The following post is about an episode of America’s Next Top Model that has yet to air in the UK, so if you’re a die-hard ANTM fan, this will contain spoilers. If you loathe and despise ANTM, I apologise for mentioning it. I enjoy really naff American reality TV. Be grateful I’m not blogging about Jersey Shore (which is fascinating from an anthropological and sociological perspective and you should TOTALLY watch it)
The video linked above is a segment of the most recent episode of America’s Next Top Model. The Next Top Model franchise involves young women competing for the chance to win a modelling contract by leaping through a series of humiliating hoops in the hope of achieving their lifelong dream of being photographed wearing clothes. There is already a lot of good writing on problems with the franchise, and so I am reserving my ire for one specific incident.
The women are briefed to shoot an advert in which they are to be “flirty, fun and seductive” in a way that is “retro yet current”. This translates to writhing like the face of a late night premium-rate phone line while dressed as Betty Draper. The women are informed they are even expected to utter lines, as though this is the thirteenth labour of Heracles.
The concept of the advert is promoted as one would expect: a little bit of charming retro fun in which women use a very narrow definition of sexuality in order to challenge oppression. As they put on their costumes, filling out their fashion-industry approved bodies with socks to create breasts, the women discuss this notion. The general consensus is that it is empowering. It is how to get ahead: by using boobs and bums and the nebulous hint of sex (never given, for that would make you a whore!).
One woman differs from the rest. Earlier in the episode, Sara mentions that she is a feminist. while dressing, she looks uncomfortable with the false breasts stuffing her bra. At 3.10 in the video above, she says:
My whole life I’ve just been trying to get away from the stereotypical, subservient, docile woman, and I’m really embarrassed to have my fem-core friends back home see this.
Sara is the only one of the women who points out the problematic concepts within the advert, and she words her reservations articulately. The fact that she mentions the F-word twice in one episode of America’s Next Top Model makes me love her a little bit, and I do hope that her fem-core friends forgive her for her participation due to her excellently succinct critique of the task. Never before have I heard the F-word uttered on a Next Top Model franchise.
The women perform the image of the stereotypical, subservient, docile woman to camera, many relishing in the empowering nature of being “flirty, fun and seductive”.
Sara, meanwhile, struggles. The other women smugly smile, believing her unable to deliver the dull, narrow “sexy”. The director is disappointed and declares that she “did not believe in it”. Too right. As Sara says,
I’m finding it really hard to fake any sort of sexual energy and emotion. I mean, I’ve never had to fake anything like that in my life. Doing it for a commercial was just really difficult.
Of course it was. Sexual energy is not something that should be faked. It is not something that needs to be faked, and it is certainly not something which should be performed in the coquettish, cutesy, teasing manner which is commercially acceptable.
Yet this is what sells. Coffee, we learn from America’s Next Top Model, is sold by a hint of cleavage flashed at a man. Coffee is sold by a whisper in a man’s ear. Coffee is sold by competition between women for the attention of a man. Coffee is sold by playing subservient, vaguely suggesting sweet submissive sex with a man.
The whole concept of the advert was problematic as hell, and Sara was not comfortable with playing ball.
There is no room for an understanding of the problems with this sort of advertising message in America’s Next Top Model. Sara’s reward for her beliefs and reservations was a sympathetic cocked-head from Tyra Banks, a message to “believe in herself” and a bus ride home.
There is no room in this modelling competition for feminists. There is only space for those who will perform dull clichéd cartoons of what a sexy woman should be.