Book Review: Gunn’s Golden Rules

Many of you are probably aware that Tim Gunn recently sort of “came out” as asexual, or at least described himself as asexual several times. Ily announced it here, and you can find several quotes from a magazine article that were almost direct quotations from his book, Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making it Work, here.

I’ve been a fan of Tim Gunn for several years, ever since I discovered Project Runway. A lot of that is that he does have an asexy vibe, but it’s also because I find him, more and more, to be the lone voice of sanity on the show. His critiques of the designers’ work are incredibly astute, although he doesn’t know what the judges are going to say, especially since lately they’ve been smoking crack (Really? Gretchen?). Another reason I identify with Tim is that he clearly reads a lot, and has a very large vocabulary. You see, I’m the type of person who relatively frequently uses words that others around me don’t know as well… and I get similar reactions to it. I also just find him overall very kind and generous and joyful, and that is the spirit of this book.

The rules that are quoted on the back cover of the book are almost all related to Project Runway and the one that isn’t is related to the wider fashion world. I realize that is a good marketing strategy, but I think that kind of misrepresents what the book is about as a whole. It’s not all catty gossip about Isaac Mizrahi and Anna Wintour; while he does critique their behavior, it is not in a gossipy or malicious way, but rather a critique that because they live in such an elite world, they have become out of touch with reality, and because of that they behave badly. The book’s themes revolve around being humble and not an elitist, being kind and courteous to others, and finding personal strength and joy even when things are tough.

This last theme seems to be the one that is most often discussed around these parts. He discusses hard issues like his suicide attempt and various conflicts with his family over his sexual orientation. I believe at one point, I think in a v-log, he said he shares that information in order to let anyone who is in a similar place know that it does get better. Now, I’ve had some concerns with the It Gets Better project because so many of the messages are centered around very mainstream norms that don’t take asexuality, aromanticism, or celibacy into account—they assume that everyone wants a romantic partner, a marriage, a family, etc. But Tim Gunn’s message is overall very asexual-friendly:

Could I get psychiatric help and resume some kind of sex life at some point? Probably. But it’s a little late for that. And frankly, I am happy being celibate. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had thoughts. I am a human being. But I love my life and don’t feel any need to change it.

Getting used to being alone was hard, but now that I’ve made a life for myself alone, I really like it. It’s been years since I’ve been interested in anyone. And I really think if you don’t need it, you don’t need it. As hard as it is for a lot of my friends to believe, I really am happy alone. (From page 189.)

It does seem that Tim is somewhat hesitant about claiming the label asexual. Later on, he says:

Sometimes people ask me when I figured out that I was gay. Well, for a very long time, I didn’t know what I was. I knew what I wasn’t: I wasn’t interested in boys, but I really wasn’t interested in girls. A lot of it was denial, but it was also that I didn’t feel unsatisfied. I’ve always loved working and have made that my priority. For many years, I described myself as asexual, and that’s probably still closest to the truth.

I do believe in a spectrum of sexuality. Some people are completely straight and some are completely gay, and plenty of people are somewhere in between. I think it’s crazy how hung up Americans, especially American men, are on this subject. I identify as gay, but there are women to whom I’m attracted. It’s not like I want to go to bed with them—but I can appreciate when someone’s radiating sexiness. (pages 214-215)

Let’s get this out of the way first:  there is one thing that I think is particularly problematic in that first quote, and that is that he appears to equates thoughts of sex (presumably about wanting to have sex, rather than intellectual interest) with being human. Not thinking about or desiring sex does not make a person a robot, an alien, a sociopath, or any other kind of inhuman or defective human creature. He seems to have internalized some negative cultural views about asexuality, and I have a sense that this may be part of where his unwillingness to fully embrace the label as an identity comes from. In general, though, I don’t think he’s really all that negative about it, and from what he’s written here, I’d certainly embrace him as one of us.

I suppose if we wanted to categorize him in our terms, then from what we know, we might say that he is a gay, gray-area asexual person (for those coming in from Google, yes, it is possible to be both gay and asexual at the same time). I would try to avoid doing that though, as I want to be respectful of each person’s right to self-identify and I don’t know how he actually identifies in terms of the sexual/non-sexual spectrum since he doesn’t make it totally clear; he seems to be using the word more as a descriptor than an identity, from what I can tell. I also keep in mind that a few years ago, he said that he isn’t really asexual, but was just in denial, so perhaps his views have fluctuated since then. But even so, I think he can be just as great a role model for asexual people as he can for gay people, even if he does not consider himself totally asexual (not all of us do, either). I can relate to many of the things he talks about: I went through a period of knowing what I wasn’t but not what I was as well, though probably not for such a long time; I’ve had doubts about whether I am really asexual or just in denial; I’ve had my asexuality cause problems in interpersonal relationships, in a different way but certainly also in a way that was crushing; and I can also appreciate attractiveness without wanting to go to bed with the person, though I hesitate to call others “sexy” (and again, for the benefit of those of you who will come in through Google, in the asexual community we call that aesthetic attraction, and it is not the same as sexual attraction so I would try to avoid assuming that’s what Tim Gunn means in the quote above, because he doesn’t specify).

