Every other Wednesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.I came to this season of Project Runway Junior a little late because, frankly, I was skeptical. I have watched every single episode of Project Runway and Project Runway All-Stars at least once, and most of them more than once. I have watched all the episodes of the ill-fated Project Runway: Under the Gunn, and I support the decision to cancel it because its formula didn’t work; really, mentors in competition and making decisions about who wins and who goes home completely undermines the mentor/mentee relationship. But when it came to the debut of the junior season last year, I got concerned that it would feel exploitative and mean-spirited to a bunch of kids. That’s not entertainment for me. I would argue that the sense of innovation, creativity, and, yes, play, shows up in the best fashion regardless of the age of the designer.A few weeks ago, though, my husband and I found ourselves without a show for the night and decided to give it a try. We were hooked. Tim Gunn shines as a mentor who is eager to encourage these young designers (ranging in ages from 13-17) without losing the meaningful critiques. Kelly Osbourne offers emotional support while succinctly summarizing the problems with the designs (and sometimes between the designers). My biggest complaint for the program is Aya Kanai, whose responses seem to revolve more around her own feelings than empathy with the contestants; also, as much as I understand that fashion is always at least partly a commercial art, I can’t shake the feeling that Kanai’s comments about what looks “cool” and “expensive” are all part of her career at Seventeen Magazine pedaling dissatisfaction and consumerism to young girls.
I get it that lots of parts of popular culture market dissatisfaction to women and men and boys, too. I’ve heard people call that equality, but it’s not the sort of equality (Hey, everyone gets told they’re inadequate! There’s a product for that!) I tend to endorse. I also see a distinction between adults and kids, where the former are more likely (I’d hope) to apply perspective and a critical lens, as well as to feel more secure. And I realize as I’m typing this that I’m referring to a utopian world that never has, can, or will exist. I digress. Sometimes Kanai rubs me the wrong way on Project Runway Junior, but mostly, I enjoy the show.
The producers avoid filming the teenage contestants in their home space, so there is considerably less drama. This is a move I’d love to see on more reality shows: focus on the fashion, folks! It’s about the workroom and the runway. My husband and I went back and watched the whole first season too, and I’m continually impressed by the vision, talent, and ambition of these young designers. They bring skills and fresh perspectives and they’re remarkably nice to each other at the same time. There seems to be a genuine camaraderie, no doubt fostered by Gunn’s slightly more hands-on and gentler approach with the juniors.I think part of what appeals to me so much about the representation of the juniors is that they are taken seriously. They take themselves seriously and that is reflected in both their work and the respect accorded to them by the judges. As someone who has spent more than a decade working with young adults in different capacities (mostly as teacher, sometimes as coach, for a little while as director of youth ministries), I get really frustrated when adults dismiss younger generations for being younger. I’ve seen entitlement issues in all generations, and there is no generational group that doesn’t have its problems.
I can’t help but think of Christ’s injunction to “[l]et the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.” For Christians, there’s supposed to be a distinction between childlike faith and childish faith. Childish behavior is never limited to children, though it shows one way that we disparage children as a group. Childlike behavior often shows us the opposite—what we value in children as a group—and I see that sense of play and wonder on Project Runway Junior. Indeed I would argue that the sense of innovation, creativity, and, yes, play, shows up in the best fashion regardless of the age of the designer. It’s not so much a matter of age as a matter of perspective.
It gives me tremendous hope to watch Project Runway Junior, to see these determined teenagers intent upon bringing beauty into the world. The future of fashion belongs to them. And while I don’t invest my faith in anything but Christ, I am excited to see the ways they redesign the world with their childlike wonder.