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Archive for the ‘body politics’ Category

An Open Letter to Amber Riley

In body politics, Dancing With the Stars, gender on September 26, 2013 at 11:13 am

Dear Amber Riley,

I have loved you since the first episode of Glee. Your talent, your presence, and your charisma–and Mercedes’ compassion–have long made Mercedes one of my favorite characters on Glee. Then, I watched the opening episode of Dancing With the Stars, Season 17 and realized that you are more amazing that I even knew (and check out the Langston Hughes reference in the video. The best.).

Firstly, your dance. Hot. I aspire to move with that kind of agility, presence, and general panache. You looked like you have been dancing your whole life. You are, it turns out, a triple threat–even though Mercedes needed dance boot camp on Glee, you clearly do not.

Secondly–and really most importantly–thank you for not telling America that you were dancing to lose weight. When plus-size ladies from Kirstie Alley to Ricki Lake have gone on Dancing With the Stars, their narratives have primarily centered on weight loss. Winning the mirrorball trophy often seems secondary to slimming down. Losing weight, according to the show, is key to feeling sexy again, reminding people watching at home that only people who look a certain way are supposed to feel attractive.

That’s why it was so refreshing when you looked into the camera and said you were here to show girls like you how to move and be healthy and beautiful just as you are.

You’ve said something similar before in Marie Claire, talking about your character on Glee: “I also never had her insecurities about weight [...] but I love that now I get to show girls how to be comfortable with their bodies.” Thanks for saying it then and saying it now.

Thirdly, your victory dance after you got your scores during week one. Do it all the time. I am rooting for you.

A huge fan!

Phoebe B.

PS I loved your jive and your chemistry with Derek is amazing.

Drawing Beauty: Limits and Surfaces in Dove’s Social Experiment

In advertising, body politics, feminism, gender, girl culture, race, Television, Women's health on April 18, 2013 at 9:06 am

Chelsea H.

By now, you’ve probably seen that Dove “social experiment” that’s going around, but just in case you’re as behind as I am, here it is:

The premise here is simple and, if I’m honest, well-meaning: many women, as evidenced by the way they describe themselves, don’t recognize – or are reluctant to acknowledge – their own beauty.  Any flaws they have in appearance are magnified when they view themselves; every crease set by joy and laughter is a “crow’s foot.”  Every tiny, cinnamon-dust dot is a big ugly freckle.  Chins protrude invasively.  Cheeks that don’t have flesh-slicing angular edges are chubby.  These flaws are captured when they describe themselves, all unseen, to a trained forensic artist who draws their portraits to match their descriptions.  And really, this shouldn’t be terrifically surprising.  Women are hard on themselves.  We’ve been taught to be.  Lines, wrinkles, creases – these are harbingers of mortality.  Any freckle, any spot, even the hopefully named “beauty mark” is looked upon as a flaw.

But then the tables are turned: earlier on the day of the experiment, each woman met and chatted with another participant.  Each is asked to describe the other person, and again the sketch artist draws the face that is described.  Results are, as you might expect, startlingly different: faces described by their owners as fat are simply pleasantly oval in shape.  Chins that are claimed to protrude are “nice” and “thin.”  Noses are “short and cute.”  Each woman is then shown the two portraits: one “drawn” by her own eyes, one by the eyes of a stranger.

Most of the women stand in stunned silence.  Some tear up.  Some smile ruefully, and some seem – not ashamed – but a bit bashful at their own perception of themselves.  The one older participant, Florence, who is given a lot of face time, says “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty.  It impacts the choices in the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children, it impacts everything.  It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”  The images of the women standing in an otherwise empty gallery gazing on the sketches send a powerful message, the tagline of the whole campaign: you are more beautiful than you think.

At first viewing, my impulse was that this video rocked.  I got a little teary.  I said some affirming things to myself.

But then I watched it again, and I started asking questions.  Yes, the message is good: women should celebrate their beauty, but what is really being said about beauty in this depiction?

