This post is going to seem wildly off topic. I’m sure it will garner easy trolls, as well as people who don’t think they’re trolling but feel I’ve made a Serious Lapse In Taste of which I’ll need to be educated. I mean, what am I doing, with my blog that is casual in style but (tries to be) scholarly in approach, enthusiastic in tone, feminist in philosophy, writing about that awful woman , Tyra Banks, and her tacky show?
Which is kind of why I feel like it’s an important post to be made and it does belong.
Let’s start from the fact that it is overwhelmingly men who have criticised me for liking this show. Whereas numerous women have (in hushed tones, with a shifty look, as though confessing a dirty secret) either volunteered that they like it, or confessed that they do too when I say I do. They are almost always quick (very quick) to add that what they love is the artistry of the photographs, and sometimes (usually if they are more comfortable with their own femininity) with the beauty and interest of the clothes.
Sadly, the promos (like the above) are almost always hilariously contrary to this professed quality. I mean, Tyra looks pretty powerful and clearly knows how to work a camera, but the skimpiness of the clothes and the cliché of many of the poses adds together to make something that looks faintly ridiculous and a tad exploitative.
I’m not gonna defend the promos too much. I rarely like them. But I would say that it’s worth baring in mind that this is all the models, including the ones that fall out in the first few rounds because they are, basically, crap. It’s also a composite of a group of individual photos. None of these women posed with each other. The were all trying to look their best for themselves as individuals, and none of them were thinking about how they would look in the composite because what they cared about was being judged on that photo, and there’s no way they could have known what the other girls would be doing anyway. As for the theme… themes for large groups of people verge very easily on the cliché, and ANTM has to roll out loads of these over the course of the series. If you try to focus on an individual model you can actually see that some of the outfits are not, in themselves, bad. Indeed, the model in question might be working the shit out of that thing. Compare, for example, the models in the front, or the one in the middle row on the far left with the cheesily posed lack-luster trio immediately above her. One thing this awkward promo format does allow for is that as each model gets eliminated her image disappears from the group, and you often have an interesting sense of perspective as you see that the ones who are left are usually doing more interesting things in their first photo.
As for Tyra… Let’s bloody well talk about Tyra Banks. She gets a lot of flack. She gets called fake and cheesy and bitchy and all sorts of unpleasant unsavoury things. Here’s what Tyra is: she’s a driven career woman who launched herself as a teenage girl into a very competitive field that frequently eats people up alive and actively works to exclude people of colour. She not only stuck it out and made it through levels of discomfort and hand-to-mouth poverty that would send most of us looking for a cushy job at McDonalds, she rose to the very top of her field, and then, before her fame faded and at the point where the natural effects of ageing would have excluded her from that field, she used her fame, her contacts, her skills, and her experience to make the move to TV. And whilst that might seem easy for a famously beautiful woman to do, it’s really not very common. There are probably others, but Tricia Helfer is the only other one I can think of (and she hosted Canada’s Next Top Model, too). Think of the adverts you may have seen other top models doing. If they speak at all it’s often pretty stilted. Acting and modeling and presenting are all different skill sets, and we only show our own ignorance if we suppose that any of them are easy.
What’s more, Tyra talks about her own career as a part of America’s Next Top Model, and whilst, yes, there’s a certain amount of self-aggrandizing in that, it’s no more than Alan Sugar gets away with on The Apprentice. She tells how it was always her plan to move from modelling to presenting. She knew the career of a model has a set lifespan and she planned ahead. There’s a kind of terrifying awe that grows as you watch through the series and realise just how meticulously Tyra has planned her life; how in control of it she is, how she manages her image and achieves her goals. She’s a business woman, and a pretty effective and powerful one, at that. Whatever you think of America’s Next Top Model, you can’t deny that it’s given Tyra everything she wanted: exposure, money, a career that extended beyond modelling, and a certain amount of power and visibility in an industry that likes to keep women in their ‘place’.
Which, of course, is usually the reason men laugh at me for being a feminist who enjoys America’s Next Top Model. ‘How can you watch something that’s in an industry that so exploits women?!’ they say, having never seen an episode.
Firstly: are they expecting that as a feminist I want to abolish modelling altogether? Do they have similar concerns about male models? I’m sure that some people do (possibly with good reason), but I’m pretty sure that these men (the ones I have talked to) don’t. That there are people who wear clothes and display them on catwalks and in photographs does not seem, in itself, to be a problem. In fact, it seems like a good way of both getting a designer exposure and allowing consumers to have an informed idea of what’s available. Honestly, I can’t see any problem with the idea that there should BE models.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing wrong with the industry in its actual form. It clearly is often exploitative of models. It’s frequently objectifying of women. The standards of beauty that have become desired in fashion are remote from reality in a way that’s damaging to consumers and (often) models both. That’s a reason to dislike a lot of how the industry works at the moment. It’s not a reason to say we should denigrate the industry altogether. Ignoring it, refusing to educate yourself about it or engage with its politics is basically tacitly encouraging it to continue on however it wants without you.
I’m going to hold my hands up right now and say that I absolutely had all these prejudices when I started watching. But I was parrot-sitting in a large house with a large TV and no internet. I like to take breaks whilst studying, and I watched a bunch of things I wouldn’t usually watch just because they were on when I was taking a break. America’s Next Top Model was one. At first it seemed bizarre. The characters flamboyant to the extreme, such as the fabulously larger than life Miss J Alexander, catwalk coach. But when they actually started to talk about their work, or when Miss J strutted his stuff on the catwalk* and explained to the young hopefuls what they were doing wrong… I realised quickly that there was a lot more to this career that I had never taken seriously than I had ever guessed. And I felt stupid for that, because of course there is.
