Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Who’s On Top?

Written by Josie Schoel
Most of my friends watch America’s Next Top Model with complete and total abandon. Actually, let me rephrase that. They don't just watch it; they revel in it. They moan and groan if we happen to be out during an episode. They have actual, well-formed arguments about which model should stay "on top", and they relish the chance to languish in the maternal, tough love of Tyra Banks, the self-proclaimed guru of American fashion and womanhood.

Most of my friends watch America’s Next Top Model with complete and total abandon. Actually, let me rephrase that. They don't just watch it; they revel in it. They moan and groan if we happen to be out during an episode. They have actual, well-formed arguments about which model should stay "on top", and they relish the chance to languish in the maternal, tough love of Tyra Banks, the self-proclaimed guru of American fashion and womanhood.

Now let me make it clear that I'm not referring to a gaggle of ditsy girls with nothing better to talk about. I am talking about girls who are in PhD programs, who are studying to become ministers, doctors, lawyers, writers – my “smart” friends. What is so odd about this is that the last time I checked, most of these said friends identified as feminists who take pride in their continuous, harsh critique of popular culture and the society in which we live. So what is it about this "dirty little secret," that has the power to harness the brainwaves of brilliant girls all over the country? Is it just a reprieve from constantly having to be self-aware, politically correct and intellectually savvy? If it is just sheer escapism, why wouldn't they be watching The Hills or Gossip Girl, both of which offer the ideal, all expenses paid ticket out of humdrum reality? I'm going to guess that the issue at hand, the thing that draws viewers to the screen at 8pm on Wednesdays to watch the bizarre charade of Tyra, Twiggy, J. Alexander and Nigel Barker, is something deeper and much more insidious. After taking an impromptu poll and coming up with nothing more insightful than, "I just like it," I decided it was time to roll up my sleeves and turn on the tube.

For those not in the know, ANTM starts with 10-14 contestants who are slowly whittled down, challenge-by-challenge, episode-by-episode, until there is only one shining star. The challenges include things such as, "walk down a runway wearing a dress designed to match your inner self!" and "have an elephant trunk plastered to your face and try to look sexy!" After the various challenges, the girls have to stand in front of the panel of judges and, like puppets, the models smile, tear up, frown or giggle appropriately in accordance with the oftentimes scathing comments.

When I first started watching Cycle 9 of ANTM, it became immediately clear that Miss Banks had invited two somewhat anomalous ladies into the fold. Heather, the stunning brunette with Asperger’s syndrome, and Sarah, the plus sized blond—who is by no means the first plus sized model; Tyra seems to hand pick a few each season. After a close-up of Sarah tugging at the ill-fitting fishnet body sock that she was forced into for an Enrique Iglesias video shoot, it becomes pretty clear that she isn’t going to get that CoverGirl contract. But get this—this is not the reason she is kicked off. It is because she has become the mysterious shrinking girl. Her plus-sized body is dropping dress sizes lightening fast, and the judges do not like it. Of course, the real reason is that she is too big to begin with, but Tyra waves her magic wand and manages to invert this logic. So in a sea of waif-like ladies, they managed to kick her off for being too skinny. Oh, the irony!

Fast forward a few weeks and I am totally hooked. I know my favorite model. I know whom I hate and love, who I think is too catty, who is too bitchy, and who is simple, mean, and boring. This is when Heather, the model who won the "Viewers’ Choice" week after week, is eliminated after being dropped in the middle of Shanghai with a map and a few names of upscale designers, and I am devastated. This assignment is focused primarily on punctuality, ability to problem solve and, of course, "personality." According to Tyra, the personality of a model should be sweet, bubbly, open, friendly but also professional. So out goes the one with Asperger’s, a mild form of autism where people often misunderstand social cues and tend to isolate from others. You can't isolate when you want to stand in front of a camera! Tyra also chastises Jenah, the sassy blond, for having just a bit too much of this so-called personality. The exact opposite of Heather, she is confident and fearless. Again, this too is unacceptable in Tyra-land.

The more I watched the show, the more I felt I was part of a national conversation. I understood the lingo, and I knew what was at stake. I continued to query people about why they watched it and because I was now an insider on the ANTM circuit, they began to give me answers. Some said they watch the show because they get to see how hard modeling can be, how it isn’t just peaches and champagne, and that this makes them feel better about their own lives. Others watch it because they think they could do better. Others say they watch it because the competitive nature inherent in the ANTM contestant is representative of what they want to cultivate in their own lives. I think, in actuality, the cultural fascination with celebrity gawking and model cattiness has more to do with the fact that the show represents and shamelessly flaunts what we have become rather than what we are not. It shows us, quite blatantly, that our consumer culture leads to beauty obsession, which, down the line, leads to catfights. America’s Next Top Model tells us that rather than feel guilty and conflicted about whether or not to buy that lipstick that was probably tested on ten bunnies, we actually need to buy the lipstick so we can look better than our friends. So where does this leave us at the end of the episode? Exactly nowhere.


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