America’s Next Top Model Cycle 19, the College Edition, might be the worst thing I’ve seen on TV in a while. I’ve been pondering this post for the last seven weeks, observing the show and working my way through Jennifer L. Pozner’s criticisms of Tyra Banks and ANTM in Reality Bites Back.
Prior to the premiere of Cycle 19, I had decided not to watch because Cycle 18’s British invasion was pretty gawdawful and then Tyra went and fired judge/photographer Nigel Barker, art director Jay Manuel (beloved in my apt), and Miss J Alexander. In their place, she brought on alleged “sexiest male model” Rob Evans (too much of a meathead for my taste), art director Johnny Wujek (who is kind of adorable, but no Jay), and blogger Bryanboy to represent the fan vote on social media. It’s a hot mess. But, a lazy Saturday and my curiosity ganged up, so I tuned in. The first episode is appalling. I don’t think I can print my honest reaction. It was sort of visceral. To “represent their colleges,” girls in bikinis and cut up school shirts strut down a catwalk at a televised kegger as the crowd tweets about their body and their walk. The interviews with the contestants did not focus on their education or their goals. They were standard ANTM auditions, focusing instead on attitude, racialized beauty, sob stories, and sexiness. I couldn’t handle it.
I don’t know what I expected. I guess I thought that the contestants would be more like smart girls of the past, Elyse (Cycle 1), Yoanna (Cycle 2), Yaya (Cycle 3), and Allison (Cycle 12/All-Stars), girls who were interested in modeling, but as a passion that folded into other pursuits, goals, and training. Instead, we just have girls who happen to go to college. If you’ve gone to college, you probably figured out at some point that you don’t have to be intelligent to get a degree. There’s a difference between being a passable student and being smart. I’m not trying to attack less-intelligent women. I’m just saying that to have a cycle focused on smart, ambitious college women would have been something truly different for the series, which in the past has tokenized or punished the smart girls. Instead, we know that Jessie is the smartest girl because of her pixie haircut and hipster glasses. Duh. Also, she has an ass Tyra can’t get over.
I’ve subscribed to Vogue on-and-off since I was sixteen years-old. If you read even a single issue of Vogue, you’ll notice that it’s not, say, Cosmo. It’s not a stupid magazine. The photography and art direction (all bow to Grace Coddington) are impeccable and though the cover girls are usually actresses, the interviews are smart, as is the writing. Despite the ever-increasing number of ads, the rest of the pages are filled with sharp content about health, beauty, and profiles on artists, filmmakers, designers, politicians, athletes, and so on. This is to say: fashion does not have to be dumb. There is no reason for the college edition not to focus on smart girls and to use that intelligence.
Oh, shit, advertisers, that’s right. No one watches ANTM for brains.
As refreshing as I think a smart edition would be, I have to admit my own culpability in that too. Shame on me.
In her discussion of the hostility toward or just lack of intelligence on reality TV, Posner points out how intelligent Cycle 1 runner-up Elyse was–a medical student with a perfect haute couture body who complained of “the most vapid conversations you’ve ever experienced going on around me all the time” (115). When Elyse was eliminated in the finale, Tyra told her “I admire your intelligence. I think you are so smart. But one thing with that intelligence is that it can intimidate people, and there’s a way to use that intelligence in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re maybe putting down other people or sounding derogatory” (quoted in Posner 115). So, by being smart, Elyse is going to intimidate the intelligent editors, designers, photographers, and business people she’d work with as a model? Doubt it. Tyra’s advice sounds like what well-intentioned, misguided people tell smart girls about dating: “Being smart is attractive, but don’t lead with it.” I remember watching that moment and thinking it was totally out of left field and a bullshit way of choosing Adrienne (who was after all more charismatic) over Elyse. It was unnecessary. But now Tyra’s gone to Harvard! Harvard!? So, her approach to intelligence has probably evolved over the last 18 cycles, right?
Wrong. Well, at least we have no evidence of it. Though she went to an Ivy League school, her interpretation of the college experience for the college cycle is to focus on Greek Life and parties, not anything that has to do with education. Though the scholarship fund contestants can accrue, only to collect if they win it all, is a nod to the university, there’s nothing else that marks this cycle as collegiate except for the girls’ sorority house. More troubling, this cycle, which could be used to portray brains as beautiful, has fallen into the same old routine of portraying racial stereotypes, class-based tropes, and troubling body images. Further, in doing so, the show seems to emphasize the false-dichotomy between brains and beauty.
