As readers of Weekend Magazine should know, I’ve wasted a few columns showering praise on the UPN show “America’s Next Top Model.” My appreciation for this Wednesday-night “dramality” that’s part beauty contest, part product placement and 100 percent ridiculous isn’t because of its surface qualities — I don’t watch for fashion advice (one tip I’ve picked up: anything “fierce!” is good). I watch to mock idiotic contestants, manufactured drama and the lack of anything “high-fashion” about the show.
I’m not gonna lie to you: Gaping at the antics of dumbasses is fun. But at the same time, I feel sort of like I’m cheating.
Not so long ago, the mention of models or modeling would throw me into a rant eviscerating the fashion industry (which presents impractical, nearly unlivable beauty standards), media outlets and corporations (which perpetuate and profit from these standards) and the ignorant girls and women who won’t (or can’t) wake up to the fact that they’re basing their lifestyles and self-images around such bullshit. (Okay, so it wasn’t that long ago.)
Lately I’ve toned down the rhetoric drawn from my longtime feminism and vegetarianism, simply because I don’t feel the need to use those traits to distinguish myself on a daily basis. That subtle conformity seems like a pretty normal phase, but over time, I’ve noticed that my inner ideological pitbull doesn’t react to hostile outsiders as much as she used to. Many young feminists, after feeling a strong initial rapport with the history of the women’s movement and luminaries of the Third Wave, catch on to the more recent feminist practice of inclusion — that is, pretty much any act can be “feminist” as long as you’re doing what you want. This applies to sex, knitting, rearing children, choosing a career.
While this freedom of choice is definitely a good thing, I still feel like I should know better when it comes to a reality show (ick) that focuses on finding the girl with the perfect rail-thin body and appropriately vacant stare (feh) and cheery, acquiescent attitude to match (eww). In the spirit of self-criticism — and to ward off the feeling that I’m going soft — I’m going to dissect and analyze “Top Model” as a feminist, not as the jaded, apathetic twentysomething I sometimes am.
“Top Model” is the demon spawn of Tyra Banks, erstwhile couture model who shills for Victoria’s Secret. Banks acts as headmistress, big sister, mother and friend — she’s more of a life coach than anything else, an infallible presence who giveth and taketh away. Although she once championed plus-sized contestants like the beautiful Toccara and often criticizes panel judge/former supermodel Janice Dickinson’s preference for extremely thin girls, she decided not to choose a plus-sized contestant this season, conveniently eliminating the problem of acceptance altogether.
In addition, Banks often encourages African-American girls to do well but excoriates those who don’t conform to her starry-eyed, “praise Tyra” worldview. Banks has created a show that’s more like “Starting Over” than “House of Style” — and somehow, the proscribed roles in which she places the contestants (the party girl, the “black bitch”) are more damaging than the show would be if Banks actually focused on creating a sophisticated, haute-couture winner.
It becomes clearer with each episode that the show is rigged — by Tyra, UPN’s producers or by sponsor Covergirl — but it doesn’t really matter, anyway. One shallow, obedient anatomical freak will triumph over all the others. The only positive social aspect of the show is its acceptance of non-heteros; judges and trainers like the show’s art director, Jay Manuel, exist quietly out. When contestants revealed that they weren’t straight, like Season 4’s bisexual Michelle and Season 1’s lesbian Ebony, the other contestants — even the Bible-thumpers among them — accepted it and didn’t make sexuality into a big issue.
So “America’s Next Top Model” isn’t perfect, and, as you can see by my weak-ass attempt at a feminist critique, neither am I. At the same time, if we compromise our ethics to stick out less in public, shouldn’t we adhere to those standards even more strongly in our private lives? Maybe I can make myself a deal: In exchange for watching “Top Model,” I’ll engage in some really serious political discourse in my column. That, or I’ll choke down another chunk of tofu every week as penance.
Jones is a Daily fall/winter associate arts editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.