Project Runway: Reality Show or Docu-fiction?

There have long been allegations of reality shows using creative editing processes to make people into “characters” that will add the most drama and conflict to the delight of television viewers.

I think my favorite show is Project Runway. Being a flaming queen, I am of course fascinated in the series which features 16 fashion designers competing with weekly design challenges for a chance at an opening at New York’s Fashion Week.

But as a Black person, and something of a cultural critic/public intellectual (YES! Friends, I finally own it.), I am often very troubled by the portrayals of Black folks in these shows, and the way they’re treated by the other folks on the show, the media, and the general viewing public.

With last season’s Project Runway, I was a huge fan of Zulema Griffin. I thought she was really smart, gorgeous, and most of all, I was interested in her perspective, and where she was going to go from week to week. But it was clear from the beginning that she was set up to be the crazy Black “b”. She was eventually ostracized by the other cast members for doing something completely within the rules of the show–no one had done it up to that point. But when she asked for a walk-off between two models, she had every Black butch queen from here to ATL screaming, “WORK!!!”

A friend recently pointed out two things that Zulema herself has begun to point out with the show:

1. She was edited in such a way to in fact make her the Black woman villain on the show.

2. The producers intentionally edited out the fact that she was a an out lesbian. Given that the show has a large queer following, that fact would have potentially made her more sympathetic, and it would have been much harder to control the effect they wanted.

This begs the question: How much of reality TV is really reality? How do we get sucked into making assumptions about people on these shows, when things can (and are, apparently) taken completely out of context?

In two interviews, Zulema exposes all this, and also talks candidly about some things that happened to her that would have added to the juicy drama of the show, but clearly the producers protected other (white) cast members (or one in particular).

Zulema speaks to The Advocate and Papierdoll about the whole ordeal.

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