfully clear that the judges are making decisions based on ratings rather than actual design. Michael Costello, debatably, made it much farther in the competition due to his ability to stir up drama, than on his talent alone. The same, I think, could be said of Gretchen, who repeatedly showed drab, boring clothing that sank her to the bottom two. She clearly knew how to play the reality TV game, and to her credit, it served her well. Too well. Her spot in the final three was a credit to her ability to manipulate, to pander to the camera, and stir up drama.

When the judges and producers were making their final decision, they really should have thought about taking the pulse of their audience. I think that it should be apparent, to anyone at this point, that PR is less a show about fashion, than it is about ratings. PR has struggled with ratings and maintaining a steady viewership, going from being an exciting new reality show when it first debuted on Bravo, then being downgraded to Lifetime (network for sad housewives). You'd think the PR producers would be more careful with their audience. Instead, Season 8 took us repeatedly through confusing and catty judging, deplorable camera-pandering and unnecessary drama-stirring (from Ivy to Michael C. to Gretchen) and yet, in the midst of all that, Mondo was a consistently shining star. He was endearing in all his faults, and amazingly, honestly, real. He had real struggles and tribulations to overcome, yet through all that, his talent was apparent and brilliant, and his personality and demeanor, his conduct with fellow contestants and his candidness with the audience, were classy and heartfelt. Every week, I tuned in to watch, not because I care about fashion, but because I cared about Mondo, because I had a genuine interest in his talent, and because watching his struggle with darkness and the conversion of pain to deplorable, exuberant beauty and joy was heart-wrenching, captivating, and deeply inspiring. The PR producers must not have known it, but they'd stumbled upon a reality tv treasure, someone who not only delivered beautiful art, but had a touching message for our troubled times. And that is something much higher, much more important, much more real and much more permanent than "fashion." It was talent, it was life, painful and dark and compromising and imperfect life. And that is why so many viewers, so many young people, so many minorities and people of color and queer (and straight) people loved Mondo, cheered for Mondo, needed to see Mondo win.

Even in terms of the fashion, it established a binary between White/bourgeois/safe/acceptable and minority/carnivale/risky(risque)/daring/marginal. Despite Nina's comments that Gretchen's collection was more "ready to wear" and thus, more salable, it was, to be honest, ready to wear and salable to a very specific demographic: hipster girls with money. Mondo's collection, though theatrical, was not strictly high fashion in the sense of couture and extravagant money and luxury. These were clothes made from a man who has suffered and lived on the edge of privilege but never been a part of it. Gretchen, despite all her weepy confessionals to the camera about credit card debt and homelessness, has had much more access to material wealth and privilege, and it shows in her designs. When she makes clothes, they're for herself, for what she envisions women to be, what she thinks women want to be. And, to be honest, it's a very white-washed, hipster aesthetic. It also must be noted that though they are "easy sexy" and bohemian in feel, they are made for a higher class woman, and nothing irritates me more than bobo couture (bobo = bourgeois bohemian). It's the same irritated feeling I get when I go shopping and I hear hipster elitists lamenting the common people's refusal to commit to organic food and locally grown produce and blah blah. Look, while I buy local and organic as much as I can, I don't judge and patronize others for not having the means to do so. Organic food is very much a privilege perpetuated by poor farming and agricultural practices as well as government subsidies. But, I'm getting sidetracked.

Mondo was so refreshing to watch because what he produced was new. He possessed so much raw talent, was guided and inspired by personal experience and cultural upbringing, that it felt like he was not only introducing a new, daring aesthetic to the world, but a new perspective, a new experience, and one that has been largely ignored and been waiting to gain recognition and voice. Mondo had given this experience - of suffering, of marginalization, of being an outcast and being misunderstood - a voice and a face, and many viewers latched onto that, became endeared to that.

What irks me most about the finale is what it seems to say about our culture, and race, and class, and tv. Mondo represented an epic underdog of the times - an HIV-positive Hispanic gay man, with artistic aspirations - battling it out to have his dream validated in a modern arena - a reality tv show - against a waifish blond girl from, ostensibly, the upper-middle class. Giving Gretchen the win was like denying that dream that all of us shared with Mondo, and denying that importance that he gave to that story so many people share. It was saying that tv and "fashion" were more important than passionate, real life and talent. And, I think because of that, a lot of people will turn their tvs off to PR in the future, if they haven't already. I didn't even bother finishing watching the episode. It smacked a little too much of "to the victor go the spoils" and I wanted to remember, instead, an alternate reality where I thought it was possible for the Mondos of the world to win.

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