Project Runway Life Lessons

There are not many programs on television that I like to watch and even fewer that I’ll watch with my children. With a wide range of interests and maturity levels, finding common ground is difficult, but there is one program we never miss: Project Runway.

(If you aren’t familiar with the show, you can check it out here, but it’s basically a cross between Survivor and American Idol for up-and-coming fashion designers.)

My mother has always been a little concerned about our Project Runway viewing. To her dismay, it’s inspired Keara, her eldest granddaughter, to dream of a career in fashion. To her dismay, her eldest grandson, Finn, has watched it religiously since he was 6 years old, (To be honest, at 13, Finn has backed away from claiming it’s one of his favorite shows.) To her great dismay, little Molly does killer imitations of any and all of the most flamboyant contestants.

My mother has had all this dismay and has never once seen the show. She just saw the impact it had on our family culture and wasn’t so keen on it. And then, Season 10 began and somehow my mother saw it and then the real dismay began. She couldn’t believe I let my children watch. It was chaotic and cruel and the people were crazy and no one was nice. What in the world was I thinking? (Tim has given up asking that question, but he thinks it all the time as well. He is not a fan of Project Runway.)

But Episode 3 of this season gave me the perfect way to explain “what I’m thinking” by allowing my kids to watch the show.

In that week’s challenge, designers were randomly paired up to create a red carpet, runway ‘look.’ Enter Elena and Buffy, two of the most unlikely partners you will ever find. Elena is angry and high-strung. Buffy is a friendly, jovial sort. Elena wears her dark hair in severe French braids and scowls at the camera, while Buffy flashes one smile after another. Buffy even has pink hair, accented with a multi-colored, cheetah patch shaved into the side. Elena designs would fit in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo collection. Buffy could design for the Girls Just Wanna Have Fun boutique.

Their time together went about as well as you can imagine, with Elena bossing, criticizing, and sniping at her partner and Buffy keeping her head down, too afraid to say anything for fear of having her head bitten off. As I watched it with Molly, I thought how we might cover the basic Project Runway Life Lessons – again.

What kind of person do you want to be? A nice one.

How should you treat people? With respect.

Who do we root for? The good guy with the most talent, of course.

Those are the standard conversations Project Runway delivers to our home on a weekly basis.

But then it happened, that little moment where a whole new conversation unfolds.

In a cutaway interview, Elena defended her actions,

“Being from where I am, you need a toughness to survive. If you go to Ukraine, no one is going to say please and thank you and blah, blah, blah. To just survive and eat every day, people really have to hustle. You have to be very strong. The weak ones don’t survive.”

Suddenly her strident behavior made sense. She comes from a place of scarcity and even though she has lived in the States for almost 20 years, the fear of not having enough has never subsided. I imagine that fear gives rise to the aggression and arrogance that Elena displays, not just toward Buffy, but also toward everyone on the show, from contestants to judges to the grandfatherly host.

I recently read a passage from a book and I immediately thought of Elena. The author said, “Where does arrogance come from? The answer, I think, is fear. The more insecure I feel, the more arrogant I tend to become and the most arrogant people I know are also the most insecure. The arrogant ego… is fearful of losing its status if it loses the battle at hand.” In a world of scarcity, to lose a single battle is to risk losing everything.

In contrast to Elena, it’s clear that Buffy comes from a place of abundance, a place where it’s easy to say “Please” and “Thank you” and wait your turn, because there is always enough. (We thought she was from England, but it turns out she was raised in Dubai.) When you are assured of your place in life and in line, you can sacrifice your ego once in a while for the sake of peace and the well-being of the other. You know there is always another opportunity around the corner.

After Elena’s comments, I paused the show and Molly and I talked about scarcity and abundance, about communism and capitalism, and about how our childhood experiences shape us. Was Elena really talking just about food? What else might have been scarce? Maybe kindness and compassion, love, or respect? Even if they were present in her home life, they obviously weren’t abundant in her culture. To this day, their lack affects her perception of the world and therefore the audience’s perception of her.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that Elena is currently listed as the “Fan Favorite” on the official website by a wide margin. What does that say about the typical viewer of the show? Nothing good I’m afraid, but clearly, we are not the typical viewer. Buffy is Molly’s favorite contestant and I asked her to think about what Buffy had in abundance as a child. Probably everything, we agreed. When you think of Buffy as a girl, you think of art supplies, dance lessons, and face painting, but Molly thought she probably had lots of love and patience, hugs and kisses too and maybe even a really funny dad. When you have an abundance of joy, it’s easy to share with others. I guess the same goes for pain too.

Molly and I wrapped up our “talking timeout” by naming some of the “abundance” people we know and how much we enjoy their company, but we also thought about the “Elenas” in our life, who might need a little more empathy the next time we encounter them on the playground, or in life. Scarcity is no fun and it’s scars run deep.

I never imagined I would be having this conversation with my 10 year old on a Saturday morning, but that’s the magic of Project Runway. Under the guise of fun and fashion, it allows me to talk with my kids about everything from politics to economics, morality to spirituality. You aren’t going to get that in 60-minutes or less anywhere else.

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6 thoughts on “Project Runway Life Lessons

  1. Casey and I LOVE the show and have been watching for years. There are college classes being taught in Sociology that incorporate reality television like Project Runway and Survivor. Sometimes our “teaching moments” in todays culture come in different
    forms…but in the end they all help us to “make it work!”

  2. Wow Ali. I have loved every one of your recent posts and I finnally “ordered” myself to let you know. So many times I get to read it sitting at a stop light or waiting in the car to pick the kids up…..
    This one especially you hit right on the nose.
    How intuitive of you!!!!
    Waiting in line- is just that for one and a battle zone for another. (if you don’t fight every inch of the way you don’t move forward) If that means you don’t eat at the end of the day…. It would make anyone tough right?!!!! 🙂
    Great job Ali!!!

    • I love that this one spoke to you Martina, since you grew up in a similar part of the world and yet you are so different from Elena, that I know you must have had an abundance of love! I know you do now with your 3 boys and 1 man. Thank you for writing to me and letting me know.

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