As blogger Jazz has said perhaps more eloquently than I can, there is a disparity in the types of woman being represented here.  Most are white – and not just white, but blonde.  Most are young.  All are thin-to-average in weight and build.  The women of color who are shown are featured less – say less and receive less screen time – than their Caucasian counterparts.  The one Asian woman represented, as Jazz points out, says nothing at all.  Beauty is, then, a young, thin, white woman.

Bitch Magazine has also picked up this issue and paraphrases it perfectly: “The hearts of conventionally beautiful women can grow a little warmer today.”  And really, isn’t that what’s being shown here?  While Florence is a bit older than the other participants, she barely tips the scales at middle aged.  She talks about her wrinkles and crow’s feet, but she’s barely got any to worry about.  All the women featured have feminine hairstyles, all wear make-up, all are dressed in casually stylish but unremarkable ensembles.  Women should consider themselves beautiful, then, but the depiction of beauty we are told should be celebrated fits within a stiff, traditional mold.

Dove, I commend you for selling us a vision of much needed self-affirmation.  I commend you for acknowledging this tendency in women and encouraging a move away from it.  I commend you for resisting the urge to sell us your skin care in a promise to enhance the beauty we already having.  As Bitch notes, there is no product schilling in this ad, and that’s nice.  But this video does sell us something.  It sells us a standard: while telling us to celebrate ourselves – we are more beautiful than we think – it sells us what beauty means, and what we should do with it.

What beauty means here, beyond an image of a thin, fair-skinned, young woman, is a physical appearance.  There is no acknowledgment of personality.  There is no discussion of inner strength or kindness or courage or wisdom.  We see chins and cheeks and eyes and hair.  We see surface.  What is revealed about these women’s thoughts is appearance-based as well: each woman is made to think, and think deeply, but her thoughts are all – every one of them – about how she looks.  Everything is about the surface.

So beauty means what someone looks like on the outside.  And knowing our surfaces meet a standard makes us feel good which, as self-affirming messages go, is bad enough already: the right kind of beauty = happiness!  Let’s look again at Florence’s conclusions: “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty.  It impacts the choices in the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children, it impacts everything.  It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

Do I really want to live in a world where my physical appearance and how I interpret it impacts what choices I make when I seek friends?  Friends, I can tell you with certainty that neither my looks nor your looks were what drove me to desire your friendship.  Are my own looks really going to impact how I treat my children?  My wrinkles and laugh-lines, as they develop, will somehow influence the way I love?  Beauty as Dove defines it – how I look on the outside – is not, and should not, be what is most critical to my own happiness as a person.

But that’s not all.  In the final scene of the ad, one of the women’s voices tells us “We spend a lot of time, as women, analyzing and trying to fix the things that aren’t quite right, and we should spend more time appreciating the things we do like.” As she speaks, the scene changes from a reflective moment in the gallery of portraits to an outdoor setting.  Against a bright beam of sunlight, she is suddenly enfolded in the arms of – judging from what we can see of him – a young, conventionally attractive, well-dressed man.

So, it’s not just that women should celebrate their own beauty, it’s not just that the women in this video are what beauty looks like, but part of the message is also about heteronormativity.  That’s disappointing, even though it’s not strange.  But what really bothers me here is that even as we are told that women should stop worrying so much about how they perceive themselves and concentrate on more important things, we are told exactly what those more important things are.  The couple depicted here at the end of the video embrace each other, her hand grasps at the bottom of his jean jacket as they walk, and the video closes with this image of her tucked under his arm, almost disappearing against his body – providing a clear interpretation of what it is that we should “spend more time appreciating” and what it is that, at least in her case, “we do like.”

What we get here, then, is suggestive.  Beauty suddenly isn’t an idea in itself; we are shown what appreciating our own beauty does for us.  When we aren’t so worried about our fat cheeks and pokey chins and gross freckles, we can devote our time not to building our self-confidence or learning new things or celebrating our independence, but to hooking, hanging onto, and demurely all but fading into the protection and strength of a man.

