racism #1: America’s Next Top Model Cycle 18’s Top 3 Racist Moments

Let’s start this off: Yes, I watch America’s Next Top Model. It’s so entertaining. I love it. The format is concise, the pictures are easy to judge and alternately beautiful or terrible, and the girls are from all different backgrounds and their inevitable clashes make for awesome TV. Let’s just start off by buying into this basic premise, that I watch this ridiculous show.

america's next top model, racism, british invasion

Tyra rules with an iron fist and really ridiculous facial expressions.

Now we can continue. So this past season was marketed as “British Invasion,” meaning half of the contestants were from Britain (and had previously competed on Britain’s Next Top Model) and half were from America (and had never competed). On average I liked the British girls about 95% more than the Americans, and not just to be contrary but because they were honestly funnier and cuter and more interesting than the “Yanks,” but that’s neither here nor there.

Amidst all the manufactured competition between Britain and America, which included repeatedly dividing them into teams along national lines and having them wear flag-print lipstick (to really gross effect), there were a few much more interesting things going on that had less to do with nationality and more with race. Despite the fact that two white contestants ended up in the finale, the show had a fair representation of black contestants as well as one Native American (much-hyped as “the first in Top Model history” for the two episodes she lasted). But inevitably some questionable shit went down, some of which has been nagging at me, so I want to break it down for you into a Top 3 countdown.

3) Mariah as Pocahontas. The very first challenge involved all of the girls dressing up as a historic figure from their (two) respective countries. “Historic” was taken pretty liberally, as characters ranged from George Washington to John Lennon to Michelle Obama to Princess Di. For the most part, the girls’ roles traversed racial and gender lines, but guess who (token) Native American girl Mariah was assigned! No, really, guess. You’ll get it right.

america's next top model, racism, pocahontas

POCAHONTAS. Obvi. So she’s there, jumping on a trampoline in fringe, doing her best model-y Pocahontas. It’s ridiculous, but it’s not the worst part. At the judging, her picture was a little lifeless, and the judges gave her an especially harsh critique and almost sent her home because (I’m paraphrasing) she should know how to do Pocahontas because she’s Native American. What this means (what a lot of modeling speak means!) I have no idea, and why little 18-year-old Mariah from Pendleton, Oregon doing a modeling competition in 2012 should be any better than any of the other girls at channeling a 17th-century Powhatan princess, while jumping on a trampoline, is completely lost on me. I’m pretty sure the judges had only ever met one Native American, and they’d also only ever heard of one other Native American, and so the two just kind of, you know, made sense together and must be, kind of, pretty much the same thing.

2) Analiese in bananas. Perky presenter-type Analiese from England makes it to the final three, the last black girl standing (as she herself points out), and along with fellow finalists Sophie and Laura (both white) is sent out on go-sees with designers around Hong Kong. One particularly zany designer whose name I forget, and who happens to be white (British? Australian?) has the girls walk in his costumes; and they really are costumes, in the sense that they’re theatrical and ridiculous. He takes one look at blond Sophie and says, “I’m seeing Marie Antoinette,” and gives her a giant 18th-century gown to wear and walk in. Later, Laura is dressed in a red-sequined dress that he likens to a disco ball.

What does Analiese get? Basically, a fuzzyish bikini to which dangly plush bananas are attached. She’s psyched, she loves it, she gives a great walk, he loves her, he thinks she’s great, he books her. All of this is fine, except, what? What the hell kind of costume is this? I don’t know if it was supposed to be Neanderthal, or native, or jungle set piece, but whatever it was, it was certainly a far cry from what the other girls were dressed in, and in the worst kind of way. I’m willing to bet that whatever this zany Anglo HK-based designer was “seeing” was rooted in some kind of unconscious sartorial-cum-historical/cultural-institutional racism.

