How to Be a Gentleman
by DANIEL D'ADDARIO
In order to pass the so-called Bechdel Test, a work of art must contain two women discussing a subject other than a man. Black Swan and All About Eve — films about female envy — pass, and so does Bridesmaids if you are willing to accept fighting over a wedding as distinct from fighting over the groom. New Girl fails, because there’s really only one girl and she’s either talking about her ex or her male roommates.
The Rachel Zoe Project is the first work of art (if you will) that merits a reverse-Bechdel Test. Every conversation the male cast members have stems back to Rachel Zoe herself, the stylist whose travails build a dreamlike Los Angeles about work, in senses of the word pertaining to one’s labors (work) and a drag-queeny desire to serve up a vogue look (werrrrrrrk).
The debt The Rachel Zoe Project, currently in its fourth season on Bravo, owes to The Hills is obvious. The Hills, secretly the most influential TV show of the 2000s, at first depicted four young women working menial jobs; the subtext became text in the pages of Us Weekly, where the stupid internships transmogrified, as though by magic, into brand-building exercises. Men were accessories like Lauren Conrad's absurd season-one kukui-nut necklace.
Unlike the ladies of The Hills, though (save for Laguna Beach refugee L.C.), Rachel Zoe was already famous when her show began. As a stylist, she pioneered the big-bag big-rings big-sunglasses big-Chanel-schmatte look that dominated the mid-2000s, paid for by the likes of Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan and imitated by L.C. and her crew. There was that horrifying-perfect Lynn Hirschberg profile in which Rachel Zoe claimed she was more influential than Anna Wintour, and whose smoking gun was not a plate of truffle fries but a plate of steamed veggies. Her personality didn’t come out in the profile any more than it does in the show, unless a set of aesthetic tastes and claims about how hard one works count as a personality.
The climb continues for a stylist who determined the sartorial look of reality TV then saw no further outlet for her talents than playing on the same turf. As season four begins, Rachel has been abandoned by her assistant, Brad, who wanted stardom of his own: Rachel sees this as a betrayal. She is acutely aware of loyalty. This, in the absence of conversation about anything but her job (she also discusses what she’ll wear in her off-time, but this counts, one could argue, as brand-building), is her defining trait.
Rachel hires a new assistant, the sallow outdoorsman Jeremiah, and brings to Los Angeles a desperate acolyte, the lanky makeup artist Joey, but neither one’s names get featured in the credits. The Hills always found an opposite-if-not-equal replacement for its departed stars; The Rachel Zoe Project has winnowed its credits down to Rachel and her husband Rodger.
Rodger has undefined responsibilities by what is often referred to as “the Zoe organization” or “Team Zoe”; he complains to other staffers, largely, about how stressed Rachel is, now that she is pregnant and still working (both working as a stylist and werrrrrking as she tests the seams of vintage Halston. That he is stressed is subtext: he is portrayed as a very average fellow who loves Vegas and the big game, who cares about his wife enough to do everything she says but not enough to disallow himself from snidely commenting on the shallowness of the fashion world. Heavy is the wrist that wears the stylist-selected Tibetan prayer beads.
It’s fortunate for Rachel, in the nonchalance of her husband towards everything save for her relative ability to deliver both a son and a paycheck, that she has gay men to deliver to her adoration. Joey, a minor character throughout the series, has returned to Los Angeles at Rodger’s behest with a loosely defined portfolio. (Rodger summons him with the most farcical of gravity, promising him a car and limited responsibilities.) Joey must make Rachel happy, and his flattery would seem like something out of one of Shakespeare’s histories did it not seem so earnest. “I love your job,” he says, preparing a model’s togs for a photoshoot.
Though they are coworkers, his only conversation with Jeremiah is about how Rachel likes things done — four years into the series, Joey has some idea. His flattery has by this point allowed him to supplant Jeremiah as Rachel’s most important fashion assistant, a development that prompted a mini-freakout when Joey gets to dress Kim Kardashian. “I get to treat people like Barbies.”
Maybe so, but he is one of many Kens. He and Rachel play dress-up, planning which Chanel sweaters she will wear to the delivery room; this stands out among the many, many scenes of Joey and Rachel standing in front of racks of clothes debriefing. (“Pulling clothes is really fun for me, I just feel like I’m in a dollhouse and I can pick out as many clothes as I want to put on a Barbie or something,” says Joey on another occasion.) That Joey Barbie-ing Rachel is done for the camera’s benefit seems obvious, but that Rachel Zoe thinks the image she ought to send out to the world is of a woman unhappy without the presence of someone to say yes to it all is disconcerting.
Jeremiah, though, has been fired, a task delegated to Rodger, for nebulous reasons pertaining to his inability to “find a place” within the Zoe organization. That he is later called back to decorate Rachel’s nursery, and that he says yes, is obvious within the diegetic world of Rachel Zoe’s universe, one in which every request is easily fulfilled.
What Rachel Zoe has built is less an empire (the scenes of actual work have gone, through the seasons, from legitimately glamorous occasions featuring big stars to sad little showrooms where Rachel assembles look books for unknown Scandinavian brands) than a multi-layer dollhouse in which every level believes they are dressing one another. Her baby is a son, one for whom Jeremiah lays out baby Gucci sandals in the nursery. Every man can find nothing to talk about save for Rachel’s whims, but that is a measure of the influence for which she has worked so hard.
"My Husband's Got No Courage" - The Once (mp3)
"Valley of Kilbride" - The Once (mp3)
"Charlie's" - The Once (mp3)