Now that’s a message I want to send to my friends and my children…

Brave New World: Skyfall

In body politics, Film, gender, spoilers, Uncategorized on November 12, 2012 at 10:58 am

Bob Mondello at NPR opens his review of Skyfall with an important point about these newest editions to the James Bond franchise. Any Jason Bourne can engage in stunningly athletic chases and fist fights. But only Bond will use a backhoe to open the roof of a train car, jump in, and…check his cufflinks before continuing the pursuit. Mondello’s key argument is that the people behind Daniel Craig’s star turn as the quintessential super spy get it, that magic that makes Bond Bond and not Bourne.

But having said that, this is not your father’s or your grandmother’s James Bond. From the “beginning,” with Casino Royale, this Bond seemed grittier, younger, able to kill a man with his bare hands and then visibly squelch his emotions. It helped that the folks behind the reboot hired quality actors and turned the focus off of gadgets and onto characters while maintaining Bond’s swagger and style. But a focus on characters forces another change, pushing our hero and those who surround him into something like actual humans in this modern world. These creators embrace a female “M,” using the talented Judy Dench as a believable figure not a politically correct giggle. Skyfall builds on this trend, proving this character-driven Bond is not a fluke. And while Skyfall does interesting things with its women, particularly M, it is in the redefinition of modern masculinity that the reboot makes it greatest contribution.

***Spoilers after the jump***

Read the rest of this entry »

Catwoman has Boneitis: Comics, Bodies, and Form

In body politics, gender on July 17, 2012 at 8:49 am

brian psi

Last year, DC Comics relaunched its entire line of superheroes in an event they titled The New 52. Aimed at luring new readers, the initiative sought to wipe away decades of confusing and conflicting continuity and to present the most authentic, essential versions of their popular characters (including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and others). Costumes were redesigned, creative teams shifted, and backstories simplified or altered. 52 was by most accounts a commercial and artistic success. But despite the lip service that DC editorial has paid to bringing in new creators and readers, especially more women, they somehow still allowed a lot of crap to happen.

I do not want to rehash Red Hood and the Outlaws, Wonder Woman, or Catwoman here; even though last month’s Catwoman #0 is obviously the principle motivator of this post. Others have already written on these, and I encourage anyone interested enough to have gotten thus far to click on the links embedded in the titles above for some excellent commentary on the issues with those specific works.

Catwoman #0, cover by Guillem March

Instead, I want to tackle a very specific argument that some creators and fans have raised in defense of the sexualization of women within the pages and on the covers of these comics. Let’s call it the ‘other mediums do it too!’ defense (AKA the ‘books/films/games/etc., are just as bad!’ defense). Put aside the fact that this defense, more of an excuse, is incredibly juvenile: if a novel jumped off a bridge, would you? It also conveniently elides the greatest formal difference between comics and other media: comic book characters are drawn, inked, and colored—wholly produced—by people. This seems rather obvious, I know. But it has enormous ramifications for the ways that the human form is represented, and how that representation is understood, consumed, and/or identified with by the comic’s audience. So, when I argue that representations of women in comics generally are worse than those in other media, it is not because I am a snob or self-hating comics fan (well, maybe sometimes), nor is it because there are some objective criteria by which we can measure this phenomenon. Nor do I believe that comics artists and writers and editorial boards are evil or are actively trying to ‘keep women down’ somehow–although at times (see examples above) one has to wonder. Rather, it is because in comics, unlike in prose or film, the creator or creative team exercises absolute control over the bodies it aims to represent. Read the rest of this entry »

Divas, Lawyers, and Why “Drop Dead Diva” is the Best Summer Show You Are Not Watching

In body politics, Drop Dead Diva, Lifetime on June 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Recently, Jennifer Lynn Jones and Phoebe B. got together over a Google Doc to discuss one of their favorite summer shows, Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva (DDD). Read on for thoughts on why DDD is the most awesome, the recent season, and much more!

