Saturday, September 12, 2009

Why Tim Gunn is the Man

Tim Gunn

In my last post, I pointed out the responsibility that comes with “hyping” certain pop culture figures as harbingers of a progressive masculinity. And while this process, if that last sentence is any indication, sounds super academic, it shouldn’t. The idea is a simple one: choose wisely the men you think represent positive, non-stereotypical masculinity. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into the same trap as Shira Tarrant, when she hyped Brody Jenner and “gender-bending” Marc Jacobs ads. Remember, an important part of rethinking masculinity is rethinking the idea that being a guy comes down to performing a certain set of character traits. Tarrant’s exemplars fail to represent any new form of masculinity because they simply flip a common stereotype: Brody Jenner hangs with his boys in a hot tub and Marc Jacobs dresses his models in dresses. This inversion is not so much thought-provoking as it is gimmicky. Both examples are still firmly ensconced in the box we’re trying to find a way out of. In thinking of a new, progressive masculinity, we need to bypass, as difficult as it may be, the idea of stereotypes altogether. We don’t need a guy who does the opposite of what the stereotypical guy does. To borrow a phrase from a former professor of mine, we need to find examples of men whose entire being-in-the-world is new and fresh and sheds light on just what masculinity (in general) and guys (in particular) can be.

This is where the man pictured above comes in. In a time when masculinity could use a mentor and life coach of its own, Tim Gunn (step back, Ironman!) provides an appealing template for what a new, progressive masculinity might look like.

Interestingly enough, when comparing Tim Gunn against common masculine stereotypes, it’s amazing just how closely he aligns with traditional notions of what it means to be a man. However, for Gunn masculinity acts as a vehicle or means—not an end—towards arriving at a broader sense of personhood than stereotypes allow for. For the misogynists and sexist men of the world—and sometimes even for average guys in their day-to-day lives—masculinity is always the end result. Their lives and perspectives, therefore, can be easily summed up by a set of stereotypes (e.g. a guy acts tough because guys are supposed to act tough). This is not always as bad as it sounds. What it is is limiting. Traditional masculinity artificially caps the space in which a guy’s perspective can grow. Since masculinity is always the end result, thinking beyond masculinity’s restraints never occurs.

This is why Tim Gunn is the man. Because masculine traits and traditions are only one of many available means he uses to express—not define—his perspective, Gunn achieves a more unrestrained sense of individuality. Yet he never loses touch with his own masculinity. He doesn’t eschew or suppress the qualities that traditionally brand him a man. This is very important. When talking about redefining or remaking masculinity, it’s easy to fall into the trap of just throwing out masculinity altogether. What Tim Gunn shows is that by tempering one’s sense of masculinity—by making it a vehicle—the baby doesn’t have to go with the bathwater.

To clarify by way of example, just look at Tim Gunn’s signature suit-and-tie. The suit-and-tie is the traditional outfit of the professional, power male. For most guys the suit truly makes them; it fully represents the masculinity they strive to achieve—“I’m a powerful man because I wear this uniform.” Essentially, the masculine stereotypes embodied by the suit define these men. For Tim Gunn, the suit represents a means of expression. This may seem like an easy example because of his background and career in fashion, but that makes it no less important:
When Gunn arrived in New York City in 1983…he was still wearing his “D.C. uniform” of “boxy, ample suits.” Once in New York, he had “an outer-body experience and realized that no two people on any given street corner are dressed the same. “This is a city that accepts you for however you choose to present yourself.” (He insists that he didn’t have his “real fashion epiphany” until he became the chair of the fashion department at Parsons: “I was 18-months into my time as chair when I had a meeting with Diane von Furstenberg, I’m sure she doesn't even remember this meeting, but I could tell by her quivering eye [that she thought of me] ‘I don't know if this is going to work for you in this industry, this particular look.’ And I thought to myself, I can’t disappoint Diane! So I got a black leather blazer tailored like a suit jacket. That was my solution.”) [Hat tip to Jezebel]
Gunn’s use of the masculine suit-and-tie staple as a means of expression represents a positive way in which he broadens his perspective beyond the traditional limits imposed by rigid adherence to masculine stereotypes. Beyond single vehicles of expression, though, it’s Tim Gunn’s unflappable nature that truly displays the emotional core of his progressive masculinity. Think for a minute about the stereotype that men are the more stoic of the two sexes, that men are less prone to outbursts of emotion. Traditional masculinity assumes that men remain in-control and detached; in other words, they remain unflappable. Men don’t cry over split milk, let alone major emotionally-charged events. They deal with everything internally or else they run the risk of being scolded by their masculine peers. Unfortunately, this sort of detachment typically involves men suppressing their emotional responses.

This makes Tim Gunn’s unflappable nature so impressive and, in this guy’s opinion, revelatory. On both of his television shows—Project Runway and Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style—we see Tim Gunn knee-deep in the emotional moments and transitions of a variety of individuals. Being that he acts in the role of mentor on both shows, Gunn is not afforded the luxury of being there only to console and support each shows’ participants, he must also offer them guidance and advice and criticism. And he does all of this with marvelous effect, all while never losing control of his own emotions. He doesn’t buy into the notion that becoming emotionally involved in a situation necessarily means giving up one’s self control. Men tend to avoid emotional involvement and conflict because of the false belief that these types of engagements mean they must sacrifice their own objectivity or unflappability. So they choose to suppress their emotions. For Tim Gunn, there is no such suppression. He shows that men can remain completely emotionally engaged in a situation without sacrificing their masculine unflappability. Perhaps this is why both the people on his shows, and audiences of all sexes and genders, have embraced him so openly.

Adhering to traditional masculine stereotypes and making these stereotypes the end result—every time—inherently limits the range of personhood possible for men. Tim Gunn doesn’t work for masculinity; he makes masculinity work for him. And in doing so, he achieves a broader range of personhood and enhances our understanding of his perspective.

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