The Ritual of the Runway: Studying Social Order and Gender Identity in "Project Runway"
Schweikhard Robison, Andrea R.
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Project Runway premiered on Bravo TV on December 1st, 2004, and is now in its sixth season, which aired on Lifetime. On Project Runway, designer contestants live together in apartments in downtown New York for the duration of filming and work on weekly challenges at Parsons The New School for Design. I am interested in determining the ways in which reality shows like Project Runway both allow and restrict the display of gender and sexual identity for contestants through the construction of a social order. This study is a textual analysis of all five currently released seasons of Project Runway. I draw from theories of social interaction to provide the interpretive framework for this study. In order to conduct the textual analysis, I purchased all five currently released seasons of Project Runway and watched them all in order one time through, making notes as I watched them. I then went back through individual episodes to hone in on key themes and framing devices. As I watched, I looked for commonalities across episodes and seasons that demonstrate elements of a manufactured social order, including rules, codes and norms that were formed both through official ceremony by the producers as well as those that emerged and were passed down unofficially through the contestants living and working together. I also looked for the various ways that performances of sexuality were allowed or constrained within this social world. I then divided the data from the analysis into two distinct chapters: the first one (Chapter III) deals entirely with the way in which social order was created and presented on Project Runway, and the second (Chapter IV) explores the way that roles and gender identities are regulated and displayed within that social order. Despite the seventy-four contestants of various gender and sexual orientation, designers on Project Runway are portrayed performing their identities within a limited range of roles. Gay male designers, while given some degree of authority within the realm of women's clothing, are represented through a series of hyper-ritualizations that tend to perpetuate stereotypes rather then challenge them. Straight male designers have few options for enacting their sexual identity on the show, and these often also play to stereotypes of masculinity. Female designers are generally not allowed to perform sexuality as part of their identities and are restricted to playing the part of the hysterical, bitchy or motherly female. Furthermore, these gender and sexual identities serve to allow and restrict certain characters in their place at Bryant Park. Patriarchal gay men and sensitive straight men are given a shot at the prize, while women are only allowed to win if they do not perform their womanhood. Left in the margins, the performance of mothers, non-patriarchal gays and non-parental straight men always end with an "auf Weidersehen."