So, I’m reading my feminist feeds, and I notice this post on the WIMN’s Voices blog about how America’s Next Top Model had a crazily misogynist photo shoot in which the girls all posed as murder victims in their underwear:
The “beautiful corpses” episode of Top Model (a series that traffics in bottom-feeder humiliation, objectification and degradation of women in the name of fashion, fun and beauty for the deep profit of integrated marketers such as Cover Girl and Seventeen magazine) serves as sharp reminder that what millions of reality TV viewers believe is harmless fluff… is anything but. ANTM is less a “guilty pleasure,” as TV Guide and infotainment shows have called it, than it is a cynical CW cashcow guilty of making product placers, and Tyra Banks, rich at the expense of not only the self-esteem of the few hungry (in every sense) young strivers appearing in the modeling competition, but of the millions of girls and women, boys and men, who watch the show uncritically, learning that unhealthily underweight, Brazilian-waxed waifs can only achieve the ultimate in beauty when they appear to be erotically, provocatively maimed and murdered (as they were this week), self-abusive (as when models were made to pose as bulimics mid-purge last season*), corpses (as they were during a prior season when the challenge involved posing in caskets lowered into open graves in a cemetery).
I kind of disagree, and when I say kind of, I mean not necessarily with her characterization of the show, which is pretty true, but that that’s all that’s going on with ANTM. (Actually, I think the first photoshoot this year, in which the girls were all tarted up to portray political viewpoints like “Pro-gay marriage,” and “pro-straight marriage,” or “vegan” and “pro-meat,” or “pro-death penalty” and “pro-life in prison” did a way bigger disservice to women, but I guess you could also just call that camp.)
I’m not going to pretend that the show (or the fashion industry) is in any way not misogynist, but how many people do you think watch the show “uncritically”? I mean, maybe I’m giving people too much credit, obviously they get tons of girls who try out every year. But I think the majority of viewers watch it with some level of irony-meter turned on.
This isn’t to say that it’s in any way helping the world with its standards of beauty, but I generally lean toward seeing ANTM in particular as sending mixed messages. Just because something is a corporate product cynically produced to make a bunch of money for Tyra Banks and her production company doesn’t mean it can’t also Trojan-horse in some contradictory messages.
Its many flaws are (for me) at least somewhat mitigated by the way it shows how constructed and fake the images of women put out there by the fashion industry are. Instead of pretending that models are somehow naturally that thin or that nonchalant or that they wake up all made up like that, the show emphasizes the work of modeling, and how the poses that “look good” in the fashion world are, for the actual models, totally uncomfortable and unnatural. So far this hasn’t really sparked a fashion revolution, but I think emphasizing the constructedness of conventional beauty — through make-up, weaves, unnatural body positions, etc — is actually pretty interesting and could be positive, in a “gradual shifting of perspective” kind of way.
I don’t think that actually is in any way a defense for the weirdly straight-faced way they treated the whole “violent death” photo shoot (and it was beyond awful to make the girl who was mourning the very recent death of a friend to play a corpse). Usually I am the first person to be like “hear, hear, feminist criticism of pop culture!” Maybe I’m just feeling defensive because I watched the show and it didn’t gross me out, especially not to “letter writing” proportions. It’s not that it wasn’t bad, it just didn’t occur to me that it was appreciably worse than anything else they do on the show; I’m inclined to think that literalizing that fashion=lifeless women could have been fascinating/hilarious, if it had been handled less creepily by the judges, or taken to a campier extreme.
*It was actually only one girl. And given that she was eating cake, it was more “mid-binge.” The rest of them posed as other goofy “modeling industry stereotypes,” like “girl with a tiny annoying dog.” I’m not defending it, I’m just saying.