Jane, KK as Nikki , and Stacy (courtesy of Lifetime)

What made you start watching the show? Why do you keep watching it?

Phoebe B: Honestly I can’t quite remember what made me start watching it, but I am SO glad that I did. It is perhaps one of my favorite Summer shows on TV. I keep watching it for a variety of reasons but I think one of the things I like most is Jane (and Brooke Elliot who plays her is so amazing). She is such a badass lawyer and such a great friend (I kind of wish we were friends). But perhaps most importantly, in a TV landscape that is often unkind to women as we’ve seen in Lena Dunham’s recent treatment, DDD celebrates women of all shapes and sizes.

Jennifer: I started watching it because it seemed like it might have some connection to my dissertation, which is on fat stars. I remember it started in the summer of 2009, right around the same time as Fox’s reality dating competition More to Love, so that moment seemed to present a potential zeitgeist for larger-sized characters sans makeovers on television. At first I’d be hard-pressed to say I was a fan of either, but DDD definitely won me over by the end of the first season. I think the hardest part for me to swallow was that the most winning characteristics of Jane’s personality seem to come from Deb, so that the traits of the “thin model” seemed to remain the most significant parts of the character. Over the next few seasons though, it felt like the specter of Deb sort of “thinned out” in the character, and what remained was Jane as this unique, large, lovely character, who yes, I would also very much like to be or know in real life!

How would you describe it to people who haven’t seen it?

Phoebe B: Deb, a super skinny model dies on her way to a Price is Right audition, goes to Heaven’s processing center, pushes the return button, and finds herself back on earth in the body of Jane, a plus size braniac lawyer. Deb, now Jane, has to learn to live in and love her body while also learning how to be a lawyer and grieve the loss of her fiance. There are love triangles, there are musical numbers, and fabulous guest judges. Jane, as she struggles with Deb and learns to navigate her new life, becomes a truly compassionate, complicated, and delightful character.

Jennifer: Yes, that exactly! I often call it an updated version of Ally McBeal, with Jane being a combination of Legally Blond’s Elle Woods and The Practice’s Ellenor Frutt.

Phoebe B: Oh my goodness, that’s PERFECT. Jane’s hair flip often reminds me of Elle.

Jennifer: Yep, that flip from this week is definitely an Elle trait, as well as the “toe tap booty bounce” from the first episode.

Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Weekly Round-Up

In body politics, hip hop, race, social media, Weekly Round-Up on June 22, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Here are some super interesting reads from around the web this week. Enjoy!

An intriguing read on social media, viruses, and violence from A.J. Aronstein, “The Plague Years” at the New Inquiry.

Arturo Garcia provides provides coverage about Jonathan Wall’s racist and violent treatment at a North Carolina bar, on Racialicious: “Grad Student’s Story Leads To Protest Against North Carolina Bar.”

Cord Jefferson has a terrific essay exploring the capitalist underpinnings of “No Church In the Wild” and the Watch the Throne version of revolution.

The writers at XOJane are public personae. Does that mean they can (or should) write about each other? Tracie Egan Morrissey considers Cat Marnell at Jezebel.

A great piece from Dances With Fat, “Feeling Fat vs. Being Fat” in response to Daisy’s “I’m Fat and I’m Not Okay With It” piece at xoJane.

Gender/Play: The Problems, Promise, and Pleasures of Video Game Crossplaying (part 2)

In body politics, gender, race, technology on April 17, 2012 at 6:56 am

brian psi

Earlier, we looked at some of the problems with ‘crossplaying’ gender, or taking on an identity that is not yours in video games. Next, we will look at some of its promise.

