thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Benevolent but Fierce: The Glamorous Ethics of Top Model

In gender, girl culture, race on July 25, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Melissa Sexton

I’m currently teaching a summer section of Writing 122, the second of two freshman composition classes required at my university.  Our discussion today centered around a great article by Steven Johnson called “Watching TV Makes You Smarter,” which argues that recent years have seen growing narrative complexity in fictional television shows.  Similarly, Johnson argues that even “bad TV” (think: reality shows) have gotten smarter, since reality shows are often more sophisticated and morally complex versions of game shows.  I expected this article to elicit tons of discussion from my students, but what I discovered was a surprising program snobbery.  My students were already doing what Johnson suggests: they were foregoing simpler reality television fare in favor of “multi-threaded drama” that features moral ambiguity, season-spanning plotlines, and complex structures: think Lost, The Wire, 24, The Sopranos.  When it came time to talk about reality TV, I was the only one that was willing to admit outright love.  For the good of the class, I exposed myself as a long-time ANTM fan.

My outing led to a number of interesting questions about narrative complexity and television morality.  If, as Johnson argues, our dramas are moving away from morally motivated yet formulaic sitcoms in favor of multithread, morally ambiguous, “realist” dramas, is reality television the last bastion of overt TV sermonizing?  If so, what is it that I, a fairly intelligent person despite my students’ censure, love so deeply about reality television?  And is it a redeemable love, I ask myself, taking ANTM as a case study.

Johnson redeems reality television of the 2000s by comparing it to game-show programming from the “golden-age of television.”  He claims, “The relevant comparison is not between ‘Joe Millionaire’ and ‘MASH’; its between ‘Joe Millionaire’ and ‘The Newlywed Game,’ or between ‘Survivor’ and ‘The Love Boat.'”  His argument is that reality programming has gotten more and more sophisticated.  The rules develop as contestants play; characters have to strategize with and against each other, leading to the kind of engaged audience analysis also generated by televised sports; and participants are challenged to complete ever more difficult and improbable tasks.  “The pleasure in these shows,” Johnson claims, “comes not from watching other people being humiliated on national television; it comes from depositing other people in a complex, high-pressure environment where no established strategies exist and watching them find their bearings.”

Such an analysis certainly applies in the case of Top Model.  The show’s formula is simple as can be, and has seen little variation in the shows 16 cycles.  30-odd girls are semi-finalists; 12-14 make it into a final house; they compete for a $100,000 Cover Girl contract as well as a spread in a major fashion magazine like Seventeen or Vogue.  In pursuit of this contract, the girls have to learn to deal with brutal criticism, to negotiate the tension between self-expression and conforming to a client’s wishes, and to adapt the conventions of fashion in order to make them their own.  In other words, the girls on Top Model end up negotiating many of the same battles that teens, tweens, and young urban professional women negotiate in their own journey through school and into the job market.  How do you stay true to yourself while selling yourself successfully?  How do you learn from criticism without letting it destroy you?  How do you become a competitive woman while still maintaining healthy relationships with others and being healthy to yourself?  The stakes for the girls on Top Model are not any higher; the prizes are just more glamorous.

Thus, the game-like aspects of Top Model lead to an interesting morality.  If what we love about reality show competition is watching individuals adapt to complex environments and thrive, then the moral lesson of this show involves redefinitions of success and reaffirmations of individual potential.  ANTM is the American Dream and the Protestant work ethic, decked out with a new weave and some really creative photo opportunities.  The lesson we learn is that if we work hard, develop self-confidence, and study, we will succeed (as long as we have a healthy dose of genetic blessedness as well).  And any ANTM fan can tell you – you have to be a good person, too, to succeed in this show’s version of the fashion industry!  While “bitches” frequently figure in the cycles, they rarely win; sound byte after sound byte of girls saying, “I’m not here to make friends!  I’m here to win a modeling competition!” is followed by the speaker’s eventual dismissal.  You have to play fierce but play nice to last in the Tyraverse.  And thus, Tyra is both fierce and kind to the girls, pushing them to work harder and pushing them to become their truest, yet most fashionable selves.

Tyra: motherly, benevolent, but FIERCE

This alluring mix of glamor and empowerment, I believe, is what accounts for the incredible success and appeal of the show.  Expose after expose has proven that ANTM actually is not a predictor of model market success.  Why?  Blame the volatility of the fashion world.  Guy Trebray’s NYT expose (linked above) points out that Americans rarely succeed in the American market (due to the trendiness of various ethnicities at any given time) and that the industry actually does cater to eating disorders and self-abuse.  If Brazilians are in, they’re in; if skinny is in, then it’s in.  While this volatility is a constant theme on the show, Tyra’s advice to the girls suggests one’s ability to master and subdue fashion’s whimsy to one’s fierce will.  ANTM urges girls to learn the vagaries of the market and adapt, but in a healthy way.  Girls are rarely kicked off for their genetic looks; if they are, the critique is never “You just don’t look now enough.”  Such a comment may be offered during the judges’ deliberation, but the final reasoning presented during the tense eliminations always ends up being about more moral issues.  Girls are kicked off for not believing in themselves, for being too skinny, for being disrespectful, for sabotaging other contestants, for giving up, for not working hard enough, for being a diva.  ANTM reiterates the lessons we learn in school: work hard, and with just a little bit of luck on the side, you will succeed.  In this way, ANTM holds on to all the glamor of the modeling world while trying to respond to many of the critiques leveled against it.

