At this point in my life, there are only two television series of which I have seen every single episode: LOST and America’s Next Top Model. As I sat down tonight to watch the first episode of ANTM’s Cycle 18, I had a sense of obligation and despair similar to the feeling that haunted me through the last two seasons of LOST. A long-cultivated loyalty to the show paired with a fanatical desire to keep seeing every single episode drove me forward, even though I was feeling acutely aware that the show had long since jumped the shark – heck, the show had probably been eaten by the shark at this point. But I just had to know how it ended…And so, I sat down to watch what I was sure would be a troubling cultural stew, the “British Invasion” cycle of America’s Next Top Model – a cycle that pitted 7 American models versus 7 British models as one new way to freshen the old modeling-show formula.
I’d say that Top Model has had a dramatic story arc. The show began airing in 2003, and the first few seasons were delightfully trashy. There were catfights galore. There was cheap cinematography. There were reductive representations of race, class, and religion. But while the melodrama and the catfights remained, the show that was on the air when I started watching in 2006 was a sleeker, smarter, and sexier version of the original model battle-to-the-contract. The photo-shoots became increasingly sophisticated, spectacular, and unreal; the models jetted around the world to exotic shooting locales and lived in swankier and swankier dream-houses that looked like they were furnished by grown-up Barbie on a credit card bender. The runway challenges became increasingly conceptual as the girls strutted in floating bubbles, across airborne walkways, and over runways ringed by fire. The girls participated in music video shoots, video fashion editorials, and television talk show spots. And meanwhile, the entire narrative of the show became increasingly streamlined, to the point where the cadre of longtime viewers that I watched the show with could predict episode by episode how each cycle would play out: the makeover episode; the major runway teach; the overseas destination reveal; the modeling go-sees.
The show’s underlying 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 self-empowerment. Such weirdness carried over to race and gender relations: the show embraced diversity as a deliberate challenge to fashion industry norms, but the importance of branding remained paramount. If you were black, you better read as black; if you were gay, you better read as gay. Think about, say, April from Cycle 2 – the half-Japanese model who wanted to represent mixed-race women but was repeatedly told that her branding was unclear. Was she going to look Asian or white? Or think about the plus-sized girls who are routinely told they’re not “plus enough.” The catch, of course, is that the modeling industry also embraces protean, ambiguous models: models of mixed ethnicity or with androgynous figures. So…apparently modeling requires girls to thread the same weird path between conformity and individuality that seems to shape all senses of individual identity in capitalist culture: be yourself, but make sure that self fits in a demographic and knows where it belongs. Be yourself, but know how to use it.
As a result of the weird politics of the fashion industry and the resulting weird identity-politics, I’ve seen a strange mix of essentializing and racial awareness on Top Model. Tyra repeatedly claims that she wants to challenge various fashion industry norms, whether those are racial norms (challenging the continuing predominance of white models); gender/sexuality norms (including transgender and lesbian models in a predominantly heteronormative crowd of models); or size norms (by promoting “fiercely real” and “short” models, as she did by crowning Whitney winner of Cycle 10 and setting up Cycle 13 specifically for sub 5’7″ models). I believe that the show is earnest in its desire to incorporate a variety of ethnicities into categories of beauty, as evidenced by its many multiracial contestants as well as by the constant diversity of its casting. Consider Jaslene Gonzalez, the first Latina winner of ANTM.Consider Sheena Sakai, now Satana, who I believe is Korean and Japanese, and who broke cultural stereotypes about Asians with her Harlem swagger, her big mouth, and her sex appeal. Consider Anchal Joseph, an Indian-American contestant on the show.
However, I see two problems. One, is that girls like those pictured above remain the exception. Despite efforts to create genuinely heterogeneous diversity, the show often boils down into a black vs. white racial division. House tensions often fracture along these lines, erasing the real class and ethnic differences that separate “black” girls from each other and “white” girls from each other. There are black girls from Nigeria and Somalia, from New York City and from Arkansas. There are white girls from Russia and France, from Portland and from Ohio. And girls that can’t be shoehorned into one of these categories remain a rarity. Two, all the girls are pressured into a “genuine” embodiment of their racial category. And such “genuine categories” are often stereotyped.