 Play

One of the more beautiful aspects of games is that since their worlds are created from scratch, they need not follow the rules and conventions of the non-virtual world–its culture or even its physical laws. In Dragon Age 2, anyone’s Hawke, regardless of gender, can romance any of the game’s four romanceable npc’s, regardless of their gender. Specific categories of sexual identity, therefore, are not necessary in the game’s fictional universe and may not even exist within it: sexuality is in fact just the performance of sex, which can and does occur between any two willing participants. Comments made to your character about your romance(s) are mostly limited to your partner’s perceived fit based on their personality and backstory. At one point, my lady Hawke engaged in a casual three way encounter with Isabella, a female human pirate, and Zevran, an elven male assassin. Note the other npc’s reactions: bemused, but really pretty muted (video shows male Hawke, sorry!):

In terms of gameplay mechanics, male and female bodies are equal. Game developers do not code differing baseline statistics (for physical strength, or the ability to take hits, for example), so a female warrior is just as effective as a male one. Games therefore already realize the potential for a fundamental equality–and more importantly I think for us, the acceptance of equality as an idea–in ways that the nonvirtual world does not. Samus Aran is the great bounty hunter, and FemShep saves the universe. By creating worlds that espouse this vision, and allowing us to explore them and consider their implications, games are usefully utopian.

Of course, realizing this vision in ways that make for useful change in the nonvirtual world will require more and better visual and written representations, especially of female, LGBTQ and nonwhite characters. It is too early to be too optimistic, but in some very small ways, this is already happening. Recently, a couple of sports games, officially licensed properties of male professional leagues, have begun to allow the creation of female players to compete in them. These changes were driven by female fans of the sport and games, who, forced to crossplay as men, asked the companies (who had to ask the leagues) to allow for the creation of female athletes. As a result, you can now make female rinkwarriors in EA’s NHL 12  and golfers to play The Masters in their Tiger Woods PGA Tour.  Hopefully, baseball and the other sports will jump on board, too.

Performance

Gamespace, that virtual universe that can be entered and exited at will, can serve as a safe space to try on identities one is unable to in the nonvirtual world. Take this widely disseminated post from earlier this year, by blogger and Gamespot manager Kristen Wolfe. In it, she recounts an experience at her store in which a teenager buys a game and controller for his younger brother. The younger boy insists on getting a game with a female protagonist (Wolfe helps him choose 2008’s sci-fi/urban traversal title Mirror’s Edge), and a new “girl color” controller. The boy’s father is incensed, and tells his son get a zombie survival game instead. Eventually, older brother stands up to dad, explaining that it is his money and present, and that little brother can get whatever he wants. Read the rest of this entry »

Gender/Play: The Problems, Promise, and Pleasures of Video Game Crossplaying (part 1)

In body politics, gender, race, technology on April 16, 2012 at 7:59 am

brian psi

Check out Part 2 of this series here.

Preface

James Cameron’s monsterpiece Aliens opened in the US in 1986. That same year, in Japan, a playing card company re-establishing itself as a consumer electronics giant released a game for its still new Nintendo Entertainment System called Metroid. The game dropped the next year in the US, at about the same time Aliens gained a larger audience with its release on videocassette. The two are forever intertwined for me, and not just because of how much the atmosphere, music, and creatures of Metroid reminds me of Aliens (not accidentally), or the fact that they were, at the same time, my favorite movie and favorite game.

It’s mostly those characters. By now, the bad-assedness of Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is well documented, affirmed, and granted. But the other franchise, as successful in its own way if less mainstream-famous, also featured a resourceful, tough-as-a-railgun protagonist in bounty hunter Samus Aran. Wearing a full suit of power armor, constrained by mid-80’s 8-bit graphics, the fact that Samus is also a woman was not apparent while playing the game. This was not advertised by Nintendo, and the game’s manual used male pronouns, essentially keeping her secret from the game’s (mostly) male players. Tantalizingly, the page where Samus and ‘his’ mission is described concludes by saying Samus’ “true form is shrouded in mystery.”