Tim Gunn is certainly an inspiring figure who shows that it’s totally possible to be completely happy without sex or romance. Examples like that, especially in popular culture, don’t tend to turn up too often. It also contradicts the stereotype that all men want sex all the time, as well as the stereotype that gay culture and all homosexual people are hypersexual and promiscuous. Many people seem to like him quite a bit, too, so I’m positive that will spread awareness and hopefully acceptance of asexuality.

Now I’m going to switch topics, because that’s not all that’s in this book. Much of it is focused on etiquette, though not so much rigid and meaningless rules that encourage fake happiness. Rather, it’s about rules that make sense and are appropriate for the situation. For example, he makes the point that he wears jeans to the grocery store, because that’s appropriate. He also says that it’s fine to be more casual in a happy situation, but when there’s bad news—funerals, break-ups, etc.—it’s better to be more formal, to show that you’re taking the situation seriously and understand that it’s a big deal. I consider that sensible advice.

Throughout the book, there are funny examples of people behaving badly, and the humor keeps it a fairly light read. He emphasizes humility and keeping things in perspective, and cites hilarious examples of times when people have failed in that task. One that made me laugh aloud was when he spoke of how Martha Stewart once said, “Life has few disappointments greater than that of a room-temperature nut.” Then he went on to describe his inspiring visit to Walter Reed, and the level of determination and positive attitude the people there displayed even after having lost their limbs. And following that:

Can’t you see Martha Stewart standing there in the middle of Walter Reed? She’d kill me for saying this, but I like to imagine the pre-Camp Cupcake Martha surveying the scene and then saying, “This is nothing compared to the disappointment of a room-temperature nut.” (page 211)

A few more things I think are important to note about this book: Tim Gunn does not exempt himself from these examples of bad behavior, which shows an example that he is not putting himself up on a pedestal of perfection from which he looks down to judge others. He also talks about the very real dangers of being so nice to others that you end up leaving yourself open to abusive situations. In effect, it seems like he is saying something like, “Be nice to others, take the high road and don’t burn your bridges, but at the same time, be real. Don’t pretend to be excessively happy when you aren’t, and get out of any situation that’s abusive.”

Overall, although there are some points I disagree with, I found it an insightful, sensible, and amusing book. Of course, you may not enjoy it as much if you have no interest in fashion, or find it particularly frustrating, as many of the examples are from the fashion world. However, you may, as I do, find him a breath of fresh air in an industry that is often sizist, elitist, classist, full of people who feel entitled, etc.

I give it a 4.5 out of 5.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Gunn’s Golden Rules

  1. So should a nut be hot or cold? The suspense is killing me! :-)

    It sounds like the book’s a lot better than I would have thought. I find it interesting how Gunn chose to throw himself into work. I feel like I might do the same…uh…if I had a job, that is. (Sigh.) And I agree that the PR judges were smoking massive amounts of crack this season. Mondo should have won!

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    • He really should have. It seemed to my like Nina and Michael did a complete 180 on their previous criteria for winning, since Gretchen was being praised for wearability and how her looks could be in a department store (I don’t know who would actually buy them though, that confuses me) rather than creativity. Which… has been essential for like, every other designer in every other season. I think the deciding factor was that Mondo didn’t need the money, and Gretchen did because she alienated so many people that who’s actually going to want to give her a job?

      [/PR bitching]

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  2. I don’t know. I’m not sure he says “I am human” because of his own internalized stuff. I tend to be a rather strange cookie when it comes to mainstream stuff. Tim lives every day in a world that is overly sexualized and filled with media people portraying what they try to pass of as “normal”. And since he seems like a thoughtful, serious, considerate person, he is very aware of how certain phrases will come off to “normal” people and those who feed on the frenzy. Thus he already hears the remarks of those people and tries to preempt it.

    That’s not to say he doesn’t have his own internalized stuff; I think we all do. I’m just not sure that is a place he was showing it. Though perhaps I’m just using that argument because I do that myself and relate to Mr. Gunn in a number of ways.

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    • That may be true. It’s possible that those two sentences were just ill-placed, and really aren’t meant to go together at all. However, the overall effect is to perpetuate the asexual=inhuman trope, so I really can’t encourage it. I think even if he wants to avoid that reaction, or if any of us do, that’s not an effective strategy to eliminate it. It will only go away if we challenge it, not if we sort of preemptively cajole them to consider us human by accepting their intolerance.

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  3. Tim Gunn rules. I’m so glad you reviewed the book–I was trying to decide whether to get it and now I’m far more likely to do that. that first quote is definitely a little cringe inducing. But I hope he meant “thoughts about starting a romantic relationship,” not necessarily just sex. I think everybody (in the ace/aro group, even) wonders whether they’re missing something when single. Most of the time though, the answer’s a hunormous NO. For me anyway. Oh well. Maybe he’ll clarify someday.

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