I discovered the other night at the Love Feast that I might lose a couple of friends if I betrayed who won Project Runway last Thursday. Life is now DVR’d so there is no shared sense of real time — I forget these things. I am forbidden to disturb the perfect isolation of someone’s relationship with the screen. So now that I am down a few lines and have issued the spoiler alert, it was Sean from New Zealand, not Amanda from Nashville, Kini from Hawaii or Char from Detroit.
The manual for my mission field
I don’t watch the show because I root for a winner. I never know why someone wins anyway (although I do think it should have been Amanda this time). I watch the show for it’s message. It is such a perfect piece of capitalist propaganda that it is a priceless manual for my mission field.
I was talking about the show the other day and yet another person gave me that “I’m-trying-not-to-get-into-this-with-you” look. But they could not resist. “Why do you watch that show? Isn’t it about fashion design?” The unspoken question was, “Pastor, you are into fashion design? Aren’t all those fashion people the definition of godless?” I told them, “I watch it to learn things.” Yes, Heidi Klum is still beautiful and I am fond of Tim Gunn; and it is amazing that these artists can make practical art out of anything in no time at all — those are also good reasons to watch. But mostly, I am listening for what people are being taught, and Project Runway sums up America in 90 minutes each episode — 45 of which I actually view. (Thank you inventers of the DVR; I can skip most of the relational drama the film editors concoct).
The Wellstone International Academy in Minneapolis did internet-world a service when they offered everyone the summary sheet they give their international students about U.S. Americans. They collected Concepts that Shape the American Way of Life, a “compendium of ideas developed by anthropologists and sociologists over the past 40 years.” As it turns out, the kids could have gotten the same thing by watching Project Runway for forty minutes. The show is a redundant indoctrination of all things Americans consider important. Here are seven of the concepts that we missionaries need to know about if are to have any hope of helping people learn to let Jesus shape their way of life.
Tell it like it is
1) U.S. Americans tend to be candid and outspoken in communication with others, and they seldom shy away from disclosing facts about themselves. Thus, they make reality TV. They prefer “direct” questions and respond with “straight” answers. Thus, Heidi tells the designers each week that, “In fashion one day you’re in, the next you’re out.” Thus, Tim Gunn is beloved for being gently assertive as he tells someone their design may need to be trashed. The dapper Mr. Gunn is also the one who delivers the news each week that the loser needs to pack up their stuff in the workroom and get out — pretty candid.
Don’t shy away from challenge
2) U.S. Americans assume that any challenge can be met, any goal achieved, if one works hard enough. The motto of the Navy’s Construction Battalions (the Seabees) during WWII was: “The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.” Thus Project Runway gives the designers $100 at Mood and one day to make Heidi a gown to wear to a gala. And they do it! They will perform the impossible for the chance at $100K. “Make a look from things found in a movie theater or on a movie set? Sure! I can do that in a few hours; I’m in America.” We are all supposed to have a dream and fulfill it by sticking with it. Almost all the losers tell the camera on their way out that they are going to keep believing in their dream.
Don’t expect togetherness
3) U.S. Americans believe in individualism. They stress being separate. Thus, the designers always hate the dreaded group challenge. Americans stress personal responsibility and stress that each person must take their own initiative, so designers are always talking about “finding their voice” and Nina Garcia always says, “I can’t see you in that dress.” The show sets up the redundant formula to highlight these things again and again. We always see people hating group challenges (admit it, Amanda) and we always hear about people finding their voice. The judges reward them for individuality.
4) U.S. Americans measure their well-being in terms of the number of tangible things at their command that enable them to enjoy uninterrupted comfort and convenience. Thus, the Project Runway contestants are put up in posh NYC hotels, they make elegant clothes, they get a cool car if they win. Plus, the winners get the promise of a bit of money and fame to start their own brand so they can drive cool cars to posh hotels like Heidi. We are taught to desire these things. We know the people who have made it and who rule the airwaves (possibly rules our lives!) have these things.
Make it work
5) U.S. Americans are deeply practical. They want things, procedures, and people to meet the requirements of actual use in daily life. The dreaded Project Runway critique is, “It looks like a costume.” Because someone, somewhere must be imagined wearing this thing to Wawa or the Emmys. Thus, Tim Gunn comes by when you’re halfway done, looks concerned and says, “Make it work.” You can get that saying on a T-shirt. Other people groups around the world give more weight to tradition, theology, morality, or theoretical consistency. None of that matters to Americans if what they’re doing wins or sells. The contestants will modulate their “voice” to get into the pages of Marie Claire.
6) The self-esteem of individual U.S. Americans is largely tied to their ability to “get ahead” in terms of the recognition of their peers as well as material affluence and social mobility. There is a deeply held belief in the U.S. that anyone — through hard work, talent, and persistence — can rise well above the station in life to which he or she is born. Thus the creators of Project Runway comb the world for rags-to-riches possibilities and replay the drama so we will keep believing that piece of relative nonsense. Heidi Klum comes out in some fabulous (if often tasteless) dress — she’s made it! Tim Gunn somehow made a name for himself. That’s the story, again and again. Sean Kelly moves to Brooklyn from the land of the Hobbits and six months later wins Project Runway. Get busy.
7) U.S. Americans tend to feel that time is relentlessly rushing past them. They attempt to “save time” by moving at a rapid pace, taking shortcuts, and improving their efficiency. They become anxious if forced to waste time. The whole premise of Project Runway is about this anxiety. Only the swift survive. This season Kini remade much of the collection he brought to New York Fashion Week because the judges trashed it; we were impressed that he could sew like lightning.
I like the skillful people of Project Runway. It’s a fun, pretty-much-predictable-by-this-time show. But it is also so instructive! I need to keep my eyes and ears open. Because I am tempted every day to sink into the delusion that Americans live in reality. Reality shows remind me of just how crazy this place can be, and just how much we all need a Savior. That’s Who I am bringing into the mix, after all.