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I’ve watched 15 seasons of “America’s Next Top Model.” Yes, this feminist, eating disorder activist, television connoisseur used to love a reality TV show about the modeling business. How does one reconcile the two? I’ve been asking myself the same question. So I thought I would put forth the case for why despite the perceived dissonance, I actually think it is (or at least it was when I used to watch it) a good show for women.
We must start at the top with show creator and host, Tyra Banks. Tyra, one of the biggest and earliest supermodels, wanted to show the world that models were more than just a pretty face and that modeling was more than just putting on a smile for the camera.
But she wanted to do more than just that; she wanted to empower young women. So she did two things. First, she started the TZONE foundation, an organization that works to promote confidence in girls and young women to aspire to great things and pursue them, while cultivating their self-esteem.
Second, she created a television reality show called “America’s Next Top Model,” where she set out to find the next big supermodel. A supermodel, according to Tyra, is more than just a girl who can take a good picture or look good in a Haute Couture dress. A supermodel is a girl who uses her body as an expression of her soul and mind. She takes good pictures, yes, but she also conveys a message and serves as a role model. She is an ambassador for the values she believes in, she encourages others to feel empowered, and yes, she also knows how to sell products.
Tyra takes these ideals very seriously. This is why the show started out with the competition being judged by professionals, rather than by the audience. Tyra personally teaches her contestants about important issues like their rights as models and the importance of healthy eating; she consoles them, encourages them to find the balance between being professionals and remaining true to themselves; and she takes their emotional journey on her show personally. She challenges them to be better to themselves and one another. She is a mother, a teacher, a big sister, and a friend.
Here is an example of how deeply she cares. This video circulated as “Tyra Goes Crazy,” but it was actually an intimate moment for Tyra, who doesn’t shy away from getting emotionally invested in her contestants.
As one who has struggled with weight issues herself, Tyra also wanted to use the show to promote different messages of body image from those usually depicted in the media in general, and in the modeling industry especially.
Throughout the years, Tyra has championed plus size (or some would argue, normal) models, some of whom advanced far in the competition, and Whitney from Cycle 10 even won.
Here are the plus size models from the various cycles. As you can see, they represent a diversity of sizes and body shapes.
Tyra has also made it a point to send a clear message that extreme thinness is not welcome on her show.
Throughout the years, whenever there was suspicion that a girl might be struggling with an eating problem, Tyra would personally address the issue with her.
The show has not only promoted women of all sizes, but has also been in the forefront of promoting every other kind of diversity, be it ethnicity, class, or sexual and gender identities.
The one example that encompasses all of those is Isis King. Wanting to shed light on the issue of homeless youth, Tyra took her models for a photo-shoot at a youth shelter, asking some of the residents to be featured in the background. When they reviewed the photos from the shoot to determine the winner, the judges realized there was one shelter resident who was outshining the models. Isis, a young transgender woman who was sitting in the background, impressed Tyra so much that she invited her on the show. Isis did not win, but she was later invited to an All-Star show for a second chance.
Even though Isis did not win again, featuring her on the show was a monumental milestone for the transgender community. Showing Isis and her interactions with the other girls highlighted issues of homophobia and transphobia and opened a debate. Tyra and the judges treated Isis as an equal and not once used her for sensationalistic promotional value.
Isis went on to become a fashion designer and a prominent leader in the trans community.
I stopped watching the show four years ago for two reasons that seem to have been more the result of network decisions to compensate for decreasing ratings rather than creative choices by Tyra.
First, the show opened up the judging process to include the audience via social media. That was an obvious attempt to encourage viewer engagement, but it marred the purity and professionalism of the competition and put too much emphasis on viewer opinion.
Second, the show now features men in addition to women. This changed the dynamics on the show and made it exceedingly less interesting to me, though I do recognize the value in the opportunity to equalize men and women in the body image business, and I am sure Tyra is making sure to drive those points home.