Sorority House / Mean Girls
First off, there’s the whole sorority house bit that is sort of like a peeping-tom’s fantasy. The house is divided into a “sporty” room, a “geek” room (again, smart is othered), and a “pink” room. The pink room has the most beds, which seems telling. There’s also a tricked-out Tyra Suite, where the best picture winner and a friend get to stay each week.
No sooner do the girls get settled into the house than the usual drama emerges. There’s a lot of it at the start and much of it focuses on Kristin, a pretty blonde who was suspended from school multiple times for getting into fights, but promises that she’s changed. Kristin, however, at one point claims that her goal is to make someone hit her so they have to go home. Nice. Each week she seems to bully some one new, turning from her hatred of resident weirdo Victoria (more below) to Leila. In the fourth week, she gets into a fight with resident “poor girl” Destiny, when she goes through her bag to get a lighter. The fight culminates in Kristin repeatedly yelling at Destiny to just hit her. Kristin is kind of a sociopath, and you can see her gears spinning, thinking that if she can get the angry black girl to punch her, everyone will take the pretty blonde’s side.
Later, Kristin and frontrunner Laura gang up on Leila in a classic “mean girls” move of suddenly changing alliances and ostracizing one friend, making her feel clingy and crazy for thinking you’re being a jerk. All this bubbles over on the issue of who Laura chooses to join her in the Tyra Suite. It feels very high school, not college, and Leila, who actually seemed pretty intelligent goes home that week. Instead of focusing on what she might have achieved, she’s played off with petty girl fights. Awesome.
We are also presented with Maria, a Harvard student and a prodigy, finishing her Master’s at age 22. She drops out of the competition, “letting Tyra down” by realizing that modeling is not for her. She also acts like a snob the entire time, better than the other girls and better than modeling. That does approximately nothing to help the image of smart girls in the competition.
Education, Class, and Race
In the early episodes, there is a great deal of untapped potential on the issue of class and education. Obviously, getting a college education is expensive and a big issue in American culture and politics right now is how to make financing education accessible in such a way that people without means aren’t shut out from the opportunities a degree offers, opportunities that could change their difficult financial positions. This cycle featured two regular narratives for the show 1) the homeless model and 2) the abandoned model. Instead of connecting these narratives clearly to the complicated, fraught relationship between education and class in this country, the show plays them out in their typical fashion, reducing the women with these struggles to “ghetto bitches” (Posner 200-01).
Destiny, an 18 year-old student at the Aveda Institute, partly entered the competition out of a desperate need for the pay-out. She spent some time homeless in her youth, and feels the pressure to do well, because if she goes home, she goes home to nothing. She doesn’t last long in the competition, but it’s clear that she has some pretty sharp insight into the screwed up relationships between fashion, sexuality, and gender. Though she’s bisexual (and has a boyfriend), when Tyra has her hair cut short in makeovers, she cries, scared that she will look like a lesbian, and that’s not what she wants to be known for. Tyra comes over and soothes her in typical mama-model fashion, but we also know that Destiny has a point. It would not have been out of character whatsoever for the producers to focus solely on her sexuality from that point forward in a narrative that (as Posner points out) would read something like “We’re all beautiful, but you are so different.” In another challenge, when the girls have to do slinky dances to represent their personalities on a bar, Destiny points out, “I feel like no matter how you spin it, you look like a ‘ho” (19.2). She’s obviously got some thoughts about the hyper-sexual portrayal of women on ANTM, but they get mostly edited out.
Kiara, a 22 year-old student at UC Irvine, basically raised her six younger siblings because her teen mom was an absentee parent. With Kiara we get the obligatory narrative of a tough girl going to school to better her life. She’s already been to the school of the hard knocks. She’s so beautiful. She’s also on an athletic scholarship, which isn’t discussed much. Actually, Kiara seems pretty smart and articulate, if sometimes overbearing, but the show instead regularly focuses on her in conflict, especially with other African American women on the show. She and Destiny get into a fight when she tells Destiny she didn’t score well at the challenge (the one above that Destiny had issues with) because some people might think she looked like a stripper. Destiny tells some other girls what Kiara said. Kiara overhears. Conflict ensues, not between Kiara and Destiny (who resists drama), but between Kiara and Darian, another African American woman. Kiara is in conflict with a different girl each week, it seems, as her experiences make her a little dominant in her relationships, rubbing others the wrong way. Often, though, these conflicts play into what Posner calls “Ghetto Bitches” stereotypes.
