No one survives on caviar and champaign alone. Every now and again even the best feminist succumbs to silly pop-culture fare. For some it’s fashion mags, for others it’s rom-coms … My weakness is a little show on TLC called What Not to Wear. And I’m not the only one, apparently. (Remember local environmentalist Tara Nordstrom was featured on the show two years ago!)
The reason why I have liked the show since the beginning is because I like to see the change in a person from putting themselves last on their own priority list to putting themselves first. How else can you be of best service to yourself, your family, your friends, your community than to be fully actualized and realize your own worth and potential? For some people, the way they get there is through a physical transformation. It doesn’t always happen on the show, but when it does, it is beautiful. Those are the moments that people realize “what not to wear” is insecurity and self-doubt.
Let’s face it, countless books, magazine articles, talk shows and the like are always discussing how women put themselves last in their lives. It’s part of our socialization. We are selfish if we consider our needs first! We are selfish if we want to enjoy a career while being mothers. We are selfish if we don’t want kids. We are selfish if we don’t want to get married and have the house in the suburbs. We are selfish if we want to get an education instead of fostering someone else’s dreams or education. Hell, we are selfish if we want to spend 20 minutes a day doing yoga instead of doing the dishes! To be a woman in America is to have an invisible, heavy burden on your back loaded down with the expectations of society about how many other people, things and ideas that have to come before what you want and who you are. And included in that is a mighty compartment that contains all the expectations about your appearance and how it relates to your worth: Don’t be too fat, too butch, have too many crooked teeth, have too many wrinkles, wear glasses, show too much cleavage, show too little leg … it’s an endless mine-field.
But to be honest my interest in the show has waned for the past year or so. I just felt like every show was the same: a fashion victim who puts herself last ends up whining through the whole episode about how a TV show has dedicated a whole episode to them and given them $5000 to shop in New York City (which means they also get a free trip to NY!). So many ungrateful, bratty people! So many people who focus too much on what other people want and not enough on the opportunity and potential being presented to them! So many people trapped by rigid gender roles like “women have long hair” or “I can’t be sexy if I don’t show off all the goods.”
And often on the show there’s too much gender-normative validation. Many times women are chastised for one of three fashion sins: falling into a “mom jeans” rut; being slutty; being “mannish.” The last is the one I usually have the most trouble with. So what if some of those “mannish” women were merely expressing their identity? Is Ellen DeGeneres not fashionable because she sometimes dresses “mannish”? And what makes an outfit “mannish” or feminine? Wearing pants? Eschewing high heels? Well, since I’ve been pregnant I can’t wear hells and I pretty much only wear pants. Does that make me mannish? And does that matter?
But, of course, the show’s producers have always been very careful to show that the “mannish” ladies have husbands and/or kids. Presumably this has been to quell any worries from those who might be uncomfortable seeing a lesbian get a makeover. (Because then those clothes and makeup techniques would be gay?) In the 250+ episodes of the show, there must have been some lesbians on it by now. That’s just statistics. So where are the lesbians at?
My answer came with the March 5 episode about Annie, who was nominated by her female biker club. And just like most of the people on What Not to Wear, Annie is married. But unlike most contributors, Annie is (openly) married to a woman! Admittedly, I missed the beginning of the episode, but I saw the second half twice and Annie definitely refers to her wife and definitely kisses her wife at the end! In addition to this, I was very happy to see that the producers of the show and hosts Stacy and Clinton seemed to respect Annie’s desire to have an androgynous wardrobe that suits her personality and her identity. In the end, Annie did have a couple dresses, but they were clothes she liked and not coerced into to fit a gender-identity mold.
It made me very happy to see a show on TLC (the same network of the Dugger family’s 20+ kids and “Jon and Kate Plus Eight”) respect a lesbian in such, well, fashion. They could have cut away from the marital kiss. They could have called Annie’s wife her “friend.” But they didn’t. And somehow, I feel like that is a big step forward. It may not be big for regular Siren readers, most of whom I am sure are pretty pro-equality and many of whom are probably gay (just a hunch), but I think this is a big step for the sheltered folks who are enabled to remain ignorant (and sometimes hateful) because they’ve “never met a gay person.” It’s the same reason why I feel like Ellen’s success is a big deal. Sometimes pop-culture moves the barometer better than our activism can. Ellen is on multiple shows, a spokeswoman for a major cosmetic company, on magazines … and her presence, which includes her sexual orientation, are now in people’s homes. All the sudden, a lot more people can’t cling to the “never met a gay person” thing anymore.
And getting back to Annie and WNTW, I found it very refreshing that a trite little show like that could participate in acknowledging that what we think of as beautiful and feminine can be different than the super-model, Barbie fantasy. Maybe there are some viewers out there who felt a little less “strange” or “weird” because they could see style experts like Stacy and Clinton say it’s okay.
All that being said, I am a little disappointed in the web presence for this episode. The main WNTW site does not list Annie’s epi in their episode guide and there’s no mention of it on their blog. (And I couldn’t find anything on youtube.) Have they decided it was too risky after all? I hope not.