‘What Not to Wear’: Lesbian edition

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.

7 thoughts on “‘What Not to Wear’: Lesbian edition

  1. What I like in general about What Not To Wear (also a guilty pleasure for me!) is that Stacy and Clinton don’t try and make contributors, mostly women, dislike their bodies more than they already do. They don’t chide them if they are overweight, if they aren’t height-weight proportionate, instead they tell them to let go of the “if I just lose 10 pounds I can wear this again” clothes and to learn to embrace and dress the body they have.
    Often underneath the horrible clothes the contributors discover they can look beautiful and feel good about themselves even if they aren’t wearing skinny jeans.
    A phrase used often on WNTW is a contributor’s outer appearance finally matches their inner beauty at the end.
    And heck, yes, this episode was great for demonstrating an attitude beyond tolerance by embracing Annie for who she is, a married woman with two kids who owns her own business and is a member of a biker club who happens to be a lesbian.
    They wouldn’t make a big deal that a contributor is straight and kudos to them for following the same standard with a lesbian contributor.

  2. I just saw the Annie episode on reruns and I have to.say I think it is my favorite. She was so excited to see how great she looks showing off her “boyish figure” which, as Stacey pointed out, means clothes look great on you! If I saw the restyled Annie walking down the street I would be envious of her as the transformation made who look like a confident, edgey woman completely in control and beautifully self-assured.

  3. Hi All…this is Annie. A friend just emailed me ur site and i just want you to know that i am still keeping up my new look (and confidently so). I will be forever grateful to Stacy, Clinton, and the production crew as they NEVER once dramatized my “gayness” for the sake of ratings or shock factor. In fact, they never brought up the “gay thing” at all…I was treated like every other working mom who was lacking fashion sense. Ur article actually just made this clear to me (3 yrs later) and I have yet another newfound respect for the show. Cheers!

  4. Wow! Thanks, Annie. Glad to hear from you and glad to hear that your experience on WNTW was positive. Cheers to you, your family, and your future!

  5. I’m happy for Annie that this was a positive experience for her. However, I landed on this website tonight because I’m watching the episode with Courtney and was so devastated that I started to try to find some online feminist responses to this violent program. Courtney (sincere apologies if I got the spelling wrong) had a really great wardrobe that was all camo, and a very strong and confident personality until WNTW came along to fix it. All I can see in this episode is gender violence at work. The message we get is “this is what a woman is,” and Courtney is not what she is “supposed” to be because she looks…(drumroll) like a man when she wears clothes that “conceal” her figure. Is this the fashion police or the gender police? Why are they struggling so hard to get her to wear a dress? (The triumph of the show is when they get her into a dress and silver flats.) So much violence…I can’t believe I landed on this show by trying to avoid violent programs with shootouts and hostage situations. How is this not a shootout? The carnage is everywhere! So much violation of a person’s self-definition. Apparently women are supposed to look “pretty.” The purpose of the show is to get Courtney to see and talk about her “beauty and “prettiness.” “Has she ever seen her feminine side at all?” They ask. And of course, the way to become feminine (as if the feminist and LGBT movements never ever happened at all) it is to spend a lot of money, engage in wanton consumerism, conform conform conform to whatever images of femininity women are “properly” supposed to express. This show is the conservative backlash against Betty Friedan–taking us right back to the 1950s. Who knows, maybe it was a personally fulfilling experience for Courtney–I can’t speak to that–but I can say that as a feminist I felt violated watching this episode.

    • Yes, this show is terrible in general when it comes to conforming, both for the more feminine and masculine. I have seen them take girls, who are already beautiful, feminine, and fashionable (in my opinion at least), and turn them into non-creative mainstream garbage. I used to love the show, when they took girls that actually needed fashion help, loved their results, and went on happily with their lives, but that concept always seems to get ruined for me when I see something like you mentioned (a girl with a great wardrobe she loves, her own personality and style get torn apart). It certainly does not just happen to the “mannish” women on the show, either, though that is bad enough. It happens to girls who dress much in the same manner as I do as a femme. One woman had a great vintage wardrobe from the 1950’s and other 1900’s decades that they threw out because it made her look “outdated”, which I do not understand coming from people who should know what vintage fashion is and is about. They have also torn apart girls just because they are into alternative fashion like I am. Why is there all this pressure for people to conform and make themselves into just another one of the thousands of people out there that all dress the same? Believe me, I do not dislike mainstream fashion. It has its good and bad sides just as everything else does. I just do not want to see it become the “only” thing out there, and when I see that happening, I become quite upset. This show started good, and has good episodes. I just wish that they knew when it is no longer ‘not knowing how to dress’ and is actually ‘choosing to dress differently because it suits them’.

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