One of my favorite aspects of the fashion industry is its ability to breakdown and redefine stereotypes that are apart of American culture today. In the past few years, there have been many fashion centered shows that focus much of their content on sexual orientation and gender biases. Shows like Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and What Not To Wear feature characters who reflect an over-exaggerated and dramatized demeanor that perpetuate gay stereotypes in our society. From gender roles to sexual orientation, the media often take societal norms and intensify them by either magnifying a trait or denying a general classification of a specific group of people. Fashion reality television often portrays sexual orientation in an exaggerated manner that reinforces stereotypes that are present in society today.
Fashion reality shows have been made extremely popular in the last decade through networks like HBO, TLC, MTV and Bravo. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was one of the first TV shows that featured an entire gay cast with a keen eye for fashion. Each episode featured five gay men who would work to improve a straight man through his sense of style and/or his general appearance. This show was one of the first shows to place homosexual men in a position of power- allowing them to use their expert fashion sense to help straight men in need. The men were often portrayed as being flamboyant and ostentatious which demonstrates that sexuality was used to perpetuate stereotypes of sexual preference in the fashion industry. Similarly, “the less generous view would be that fashion is once again using people simply as props, one more passing trend,” (Spindler). Though the five men were often shown as being feminine, their fashion knowledge and expertise was never questioned or undermined. This show proved to be an important example of the media using stereotypes to both resist and reinforce dominant stereotypes in society.
Television reality shows centered around fashion use amplified personality traits to drive the premise of the show. According to Wolska, “Thus television, responsible for providing the central social discourse, is supposed to be ‘a mirror of the society,’” (Wolska) proving that television is both a reflection and deflection of society. America’s Next Top Model is another fashion reality show that features both gay and straight characters but with less of a focus on sexuality. Unlike Project Runway, which is centered around Tim Gunn- an openly gay fashion designer who works to help young advantageous designers, America’s Next Top Model rarely focuses on sexual orientation, and often uses the idea of equality to drive the shows dialogue. Though this show is structured around a straight female host, each episode features a gay judge, photographer, stylist, etc. These characters aren’t typically shown in a dramatized manner, but rather are shown working for the sake of the young models. An example of a gay character is Jay Manuel, who was a featured judge on the show and although he is openly gay, his sexuality rarely played a part in the shows context.
In Project Runway, the host Tim Gunn is well respected throughout the show and the contestants work to impress both him and his team. Tim’s no-bullshit attitude gives a unique spin on the show, as he possesses qualities that disagree with overgeneralized homosexual stereotypes that are typically prevalent in other shows. Though his sexuality plays an obvious role in the shows context, the show rarely focuses on sexual orientations of him and the contestants.
Regardless of how certain shows illustrate sexual orientation, we must ask ourselves if these fashion focused shows are perpetuating gay stereotypes that already exist or if they are using specific characters to break the roles society implements on sexual preferences. It’s important to remember that many of these shows are centered around characters that bring drama to the show, regardless of their sex or sexual preference. The fashion industry, in general, is known for being widely accepting of varying traits that define us through by our skin color, religion, gender and sexual preference but do these fashion shows successfully defy these stereotypes or do they just reinforce them?
Spindler, Amy M. "Taking Stereotyping to a New Level in Fashion." The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 June 1997. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
Wolska, Malgorzata. "Gender Stereotypes in Mass Media. Case Study: Analysis of the
Gender Stereotyping Phenomenon in TV Commercials." KRYTYKA.org.
KRYTYKA, 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.