So, for instance, Jaslene was the Cha-Cha Diva during her first appearance on Top Model, twirling her skirts and dancing her way through the panel interviews for Cycle 7. When she returned in Cycle 8, she had toned down the performance of a Latina-character, and she was criticized. Tyra wanted the “real her” to come back…and this real her was an artificial, staged performance that correlated to her ethnic appearance.
This rhetoric of authenticity, and this tying of an authentic identity to one’s racial appearance, resurfaced during tonight’s opening episode in truly troubling ways. I was expecting trouble and cultural insensitivity. After all, Cycle 18 is being pitched as a “British Invasion” cycle. 7 American contestants were surprised by the arrival of 7 British contestants; throughout the opening episode, the girls were encouraged to band with their countrywomen in staunch patriotic partisanship. They rode separate floats through a garish LA parade, with cheers rising for the Americans and silence greeting the Brits. During a walk-off that was announced like a WWF boxing match, Brits and Yanks strutted side by side, hurling insults in their native slangs and fwapping each other with saucily discarded sequined jackets. The girls showed up to panel with their lipstick national flags pained on their mouths. The nationalism is a little off the chain. And of course there were the requisite comments on language – the American girls goggling at the Brits whenever they spoke, and Ashley, the contestant from Scotland, ruefully saying, “I’m getting captioned for sure” mid-interview.
But the truly troubling politics didn’t appear in any Britain versus America smash-up – though it was startling to see the girls hurling references to the Revolutionary War around and not one seeming aware that the British Invasion was a term from the sixties…(Favorite moment: while wearing a very Mod-inspired ’60s-style dress, one model even snapped about how this was the second British Invasion, but this time, the Brits were gonna win! Didn’t they win the music industry in the ’60s? Wouldn’t that make this the 3rd?). No, the arguments about 18th century colonial battles mostly felt quaint and silly, a little harmless taunting between two countries that once created a lot of carnage against each other but now are coming out of world recession pretty well and managing to hold together a chummy alliance. The troubling politics didn’t even get started when the girls featured in a “Culture Clash” photo shoot that had British and American icons jumping side by side on trampolines while being shot by 60 cameras simultaneously. (I kid you not: George Washington vs. Queen Victoria had me shooting champagne out my nose). No, the real trouble started when Mariah Watchman, the first Native American contestant to appear on Top Model, stepped up to do her “culture clash” photo dressed as Pocahontas.
Things got worse from there. While Mariah earnestly said that she wanted to live up to all that Pocahontas stood for, the judges critiqued her during panel for not embodying the full Native American spirit in her photo. It should have been easy, being a Native American herself (she was told) for her to put some spirit in her eyes and really embody this character.
At this point, I wanted to throw myself on the ground. Most of the girls were critiqued for not being able to capture the essence of their character: where was Elton John’s fun? Where was Janet Jackson’s snarl? Where was John Lennon’s dreaminess? But no other model was told that her essential, authentic ethnic identity should give her an automatic one-up on portraying a Native American woman. From an entirely different tribe, in an entirely different century.
I normally want to cut Top Model some slack. They’re treading dangerous ground as they play with race, gender, and sexuality – and this is ground that fashion is always playing with. If they get too fast and loose with race in their photo shoots, they get accused of doing blackface. Now, I’m accusing them of pressuring women into authentic ethnic identities. But what troubles me here specifically is the representation of indigenous peoples, something that has always been slightly sketchy in Top Model. While the show has excelled at diversifying its representations of being black, of being gay, of being Asian, its representations of indigenous culture remain derivative and simplified.
To have a Native American woman playing Pocahontas, a fetishized and culturally appropriated character taken from native cultures to begin with – and then to tell her that it should be a natural thing for her to do because of her ethnicity – is terribly reductive and troubling. It’s like telling every black girl on the show that she should have an equally easy time portraying Grace Jones and Michelle Obama, because they’re both black. And that’s something the show is too smart to do – it had black models portraying Elton John and Jackie Kennedy in this same photo shoot, specifically to trouble the firm boundaries of racial identity, and it did this racial bending without any whiteface or blackface anywhere to be seen. But when it comes to Native American racial representations, it’s like we are back in the Revolutionary War – and in the battle between the Brits and the Yanks, indigenous people get pushed to the margins, excluded from legitimate participation and relegated to a token, symbolic status that is both idealized and simplified. Hopefully, as Mariah continues on the show, we can avoid any repeats of such reductive logic, and we will get to see that Native American women can challenge mainstream American standards of beauty without having to wear stereotyped, fringed gowns.