1) Kyle as the girl next door. Finally, my favorite not-favorite moment. A Swedish guy who does branding advice for a living comes in to help the girls develop their individual “brands.” To see how audiences react to their brands (e.g. “regal,” “youthful,” “rock ‘n’ roll”), they are each assigned to do an informal 30-second commercial talking about some silly product. Then, they are surprised to find out their commercials are being shown to a focus group, and the girls, along with delightfully over-the-top gender-bending series staple Miss Jay, watch the focus group from another room.

A few of the girls clearly did a good job, including Alisha, one of my favorites, a dark-skinned long-legged girl from South London. A few clearly didn’t, including Kyle, one of my least favorites, a bland dark-blond girl from Texas, whose delivery was stiff and uncharismatic, though well-enunciated. But here’s what the (American, mostly-white) focus group had to say:

On Kyle: “Love her. She’s great. She’s got this great girl-next-door look.”
On Alisha: “I don’t like her, uh…. African accent.”

(Note: Alisha is from South London. She has a South London accent.)

After that last statement, there was visible, audible shock in the models’ room. Alisha’s jaw drops, and Miss Jay utters something in surprise, and no one seems to know what to say. The focus group then votes on their favorites, and one of the top three is Kyle. (Lest you think these focus folk are flat-out racists, they also chose Analiese for their top three, who as noted before is perky and cute and also has actual presenter experience.)

Kyle feeling attacked.

Later, tensions break out between the models. (This sentence is necessary in any Top Model recap.) Ebony and Alisha can’t help but point out that Kyle didn’t do that well, but was still chosen by the focus group. Race isn’t explicitly mentioned, but there is clearly resentment around this idea of who can be a “girl next door.” Kyle, feeling attacked, breaks down and cries and says she wants to go home. Yes, this is typically how Top Model fights go.

Ebony and Alisha supposedly attacking.

What Kyle doesn’t understand is that Ebony and Alisha had a point. While she didn’t do anything wrong, personally, she also didn’t do anything right that merited her advantage over those girls (or, at least, Alisha; Ebony’s commercial was pretty bad). That’s kind of how the P-word works (rhymes with “divilege”). Being a “girl-next-door”—and hence, automatically likable– is an available option only to certain girls. Unfortunately, that’s also kind of how branding and marketing work, so in a really sad way the focus group also had a point, depending what your ultimate goal is. To perpetuate the system or not to perpetuate the system?

Honorable Mention: Not a racist moment, but just a nice honest moment that I appreciated. The models are paired up with young girls who have been bullied, to work together on an anti-bullying PSA. Alisha’s little girl, who has tan skin and curly dark brown hair, says she doesn’t feel pretty, and Alisha asks, whyever not? The girl says her hair, her eyes, her skin are the wrong color. Alisha gets emotional, saying she has felt the same way, but never to let that get you down because you are beautiful. Empowerment, encouragement, etcetera. (Camera zooms in on tears like sharks to blood in the water.)

Alisha left after making it to the final four, due to an emotional breakdown– another Top Model staple.

And I understood too, because there was a point in my childhood where I sincerely wished that I had white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, because that’s what I thought beauty was. There are ethnic Barbies, but you always know what Barbie is supposed to look like. While it was never a deep-seated issue for me, it still came up, and it could definitely be addressed more often to help divorce our notions of beauty from ethnic chauvinism, for both girls and women. Though admittedly, if we want to start getting into our notions of beauty, there’s a lot more there that needs to be fixed, even right here on Top Model…but one thing at a time, right okay.

12 responses

  1. So, the banana skirt is so completely reminiscent of Josephine Baker’s skirt. Was this mentioned in the episode? Josephine Baker, the 1920s African American performer achieved an unprecedented level of fame but did so in the context of her times (which were not so different from today) and often adhered to racist stereotypes of Africannes. I think there are powerful recurring motifs of exoticism (banana skirt on the African girl), normative whiteness (who is a “girl next door”?), and racist parody (Pocahanta costume) that are worth pointing out even if they are found in low-brow reality television. These kinds of programs target a population that is largely unconscious of the historic nature of these racist assumptions and images. They go unnoticed, unchallenged and persist…and criticizing pop culture might seem like going after low-hanging fruit, but I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor…especially if it contributes to widening a conversation that is often isolated to academic forums.