Most people are uncomfortable having their picture taken, and many people who are conventionally attractive don’t know what to do with themselves in front of a camera and take dreadful photos. As for walking a catwalk, I’m pretty sure that most of us, if asked to do so, would produce a highly embarrassing pantomime of the activity. Of course there’s skill involved. Millions of attractive women (and men!) wash out of the fashion industry because however pretty they are they aren’t models. And there’s a clear difference between a catalogue model and a supermodel. We all know it. We mock the catalogue models for their cheesy poses – whatever else we say about the men and women in editorials and on catwalks, we rarely call them cheesy.
And this was underlined when it came to the photos. The people I’ve talked to who quickly rush to say that they watch for the artistry of the photography aren’t lying. Some of them are breathtaking. Here are just a few:
There’s real skill involved here, and being able to see the difference between someone who is trying to pose and someone with genuine skill who knows their body, their angles, how light plays on their skin, is aware of their surroundings, understands what will show clothes to best effect and what won’t… it’s really interesting. And you also see what goes into the lighting, the photography, the hair, the make-up. What makes a good walk. How personality, common sense, punctuality, can prove vital for someone who actually wants a career, as the models go to ‘go sees’ and compete to get booked, but also to get back on time (a model who arrives late is disqualified). The contestants are educated about what it’s really like to be a model, and so are we.
Which is not to say that it’s 100% ‘real’. The girls share a fabulous house and are constantly thrown into situations that will provoke discord. it’s a reality TV show and it has those markers. I will also concede that quality has fallen off sharply in recent years. I don’t watch anymore, but I watched a good 16~ cycles before I gave up. Of course the format got stretched and old. Of course it got formulaic. And ultimately I felt that the contestants were being asked to do some things that weren’t OK.
In one particularly fraught episode Tyra demanded that all the women wear special pants (underwear) to enhance their bums. One girl refused on the grounds that it went against her beliefs about body image, and she was treated extremely harshly for it. On the one hand, I understood that Tyra was actually pushing the boundaries of accepted standards for beauty. In particular, a larger behind is often favoured in African-American culture, whilst white American fashion scorns it. But on the other hand, the pressure to accept any and all of a client’s demands, whilst possibly realistic, does reflect and support the ugly side of the business, and the pressure to conform to beauty standards, whatever your personal beliefs.
It was also an uncomfortable moment as the girls were being taught ways to stick their bums out to be more attractive. This seemed in direct conflict with the line that had always been drawn before between ‘model sexy’ and ‘hoochy’. The ‘teaches’ and methods of posing the contestants were being taught that season seemed to be getting increasingly silly. One felt that the show was struggling to remain fresh and interesting, and had begun to reach too far.
However, ANTM’s descent into absurdity is highlighted against a background that frequently sought to be progressive. Having been a woman whose own career ended when she ceased to maintain the stick-figure physique, Tyra (an obviously still beautiful woman) championed plus size modelling. And whilst her rebranding of this to ‘fiercely real’ feels a little forced, I can get behind her thought that ‘plus size’ isn’t really as big as that name suggests, and that the real aim is to encourage greater diversity of body-types in modeling. ANTM also embraced transwomen, gay women, bi women, religious women, atheist women, women on the autistic spectrum, women of colour, educated women, women from poor backgrounds, metropolitan women, country women – all kinds of women. There was a real sense of Tyra consciously pushing the boundaries of what is permitted in fashion and championing the disadvantaged and excluded. Yes, some of it was to have a ‘story’, but there are an awful lot of US TV shows that would not have represented such a spectrum, and would have vilified a lot of the sorts of women described above.
So, yes, it’s now over-branded, formulaic, something of a caricature of itself. But just because it’s concerned with fashion and modelling doesn’t mean it’s frivolous. Just because the fashion industry frequently has a very problematic relationship with women and their bodies doesn’t mean that this show endorses everything you don’t like about it. Just because it’s full of flamboyant personalities doesn’t mean they don’t have serious things to say. And whilst one sometimes senses the machine of Tyra’s image generation working in the background, you cannot deny that she’s effective. Over all I sense a woman of tremendous personal strength, charisma, and confidence, with a sharp mind, using what she knows to build the kind of career she wants and challenge the issues she faced when she was fighting her way up the scale.
And I admire that. And I think a lot of the other women I know who like this show admire it. And I think we like seeing a powerful woman leading a show where there are lots of other women of many different races, backgrounds, sexualities, and beliefs, many of whom are ‘interesting’ to look at rather than conventionally beautiful in the way an actor is expected to be. Whether we want to work in fashion or not we also like to see the artistry and skill that goes into a sort of work that women do for which they are denigrated more than their male counterparts. (Which is not to say that male models face no issues of body-image or prejudice, they do, but the scale of the way women are judged by their appearance and for earning money by their appearance is that much more.)
And I can’t help but wonder if maybe some of the people who mock Tyra Banks as ‘annoying’ or ‘fake’ really just feel discomforted by seeing a confident woman running a show, instructing others, being regarded as an authority. She feels ‘fake’ because we’re not used to seeing a woman take such a stance of certainty – of stating facts and imparting knowledge, of sitting in judgement. There’s a sense of ‘What RIGHT does she have to set herself up as an authority like that?’
So, yeah, the later cycles of America’s Next Top Model in particular have issues, but they represent just a fraction of the output. This show has an awful lot more going for it than many people give it credit for, and I’m sick of apologising for liking it and for being berated as though I have betrayed the sisterhood (although it is rarely my ‘sisters’ who voice such views). So, I wanted to talk about America’s Next Top Model for a bit. And now I have.
*It’s my understanding that Miss J is not transgender and uses male pronouns primarily, although he is referred to as both ‘he’ and ‘she’ on the show.