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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
I usually turn off Wheel of Fortune before they can get to Fortune (you know: Wheel! Of! TV off.) and I tend to think of its guests as people not smart enough to be on Jeopardy, Wheel’s 7:00 syndicated lead-in, but every once in a while I leave it on long enough to watch Vanna walk all the way across that stage and to hear Pat introduce the first glorified Hangman puzzle of the night, and then sometimes it just stays on til the end.
The other night, when such a thing happened, one of the themes or special trips or whatever the hell they do on that show produced a particularly offensive graphic called the “Exotic Far East.” The lettering approximated bamboo and was set against some kind of rice-paddy background. And was there a gong* or does my memory insert one? After this little display of Orientalism the camera cuts to Pat Sajak (in banter, a far superior host to Alex Trebek, but he lacks Alex’s socially inept brand of charisma—my family and I like to make fun of Alex but I think we’d all be very, very sad if he left) and Pat, glib as ever, muses, “Do they call us the Exotic Far West?” Pause. “Anyway–“ and the show went on.
It was the briefest moment of lucidity in what I guess I’d call the realm of mainstream culture as opposed to what I guess I’d call the realm of cultural criticism. Words like “exotic” and “mysterious,” images like chopsticks and dragons and fortune cookies, sounds like gongs* (Andrew Ti knows what I’m talking about) remain entrenched and are the lazy man’s racist stand-in for East Asia (and, at ESPN, for Palo Alto). I both abhorred and appreciated this game-show moment because, while the graphic and segment title were annoying, for just a second, Pat shook himself as if awakening from a dream, looked around, and said, “What is happening? Where am I? Why should the East be exotic?” And then sold some vowels.
Pat, it’s appreciated, now keep on hosting your mediocre game show. Vanna, you anti-feminist icon, don’t even get me started on you.
– “Community” Season 1 Episode 1: intro to Senor Chang
– How to Make a Chinese or Japanese Book Cover, by James Morrison (The Society Pages)
– “Message from a Nightingale” scene, The Drowsy Chaperone, 2006 Broadway musical
*Musician’s Note: The type of gong used to produce the sound that typically accompanies terrible stereotypes is called a “tamtam.” It makes a crash-like wash of noise, as opposed to the “nipple” gong which has that Zen-like (dang! now I’m doing it) low-pitched ring.