Ellen Gray: On reality TV, adults can be the bullies

Michael Costello (right) works with ousted contestant A.J. Thouvenot (left) in last week's episode of "Project Runway."
Michael Costello (right) works with ousted contestant A.J. Thouvenot (left) in last week's episode of "Project Runway."
Posted: October 12, 2010

BULLYING: IT'S not just for kids anymore.

Maybe it never was. But as a rash of teen suicides linked to bullying reignites a national conversation about how our children are treating one another in school, online - and even in the presumed privacy of their own rooms - I can't help noticing how much "reality" television relies on supposedly adult mean girls (and, yes, mean boys) to bring the drama.

It's such a staple of Bravo's "Real Housewives" franchise that seeing even 15 minutes of any episode is enough to transport me back to junior high.

And not in a good way.

Watching a screener of the Season 2 opener of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" earlier this year, I was so shaken by one woman's cruelly graphic speculation about the size and condition of another's private parts that I had to pause the DVD and leave my office in search of fresh air.

Please don't tell me what the second woman - who seemed to have been designated the evil outsider in the group casting people helped assemble - did to "deserve" this treatment. I refuse to imagine a justification for the statement (made to an unseen interviewer, outside the victim's presence) or for Bravo's decision to carry it.

If this is what millions of people consider entertainment, is it any surprise that even kids whose schools have invested heavily in anti-bullying initiatives don't all seem to be getting the message?

Yes, it's easy to pick on the "Housewives" and other dumb-bunny shows too often set in the Garden State. TV critics can be bullies, too.

But though the language is usually more moderate, just about every so-called unscripted show on television, from "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race" to "The Bachelor" and "Hell's Kitchen," has at one time or another gotten mileage from the singling out of a scapegoat.

"The tribe has spoken"? Some tribes never shut up.

This season, Lifetime's "Project Runway," one of the classiest examples of the genre and a show that often celebrates people - not all of them gay men - for whom high school might well have been a living hell, has been providing a sometimes uncomfortable lesson in herd mentality.

Michael Costello, a designer from Palm Springs, Calif., seemed to become the outsider early on, as several other contestants, apparently led by Gretchen Jones, an early standout in the competition and a woman with an apparently unshakable belief in her own superiority, decided he wasn't really worthy to be there.

The fact that the judges didn't always seem to agree, choosing his designs as winners in Weeks 4 and 6, only seemed to make things worse, at least at first.

And then, as some of the Friends of Gretchen began to be sent home, things slowly started to get better.

In a smaller group, Michael C., as he's known - to distinguish him from the more popular Michael Drummond, who exited a few weeks ago - began to fit in a little more.

Paired for a challenge with Mondo Guerra, an idiosyncratic designer and a man who's bound to have survived a bully or two in his life, he made his first friend on the show (and we started to see a less bizarre side of Mondo, making the recent episode in which he disclosed his HIV-positive status that much more touching).

Michael C. was still emotional and a bit thin-skinned and his design choices were still sometimes hard to fathom, but he at least seemed more relaxed.

I, too, started to relax (I watch "Runway" for the creativity, not the carping), but then came last week's challenge, with the return of some ousted contestants, or, as Michael put it, "the people who hate me," to "help."

And suddenly, a 27-year-old man looked like a grade-schooler feigning a stomach ache to avoid the bullies out to steal his lunch money.

Or, in the case of ex-contender Ivy Higa, his reputation.

Props to "Runway" producers and to mentor Tim Gunn for shutting down Ivy and her accusation of cheating so firmly (even if a closer examination of whatever it is that Michael and/or his model did or didn't do while taping her breasts several challenges earlier might have had real entertainment value).

What's happened on "Project Runway" this season hasn't always been pretty, but it's been as honest a look as I've seen of how groups competing for scarce resources may unite in their dislike for one member, whether they're stranded on an island, a design studio or in adjoining cubicles.

(Honk if you've never been on either side of this. I expect to hear crickets.)

It's also been a reminder that bullying isn't impossible to overcome, whether you're the victim or the bully.

But sometimes it does require adults to step up and do the right thing. *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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