People don’t watch America’s Next Top Model as a serious modeling show. Which is fortunate, because serious is the last word to describe the competition. This is a show where beard weave is considered a legitimate idea. This is a show where “you are the angel of your own monster” is considered direction for a photoshoot. This is a show where Boom Boom Wow is taken as actual criticism for a model. People don’t watch this show for quality; they watch it for the entertainment value. It’s “turn your brain off” TV.
It has been increasingly difficult to flip this switch into brainlessness, however, as time goes on. The show is on its twenty-first cycle, and while it’s always been problematic (everything connected to the modeling industry is), it’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable to watch.
Thirteen of the twenty winners have been white. One has been plus-sized. There has been one bisexual winner. There have been two transgender contestants; one who dropped out before the competition began, and one who placed tenth in the competition. When you look at the demographic of the women Tyra Banks believes have modeling potential, the overwhelming majority are tall, straight, and white.
But the show’s problems run deeper than that--starting with Tyra herself.
Tyra gives the impression that feminism is something she heard about through the grapevine, decided she liked, and did not research at all. Despite her constantly telling the models to embrace their flaws, she doesn’t act on that principle. She has infamously forced a model to close the gap of her teeth (only a few cycles later did she have another contestant widen her tooth gap), criticized them for being unable to hide weight-gain in photos, and has discouraged contestants from acting “too black.” At one point, she even declared that she “didn’t want another black bitch” on the show.
It’s plain to see that Tyra is problematic, but she is not the only element of the show that is. In recent cycles, models have been assigned a number score to their photos. It may just be me, but I fail to see how this is in any way removed from teenage boys assigning scores to girl’s bodies in high school.
Several of the photoshoots are also highly disturbing. Most infamous is the biracial photoshoot of cycle 13, where the contestants were essentially in blackface as they “embodied” two distinct races. In a recent episode, contestants found out about obscure elements of their genealogy, and were then encouraged to identify with those elements, and incorporate them into a shoot. This led to a woman who had just found out that day that she was some part Native American wearing a traditional headdress, and another girl deciding to identify as “Asian” from that point onwards.
Other shoots seem designed to humiliate and traumatize specific contestants. A marriage photoshoot was devised for a contestant who had recently divorced her abusive husband (along with probing and personal questions, as well as being forced to be naked next to a man who had expressed unreciprocated interest in her). The same contestant was later forced to play the part of an abused wife in a fashion film, despite her discomfort with the concept being evident. An androgynous man who was clearly not comfortable with his masculine side was constantly belittled for “not looking like a man” and forced into more and more traditionally masculine poses and outfits.
The most recent moment that gave me serious pause was when a nineteen year old expressed her discomfort with being sexual in a shoot and Tyra did her best to shame and pressure her into participating. When the contestant refused, she was given a score of one and ridiculed by the judges.
Everyone knows that the world of beauty and fashion is problematic. But the danger of ANTM comes when Tyra pretends she’s supportive of the girls and that she, and the show, provide good role models for young girls. When I was younger I bought into it, and I know it might have the same affect on others. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with watching the show for laughs, but there is the fear that people are going to get the wrong idea about what body positivity and empowerment are. However, so long as you can keep your brain both squarely turned off and hypercritical, there’s nothing to be lost from watching the show.
Mia Young is a Freshman WLP Student, from Virginia Beach, Virginia. She grew up in Jerusalem, Israel, and would have to say her perfect date is April 25th, because it's not too hot, not too cold, all you need is a light jacket.