While it probably won’t work, ANTM actively seeks to reshape the modeling industry.  A 2008 NYT article on the Banksable empire highlights Tyra’s persistent emphasis on female empowerment.  Hence, the show’s emphasis on all kinds of diversity – racial diversity; size diversity; diversity of sexual orientation and identification.  There was a cycle just for “short” women under 5’8″.  There has been one plus-sized winner and plus-sized models frequently appear in the cycles (though Tyra has now chosen to replace the term “plus-sized” or “full-figured” with the term “fiercely real.”)  There has been one transsexual contestant.  While industry insiders might sneer at such unlikely and such solitary sallies against the narrow, unrealistic, unhealthy, and normative standards of the fashion world, crowds of teen girls are eating it up, according to the NYT article: “This mantralike cocktail of glamour and drive seems to be particularly compelling to young girls, especially if they feel disenfranchised or shut out by mainstream television. “I think I was put on this earth to instill self-esteem in young girls,” Banks said, flanked by two enormous bodyguards as she walked toward an ever-growing mob of her fans in Union Square.”

Thus, I think we see in ANTM a desire to negotiate the contradictions of feminism and femininity in contemporary American culture.  In a time when the economy is increasingly unstable, when education is under attack, and when feminism itself can’t decide whether to dress itself in bustiers or muumuus, ANTM appeals by suggesting to girls that they can still have it all if they follow through on the values of their upbringing.  Fame and glamor are recuperated, no longer signifying a kind of moral depravity but instead signifying the end of hard work – the typical American mantra of, I earned this!  I deserve this!  Such a recuperation feels especially relevant with the emergence of social networking; every girl needs to learn how to look fierce and market herself in a photo in order to be socially successful, and every girl is trying at times to look fierce in her public persona.  Like the models, girls today need to learn to sell themselves, visually and verbally, because more and more of them are going to be highly visible in a public way.  At the same time, the recuperation of glamor and its recoupling with a work ethic makes glamorous dreams universally plausible: according to the show, girls from small towns and inner cities, girls bullied in high school, girls that are poor or not conventionally pretty are able to achieve a momentary pinnacle of success.  Girls are able to transform, before our eyes due to the magic of photo shoots, and in ‘ real time” as they go from awkward girl to ostensibly successful model.  And ANTM does this all by selling us the particular feminist mash-up of strength, beauty, and autonomy: girls are at the mercy of the market, but they can choose to harness their bodies and use them to succeed, simultaneously fulfilling contemporary America’s contradictory mandate to be sexually alluring objects of consumption and self-realized agents.

If Johnson’s assessment is right and part of why we love reality TV is because of its complex strategies about success, then part of ANTM’s appeal is the argument that we can choose to succeed in our own lives by mixing self-glamorizing self-love and hard work.  I say this with the snideness of a literary critic, but I’m not only rolling my eyes on Top Model.  I admire Tyra’s brand of self-responsibility and drive, even if it feels a little over-the-top on the show.  I think (at the risk of sounding curmudgeonly) that this kind of hard love is something more and more teenagers are lacking and perhaps looking for in a role model like Tyra – an individual who refuses to tell them that they are perfect they way they are and automatically deserve rewards, but who also refuses to let them slide into self-loathing or despair.  If you want success, you gotta get on up and grab the handlebars of fierceness, to use a Tyra-ism.  Certainly such an ethic ignores the limits of race, class, access to education, sex, gender…the list goes on.  We are not agents free of culture, that’s for sure, and to pretend otherwise may be to encourage the perpetuation of fundamentally unfair social structures.  But in the age of for-profit education, economic recession, and unimpeded American self-aggrandizement, I still feel like this kind of self-responsibility could use a little more preaching.

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  1. LOVE this post, melissa. game on, glamour-style.

  2. Love this! I think that one top model thing that draws me to the show is the aesthetics of fashion and modeling that the show gives a kind of “behind the scenes” feel but also treats it as a legitimate art form. I think this connects women, too, who were made to feel shallow for being interested in clothes, hair, make-up, etc. with a sense of the artistry and creativity of human styling.

    With ANTM I am most troubled by the excessive marketing designed to make millions of female viewers into fashion consumers. And as with all reality shows (complex psychologically or not) there’s a voyeuristic, unable-to-look-away-from-a-train-crash type engagement from the audience.

    These points are both related, of course, to your main argument. I particularly like your point that teens and younger may be craving a challenged sense of empowerment rather than the “support” of snowflake syndrome.

  3. […] narrative of self-empowerment and self-love also became increasingly solidified. As I’ve written about before, Top Model became a place where girls were sold a weird mix of capitalist buy-in and […]

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