Just the other day, I saw a video that went viral, where Tyra is schooling one of her male contestants in Tolerance 101:
Tyra is obviously still making the world a better place, even without me watching.
So how does one reconcile the dissonance between being a staunch feminist and liking a show about the modeling business? Here is the thing: modeling has always existed as a form of art. Before there were magazines and cameras and Photoshop and eating disorders, there were models who have inspired some of history’s greatest artists to create some of our most prized art pieces.
Modeling doesn’t have to be degrading and anti-women; if done right, it can be inspiring, empowering and creative; it can celebrate womanhood. The modeling industry is huge and is mostly anti-women, both in how it treats its models and in the messages it sends to all women.
It’s an industry that encourages women to look like this:
And it’s an industry that feels perfectly fine with using gang rape and domestic violence to sell products:
Tyra and “American’s Next Top Model” may not change the industry, but she damn well has earned my respect for trying.
Best Episode of the Week:
Holy Guacamole! “The Newsroom” has always been an excellent show, but last Sunday’s episode just blew me away! There is so much to talk about, but I will focus on what pertains to women’s representations.
Primarily, we had an important conversation about rape on university campuses, always a rampant problem, but a hot topic right now, with the Rolling Stone journalism 101 fiasco, which is potentially damaging to every woman who will ever dare to tell her story. By allowing Don to sit down with a survivor and discuss all the hurdles, humiliations and struggles that a rape victim has to deal with after she has been raped, the show encouraged an essential conversation that we should all hear and be part of.
Then we have Will confronting a man who is a wife beater, to whom, we find out, he has a special personal connection. The confrontation allows for a refreshing take on domestic violence from the point of view of a man who has grown up witnessing it in his own home.
Finally, we have MacKenzie and Sloan pulling a Thelma and Louise, as Charlie so aptly points out, and taking on the ugly side of the digital media era. Two wildly smart women who are on the right side of the debate, trying desperately to keep civilization moving forward, rather than back, is a victorious effort, regardless of the results they may or may not achieve.
“The Newsroom” has always been an important depiction, almost exposé, of what goes on behind the scenes in the media, that powerful institution that controls our information, therefore our lives. It has now proven that it is also an important agent for women’s voices.
Best Surprise of the Week:
I spent 12 years in school learning the Bible from beginning to end; then I spent three years as a librarian and bookseller, recommending “The Red Tent” to every woman who walked through the door. I have never read the book, but knew it was one of the biggest bestsellers for women.
When I heard Lifetime was working on a miniseries version, I shuddered. It is hard enough to base a movie on a book; Lifetime on a movie based on a book that is itself based on the most influential book that has ever been written, the Bible.
What a wonderful surprise I was in for! Granted, I did not read the book, but I have read the Bible. I spent 12 years studying these stories, and 99% of what I learned was about men going to war, men speaking to God, and men dominating women. To watch all these familiar stories told from the point of view of the women who, despite their low place on the Totem Poll, managed to maintain their strength and their sense of sisterhood, was a treat.
It reminded me a lot of our government: while men fight with one another, women collaborate; where men respond with violence, women respond with compassion.
Another treat: As opposed to the new movie “Exodus,” in “The Red Tent” you can actually see people of color inhabit ancient Africa. Ahem.
So if you were skeptical and allowed yourself to miss it, do watch it. You will fall in love with Dinah (Rebecca Ferguson is captivating) and the rest of the women of the red tent.
Homework for the Week:
My original intent for this week was to write a post about “Wentworth,” the excellent Australian prison drama. However, a quick survey showed many of Lady Parts’ readers have not yet watched the show. So, your homework, and you can thank me for it later, is to watch the show! The first two seasons are now streaming on Netflix. So go binge (because once you start, you will not want to stop), and let me know that you’ve seen it, so that I can finally write about it!
Here is a trailer to spark your interested:
*** EXCITING NEWS COMING UP FROM LADY PARTS. LOOK OUT FOR AN ANNOUNCEMENT ON NEW YEAR’S DAY***