Defeating Metroid took players dozens of hours, as they were required to find a number of secret weapon stashes and learn the patterns of a handful of difficult boss monsters. But those that learned the tricks and replayed the game (including myself) discovered that Samus’s pre-credits salute to the player changed based on how quickly they were able to finish. Five hours or less, and Samus removed the red space helmet, revealing for the first time that he was… she.

This was groundbreaking. Female game protagonists were largely unknown at this time, mostly relegated to quickie tie-in games designed to capitalize on various girl’s toy crazes, or occasionally feminized versions of male characters like Mrs Pac-Man (1981)—never in a AAA action title marketed on back covers of Uncanny X-Men comics. But then it happened that some players, even more skilled, got ever faster. They learned that if they defeated the game in under an hour, Samus’ armor disappeared altogether. She would stand waving back at her operator… in a pink bikini:

Samus undergoes two transformations. Before she takes off her helmet, she is mostly identity-less, intrinsically identifiable because beneath the helmet ‘he’ is mostly the player’s vague projection. Once she unmasks, this projection is shattered, and the made/male-in-one’s-own image is replaced: the confident and resourceful alien ass-kicker is actually a woman. This is surprising, and for its time, incredibly progressive: Ripley would be proud. But in the second transformation, the player’s projection is replaced with something very different: the ass-kicking heroine becomes the ass-revealing reward for player competence. (Years later, metagame rewards would come to be called achievements or trophies). The dual nature of Samus’ transformation exposes a tension that will run throughout the piece below. Specifically, that ‘crossplaying’ gender too often serves to confirm the same harmful ideologies which reduce the bodies of others to objects of desire (or, sometimes, revulsion). But it also produces potentialities: the promise of surprising, often radical re-imaginings of the ways we understand—and are bound by—concepts like gender, sexuality, and identity. Read the rest of this entry »

Rebound: Samantha Brick and Beauty

In body politics, gender, news, Rebound on April 9, 2012 at 10:08 am

Chelsea B.

I want to draw your attention–again, I’m sure–to Ms. Brick, who has been impossible to miss on the internet this week. The condensed version of the story goes like this: Samantha Brick wrote an article for Daily Mail titled “‘There Are Downsides to Looking This Pretty’: Why Women Hate Me for Being Beautiful.” As is unsurprising, based simply on the title, people reacted strongly to her claims.

My concern with the whole debacle begins when Brick says in a televised interview:

‘People mistake self-confidence for arrogance [...] But it’s a fact that women are not nice to one another.  They all stab each other in the backs in my experience.’

Disagreeing strongly, [Ruth Langsford of ITV] interrupted to suggest that rather than her beauty being the factor that creates instant enemies of other women when she enters a room, perhaps it is actually her arrogance and ‘air of superiority’.

I wholeheartedly agree with Langsford, one of the interviewers, that it is great that Ms. Brick is confident in her own attractiveness but problematic that she assumes and continuously asserts that women dislike her before even speaking to her based solely on her appearance. In other words, Brick is dismissive of anyone identifying as female, insulting their intelligence, compassion, and capacity for forming meaningful relationships based solely on a few personal experiences in which she believes she was mistreated by other women due to her attractiveness. Read the rest of this entry »

Rebound: Katniss & Body Snarking

In body politics, gender, girl culture, Hunger Games on March 27, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Phoebe B.

GLG contributor Brian Psiropoulos recently alerted me to the trend of body snarking Jennifer Lawrence. This Slate article takes on the New York Times and others’ truly destructive and sexist criticism of Lawrence’s body. But I find myself still unsettled even by the Slate response, which argues against the criticism of Lawrence’s body as not skinny enough to play Katniss by asserting that Lawrence is in fact skinny. This assertion, while true, is not the point. Rather, as the Slate article does note, this body snarking is exclusive to Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss and is not a kind of scrutiny the male actors undergo. Oddly enough, the film version of both Peeta and Gail’s characters did not align with the ways in which I imagined them. But this disjuncture is not reason enough to suggest that their bodies ought be different or would make them more believable. Given that the snarky criticisms about these male characters’ figures are conspicuously absent, it seems that the discussion of Lawrence’s body has everything to do with her being a woman.

Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Weekly Round-up: Women’s Health

In body politics, reproductive health, Uncategorized, Weekly Round-Up, Women's health on March 3, 2012 at 6:37 am

With all the legislative madness afoot in the U.S. in regards to women’s health, we decided to devote this week’s weekly round-up to Women’s Health. Please share more links in the comments if you have them!

On the Academy Award-winning film, Saving Face:
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/2012/02/%E2%80%9Csaving-face%E2%80%9D-may-be-a-saving-grace-for-women-victims-of-acid-attacks/

On Virginia’s new proposed anti-abortion legislation:

From Slate: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/02/virginia_ultrasound_law_women_who_want_an_abortion_will_be_forcibly_penetrated_for_no_medical_reason.html

From xoJane:
http://www.xojane.com/issues/virginias-proposed-abortion-ultrasound-requirement-turning-your-uterus-public-forum

From Colorlines:
http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/12/gender_2012_more_battles_for_reproductive_healthcare.html

And in response,

From The Huffington Post:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/22/georgia-vasectomy-ban_n_1293369.html

And AJC:
http://blogs.ajc.com/political-insider-jim-galloway/2012/02/21/democratic-women-seek-a-state-ban-on-vasectomies-for-men/

1776, 1964, or 2012? Race Relations in ANTM’s British Invasion Cycle

In body politics, girl culture, race on March 1, 2012 at 12:03 am

Melissa Sexton

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.

Culture Clash! Cowboy hats and cut-offs versus the Union Jack!

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Healthy Blindness: The Voice and Body Image

In body politics, reality TV, Television, The Voice, Women's health on February 27, 2012 at 9:08 pm

Chelsea H.

This is only the second time I’ve watched “The Voice,” and it intrigues me. I’ve never seen anything outside of the initial blind auditions. I don’t know what comes after that, I don’t know how the mentoring goes, I don’t know how eliminations work. But I have to admit, I love the idea of the blind audition part of the show: four music quasi-moguls choose contestants to nurture and mentor based only on their vocal performances. This eliminates a lot of what I hate about American Idol. There are no silly costumes, there is no jumping up and down and showboating and begging for second chances. There is only, until the moment one of the coaches decides to pursue a vocal training relationship with this person, a voice.

That means this is based on talent, not on appearance. There are times when it is clear a coach was expecting something totally different when s/he turns around. But the beautiful thing about this show is it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether the voice belongs to a tiny skinny petite girl or a muscular athletic guy or a full-figured diva. Once that person is chosen, it’s done. It’s based on the voice.

Obviously this means clear, appearance-free assessment for men as well as women. And I think that’s great, and it’s important. This is Girls Like Giants, but male body image is becoming a bigger issue than we think it is, as this disturbing article about rising male adolescent anorexia proves.  I’ve been considering body image a lot lately, and trying to step outside what I usually think. In a world – or at least a country – that is really anti-fat, with instant and vitriolic troll-hate on anything plus-size, a world where Rush Limbaugh can critique Michele Obama for eating ribs and yet telling America to try to be healthier even though she’s not the size of a Sports Illustrated cover model, we need to be forgiving of bodies that are bigger than model-skinny.  And yet we also live in a world where the weight demands on professional models are so extreme that models have actually died on the runway. And there is a lot of thin-hate out there too: sniping and poking and accusing visible ribs or vertebrae or knobbly boney knees of not being as beautiful as full-figured breasts and hips and thighs. And I find myself – an average size 8 who fits neither into the plus-size nor the “sample size” category – often committing the latter of these two forms of hate. Where are the “normal-sized” women, I find myself asking, forgetting that people with naturally skinny frames are also “normal-sized.” And that’s something I need to work on. And so does the rest of the world.

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