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Modelling Bad Behaviour

Mocking 'Top Model' was my group sport, but the joke's on me.

Elaine Corden 25 Oct

Elaine Corden writes a monthly pop culture column for The Tyee.

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ANTM: lipo-ing our humanity

This Wednesday night, as we have for the past few weeks, a gaggle of my girlfriends will gather round the ol' flatscreen to watch the seventh season of American's Next Top Model. We rotate from house to house, where we drink wine and gather round the glowing fire of the TV. And at each party, there's a man-shaped hole in the wall of the chosen apartment: the result of a Bugs Bunny-style decision by the host's live-in male companion to flee the house before the estrogen fest begins.

As hockey fans have their hockey pools, so too do we, and many groups of ladies and sassy gents around the continent, have our Top Model pools. The buy-in? Ten bucks for one chance at picking the winner (which has to be declared before the "makeover" episode), $20 for two picks. This year's prize is a not insignificant $200. Yowza.

It's been an interesting evolution, over the years. What started as a silly weekly event to gossip and drink red wine, has evolved into a sort of free-for-all bitch fest, the one opportunity we have each week to let our most horrible and judgmental sides come out fighting. Like the show itself, it has devolved from a simple beauty pageant to a throwing of the (self-righteous) Christians to the lions.

On the salary of a writer, I can't afford to be throwing my money around on insecure teenagers from Chastity Pledge, Virginia, so this year I've taken comfort in watching not just the show, but the social dance that surrounds a group watching.

My conclusion? We are just a hair extension away from the complete undoing of feminism.

Frippery, quippery

A group of women who would never deign to watch the frippery of, say, Miss America, is gathering like foxes to the henhouse to watch half-wit Americans tear each other apart in order to be named the alpha-female of reality TV. We ought to be ashamed; at least Miss America pays collagen lip service to contestants' career and charitable aspirations. On ANTM, the "talent contest" is a battle of catwalking egged on by the frightening Miss Jay, and the only aspirations towards greatness seem to be about who can stab her fellow contestants in the back while still looking "fierce."

My first inkling of this came during episode one of this latest season: "Tyra be looking like she ate another supermodel!" I quipped.

I laughed, and the gaggle of estro-drunk, educated women laughed. But like an e-mail sent off in a moment of anger, moments later, I felt a deep, unabiding shame. Had I just called a beautiful, successful woman fat? I had indeed. And it only got worse from there.

In choosing their bets, my friends -- these smart and liberated women -- had several dilemmas. Having played for a number of seasons, they knew the pitfalls.

Beeotch or brain

"I always pick the crier," complained one.

"I'm gonna pick a blonde," said another. "A blonde has got to win one of these days."

"I want to pick Melrose, but she's a bitch, and the bitch never wins," said another.

No girls, the bitch never wins -- not on TV and not in the boardroom.

The feminist model, with its maxim of solidarity forever, sure does unravel quickly when we're judging Maxim models who epitomize the "perfect body" competition we know we're all in.

To wit: though it seems like a harmless pursuit, watching dull but comely teenagers (and twenty-somethings) compete for a grab at the brass heels, we're actually wilfully participating in the undermining of women through their depiction on television. What's more, these skinny sirens are lipo-ing our humanity right there into the screen, to the point where no human foible -- 10 extra pounds, Lupus, face herpes, victimization by Hurricane Katrina and, in this season, a girl whose family perished in a plane crash, who was the lone survivor and kept alive only by the heat of her mother's corpse -- is off-limits for character assassination.

Un-reality TV

Television Without Pity, a fiendishly funny website which covers this show and others, regularly made jokes about Season 2's Mercedes and her battle with Lupus. Last year, when the other models poured water over a Hurricane Katrina survivor's head ("Your hair looks natty," they said) right before kicking her off the show, it was all our viewing party could do not to laugh. This year, when I missed a viewing party and enquired as to who got kicked off, a party-goer blithely replied, "Dead-Corpse-Mom."

This separation from humanity is not just a Top Model phenom. Just switch over to CBS for race-based Survivor to see a similar gambit for us to erase our own hard-won humanity in one extremely foul swoop.

In these shows, we are presented with caricatures of humanity. And though we know we are just watching fantasy and stage lighting, these caricatures slowly make their way into our lexicon of human archetypes. Though it does humanity as a whole no great service, it's particularly harmful to women: stereotypes we have fought since Betty Friedan first told to the patriarchy where to stick its pot roast have come back full force.

Humanity 101

If you believe what you've been taught in every season of ANTM so far, you will know this: black women come in two forms -- bitchy diva or slightly illiterate down home charmer with a heart of gold. Girls who are bigger than a size six want to be a size two, and will vomit up their own souls to get there. Girls with short hair are "funky," but probably "dyke-y" as well. The prettiest girl is always the bitchiest. Ugly girls are the nicest. Girls who are neither black nor white aren't going to make it in this industry. Pretty girls are stupid girls who will cry and cry and never once show an ounce of spine beyond cat-fighting with other, pretty, stupid girls.

Even if we accept that this is not some clever trick of editing (and surely it must be), the fact is, each season we learn these roles by rote, and each season we accept this backwoods depiction of women as more normal. Not only are impressionable young girls watching this crap and metabolizing it, but older, educated women, whether in irony or not, are watching it too, unwittingly losing parts of the dignity of their gender as they do so.

As runway coach Miss Jay clearly demonstrates, the line between camp and ferocity is very thin indeed. It is amazing how quickly a mockery of programs like ANTM becomes an appropriation of its values. It becomes expected, never mind acceptable, for us to tear other women down, never once questioning what the point is. Pre-picked, drama-friendly approximations of the American girl go unquestioned as we are all too distracted by the shiny, hair-pulling drama unfolding. Yes, we know it's oh-so-bad for our souls, but it's oh-so-much-fun to participate in sanctioned bitch-slapping after holding it in for so long.

Does the phrase divide and conquer ring a bell?

Size 0 denominator

The parties and model betting pools I've attended started as the one hour in our week when we could be with other women and embrace a girliness, nay, a femininity, that smart women are not normally allowed. We got together, admitted that, yes, it felt nice to feel pretty and wear dresses and think (sometimes) about lipstick. Then it became a healthy venting session. But it's come to this: our group, much like the show, has devolved into the lowest common denominator, one where we accept that beauty comes hand-in-hand with idiocy and bitchery and there is only room for one Top Model atop the scrap heap of fame-hungry young women. It's not Top Model. It's Top Maudlin.

My money, if I were the type to bet, is on a slow unravelling of feminism, one that we, as women, help unfurl with our own hands. As Ariel Levy pointed out in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, we've come to equate the power of our beauty and sexuality with an all-encompassing power. And now we tear each other apart as if that power were in scandalously short supply. Despite the steam that one may blow off playing bitch for an hour while watching ANTM, there is the real likelihood that the jokey, snide remarks about these attention-starved women prancing about on TV will deeply wound our own psyches. The challenge becomes turning off the harsh critic when looking at women in the real world, and switching back to normal value judgments, when critiquing catwalking and badly photo-shopped poses is so delightful, wickedly fun and easy.

There is nothing to be gained from ANTM except a documentation of eroding intelligent depictions of women on television, and, because television mirrors us, the erosion of actual feminist thought. So perhaps when Tyra tells the girls to "be fierce," perhaps I shall -- meeting with my female friends to beeotch about real issues, shutting off the god-damn television, or at least turning the channel to a show that doesn't depict women as preening idiots whose only assets are telegenic foolishness.  [Tyee]

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