    1. Totally missed the Josephine Baker reference, though looking her up the image now rings a bell. I don’t think this was mentioned in the episode– if the designer had, it might have somewhat mitigated the WTF-ness by claiming a really specific historical muse; however, it should also remain self-evident that the whole “danseuse sauvage” thing isn’t really okay anymore…

      And I 100% agree on the criticizing pop culture point. That’s my general thinking with this kind of discussion. It blows my mind, all the potentially offensive and dehumanizing and exclusionary statements and representations and images which get passed, largely unnoticed, through major media channels. There’s really no end to potential topics of discussion! And those discussions don’t necessarily have to turn people into anti-racism crusaders… if they just make people stop and go, “wait… I don’t think this is good or in line with our principles”, that’s something right there, right?

  2. […] about.  People like knowledge.  EXAMPLE: My editor Liz writes about female equality in pop culture and history.  Why?  Because she knows a lot about history, loves People magazine and is a […]

  3. ANTM is Racist. period. Blacks have an extremely hard time breaking into fashion. Tyra knows this. The black girls are simply extras in a competition between which white girl will become ANTM.

  4. […] six months ago, I wrote about the racist moments that cropped up on the latest cycle of “America’s Next Top Model.” (I realize in reality […]

  5. I watched a re-run. Surprise to see how racist Hong Kong men are. That Hong Kong actor pop star knows good and well that blond girl did not do the best in his Karate movie clip. Plus he spent time with her helping her get her part right before hand.

    The black British girl was put down by one of the Asian guys at the go see who loved the white girl who could not even walk good… mmmm it was like racism Hong Kong Asian style. I’ve long heard rumors of how bigoted against chocolate skin Asian men are and this only proved the rumors true!
    What was Tyra thinking to give these Asian racist a forum?

    1. I agree there is some latent racism going on in this episode that might be particular to the Hong Kong context. And that preferential treatment to white models is commonplace not only in Hong Kong but throughout the fashion world. But I’d caution against any blanket statements ascribing racism to “Asians” and “Asian men” because that’s basically reproducing racially based stereotypes. There’s definitely a conversation to had around race relations between blacks and Asians, and anti-black racism in Asia, but it’s counterproductive to start such a conversation with blanket accusations of racism against an entire group. Anyway. Thanks for commenting and I’m glad you’re also concerned about racism in these silly reality TV shows! So many problems in ANTM/fashion in general…

  6. The Asian stylist and designers are stuck in a time warp of the 1920’s that white is right and pretty. A couple of them were so obviously bias in Hong Kong till it was painful to watch. Why did Tyra film there?

  7. I totally agree. ANTM does have moments where they let racism get in the way. However, I can’t help watching every season cause it’s one of my guilty pleasures. :) Yeah, and also that Hong Kong dude chose Laura because he spent individual time with her ONLY and I feel that isn’t fair.

    1. That’s true. A lot of those types of competitions on the show seem really arbitrary and silly. But then I guess so is the whole judging process!

  8. I saw the very first ANTM and have followed the show every season since. I have concluded that not only is the show racist, but Tyra Banks specifcally is racist. I could present a very long list of racial slight from Tyra herself, from making Danielle Evans get her gap fixed because who would hire a gap tooth model, and berating her about her southern accent, then telling two later white contestants that their gap tooth made them stand out and compares them to successful gap tooth models. She also praised a perky blond contestant on her southern accent. I am also very suspect on the “best picture,” The public does not get to see these pictures, Tyra may be picking pictures to give one model an advantage over the other. Who knows? After the British invasion I stopped watching. How did Alisha go from being a top pick to leaving the show in tears, then having Tyra punish another black contestant by sending her home also. I couldn’t take it anymore. Its off my list of must see TV.

  9. This show has definitely made me feel uneasy at times. Tyra tries so hard to make the show appear inclusive, but then they do stupid things like blackface for a photo shoot (Natasha in Season 8 is one, I know there are others but I can’t remember off the top of my head…)

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