One reaction to these fights comes from Victoria, an 18 year-old Liberty University student: “And I’m like, that’s not an argument…I’m a real bitch? What’s that supposed to accomplish?” Her response is reminiscent of past contestant Dani who “had poise, charm, and a vocabulary to put her competitors to shame (they said they were ‘bitches’ when they got mad; she described herself as ‘cantankerous’)” (Posner112). It also, however, plays into the way the other white girls respond to the conflict between Kiara, Darian, and Destiny in a way that mocks the use of the term “bitch” with accompanying neck-rolling and hand gestures, reinforcing racial stereotypes.
Then there’s Victoria. Victoria who Tyra says is “such a woman,” implying that she carries herself with a maturity unusual for 1) her age and 2) this dumbass show. Victoria is my favorite and the most obviously intelligent left in the house (which is not to say that she is the smartest, she just acts it). Victoria is a Jewish-Cherokee mama’s girl. Homeschooled her whole life, she’s never had a boyfriend, and she calls home sobbing every episode. Over time, the separation anxiety starts taking its toll on Victoria’s physical and emotional health. Clearly, there is something wrong going on here. That is one of Victoria’s primary narratives on the show.
On the other hand, she is beautifully weird. When she gets into character, her characters have entire life stories as back story. Johnny is both delighted by Victoria and laughs at her. In this week’s episode, she gets so far into her character (sitting on a toilet in a grungy bathroom, hoping she’s not pregnant. Thanks, ANTM), that as she walks off set, still dazed and half-in character, she tells the photographer, “I’m just so glad I’m not pregnant. You’re fabulous; thank you.” Johnny tells her that she needs to be an actress. Clearly, there’s something there.
Though the other girls think Victoria is super-weird, the show doesn’t mock her. Last week, she was in the bottom two and was encouraged to keep going to creative, unique places with her modeling, because it works so well for her. This week, however, the narrative of the girls coming to have a strained affection for Victoria turned to them ganging up on her over her not eating. Because she’s so homesick, Victoria repeatedly states that her food just doesn’t taste like anything. She’s working out to relieve stress, but isn’t eating much. She’s getting sick, yes, but it’s not an eating disorder in the traditional sense. Then we see Victoria working out lifting giant chess pieces outside in the dark in a bikini. Um, what?
The show should be interrogating the dependent, limiting relationship Victoria has with her mother and how that lack of independence could become an issue in her adult life. Instead, the girls gang up on Victoria at panel and the story gets jammed into a typical anorexia narrative. Tyra tells Victoria: “Health of a model, especially for one of my girls, is a priority not just for this show, but for my life. I’ve spoken out about it. I’ve written open letters to every single girl in the world…” She also says that she will be watching her, and if she’s not eating, she will be sent home. That’s not super helpful.
Posner asserts that “By including nonwhite, nonemaciated, and transgender women as Top Model competitors, Banks presents the possibility that they, too, can be symbols of beauty–yet by focusing unrelentingly on their difference, she ‘others’ them as abnormal, not truly beautiful after all” (79). I wonder if the same could be said for Victoria’s story. We have this unusual, creative, intelligent woman who has so much to offer, but also what could be a legitimate emotional hurdle and the show turns her narrative to one focused just on her body and whether or not she is eating.
Finally, if you’re a TV-watcher, I highly recommend Reality Bites Back. It is so sharp and a fun everyone’s-academic read. I’d lend you my copy, but I’m still reading it. In a similar vein, coming soon, a review of the disappointing book Mean Girls Grown Up.
I want to close with what I think is an outstanding insight about Tyra Banks from Posner’s book:
“Comics call [Tyra] crazy, critics dismiss her as an opportunist, and her young fans fiercely defend her s the benevolent granter of young women’s dreams. I have a different theory: I believe she has grow up mentally colonized by fashion and beauty advertisers, leaving her with something akin to Stockholm syndrome.[…]Like so many dysfunctional patterns, Tyra grew up to become the ultimate perpetrator of the ideology of the fashion and beauty advertisers who stunted her intellectual development and shaped her self-image, psychology, and values. In that context why is anyone surprised that she is simultaneously
○ Hilariously narcissistic, as well as compassionate
○ Wracked with internal racism and sexism, while renouncing the concept of discrimination; and
○ Concerned with girls’ self-esteem while profiting from a show that reinforces unhealthy body standards and racial stereotypes?” (210-11)