Models Not To Follow
My high school was one of those elitist Paris lycées where we were told incessantly that we were better than everyone else, yet constantly had to prove it by putting an insane amount of work into our studies. While I had always been quite the straight-A student all through middle school, I became an academic floater for the three years I attended high school [Side note: I didn’t graduate early or anything, it’s just that French high school goes for a shorter amount of time than its US counterpart.]“Popular” isn’t really that much of a concept for French high-schoolers, probably because we were all brought up to think of ourselves as too cool for school so our social endeavors aimed far beyond the small vicinity of our lycée. And because I was driven to become somewhat cooler than the dorky kid with braces I had always been before, ultimately, I was working so hard on getting better grades at school AND social status outside that my only outlet was to zone out in front of silly television shows and YouTube videos at my friends’ —clearly, my mother was not one to let me watch television on a school day, unless it was in German. In retrospect, this is probably how it all began. And, of course, by “it”, I mean “my obsession with pop culture”.
One day, as I was uninterestedly browsing through my friend’s cable channels, my attention was caught by what I didn’t usually care to watch at the time: a reality show. What I found fascinating about that one in particular was that it was actually an American show dubbed in French, which was incredibly odd. I remember there were a lot of very young women trying to put on makeup without a mirror, and some middle-aged woman who seemed to have had a lot of work done was yelling at them they should look “fabulous” and “glamorous” —which, in the overacting French voice, was one of the campest experience of my adolescent living [Side note: the woman was Janice Dickinson #duh.] Twenty minutes later, I was still watching as a Black model (who everybody in the room except for I had recognized as Tyra Banks) was distributing pictures to all but one of the young women. Needless to say I was never the same after that fateful day. As time went by and the worldwide Web started to make American television accessible to the rest of humanity, I developed a true passion for America’s Next Top Model. The fact that fashion —which, as a Parisien, I had always deemed incredibly high-brow— was seen as something in which the average Joe could have interest just blew my mind. I loved the photoshoots, I loved the sass, I loved the opening theme, and I loved Nigel Barker; and so I never missed a single episode after cycle 4. I recently found a beautiful scrapbook my friends made me for my 17th birthday, where they all wrote that I should really just stop mentioning America’s Next Top Model all the time. And they were right, I did really love the show that much. That is, until cycle 20 which is currently being broadcast and made me do a full 180. [Side note: I stopped after episode 3, so anything I write hereafter is to be read with that in mind.]
A few cycles back, when American hopefuls were competing against former Britain’s Next Top Model contestants, Kelly Cutrone replaced André Leon Talley as one of the main judges on the panel. I have to say, I am very passionate about my reality shows but I was never one to actually HATE a judge, and she is one mean person. [Side note: I need to warn you —because I know it will come back to bite me— I might write in the future that I can’t stand the following judges: Michelle Visage/Santino Rice from RuPaul’s Drag Race, Alex Perry from Australia’s Next Top Model, and Simon Cowell from anything he has and will ever appear on. That being said, I don’t care that much about them that I actually hate any with a passion.] And yet Kelly Cutrone epitomizes everything that is wrong and foul about television, fashion, capitalism, wearing all-black, and the world. Granted, this is America’s Next Top Model, not NPR, and one shouldn’t expect too much of an intellectual role model on the network that gifted us with such gems as The Beautiful Life: TBL and the last four seasons of Gossip Girl. Yet, considering that ANTM is one the most watched shows on the CW, I can’t help but be terrified and angered at the thought of teenagers believing that Kelly Cutrone is an example of what it means to be successful as a woman. Since Tyra Banks makes it a point to introduce her as a “PR maven” every single time she appears on screen, her curriculum vitae seems to be the only thing that matters on the show, never mind the fact that she disrespects both models and photographers —and I’m sure the crew must be in for an even bigger treat. No wonder the J’s and Nigel Barker left after she got on the show. It’s bad enough that Tyra Banks is genuinely convinced that being a fashion model is tantamount to making the world better (Side note: 16 seasons later, I still haven’t a clue how) but it is incredibly hypocritical of her to enable women like Kelly Cutrone, because she perpetuates the patriarchal idea that pulling rank is acceptable under the pretense of “She’s a woman so it’s alright”. But guess what? Cutrone exemplifies every single cliché about female empowerment that misogynists have used to ridicule it: she is a workaholic single mom who takes her frustration out on prettier women than her. She is just as dangerous a role model as the next sexist because both of them believe that oppression on women is OK. [Side note: also, I find it hard to believe that a woman who goes professionally by the name of her ex-husband —who was Andy Warhol’s protégé, so it does have cachet— is that much of a feminist.] The worst in all that is that she doesn’t even put up a fair fight because any time someone dares to call her out on her BS, she calls them “foul-mouthed” and refuses to speak to them any further. This season took the cake when a model said that perhaps Cutrone’s bad image came from her delivery, and not necessarily from her critique —which is actually one of the soundest things any contestant has ever told her— and the judge actually HALFED HER SCORE for talking back to her. She is a bully if there ever was one and I can’t stand that Tyra acts like they’re all such inspirations when they just validate social aggression amongst women —something with which I already had a problem when competitor Kristin, one of the vilest-acting people I have ever seen on television, managed to get into the top four in cycle 19 (a.k.a. College Edition. This show has become such a joke).
While that may all sound like a slight overreaction, I want to mention a study by Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz and Dana E. Mastro (2008) which aimed to look at how the representation of social dynamics among young female characters in teen movies influenced the public perception of womanhood, especially in relation to the construction of young feminine identities. They found that that the association between popularity and cattiness was such a recurring feature in American teen movies that they “send the message that success in the female world can be obtained through the use of duplicitous means”. If fictional high-schoolers in romantic comedies can convey the idea that being mean is a tool for female empowerment, it isn’t hard to imagine the impact that a very real woman on a television program about life goals can have. Not only does it give credit to the myth that women who want a career are all “bitches”, it also creates friction between women with ambition when, really, they need to be supportive of each other if they want to break the glass ceiling. Meanwhile, patriarchy can pat itself on the back for dividing and conquering with thanks to the likes of Cutrone, the female decoys of self-righteous misogyny.
The biggest beef I have this season, though, is with the way that they pretend that having male contestants on the show is breaking gender barriers. A few years ago, it was actually pretty amazing when they cast Isis King, a transgender woman, in both cycle 11 and the All-Star cycle because it gave her visibility without making it too much of a freak show, and it was a great attempt at redefining images of the trans body on a national medium. To me, that is the only truly groundbreaking thing that ANTM has ever done. [Side note: no, I don’t think one plus-size winner and a “petite” cycle really did much to help change the definition of beauty, and even if it had, what to make of the fact that, over the course of TWENTY FUCKING SEASONS, there have been so few Asian contestants?] With that in mind, I wasn’t expecting drastically new things this time around either but the show has become so offensive I can’t even believe that it’s one I watched so avidly for eight years. First of all, a transwoman for half-a-second at the beginning of the season and one token femme mixed-race gay boy do not a revolution make. All contestants fit a very hegemonic vision of masculinity vs. femininity and I don’t think that pitting women against men exactly helps gender equity in any shape or form. Especially when Tyra Banks literally explains to the female models how they should flirt to get ahead. Which brings me to my next point: the hypersexuality. Oh, long gone are the days when contestants would refuse to go nude for a photoshoot because of religious beliefs. [Side note: I don’t think I’ve heard the phrase “My body is a temple” as many times as I have on this show. Ever.] Now, they pose in leather S&M-ish outfits and all the contestants talk about is HOW MUCH THEY WANT TO FUCK EACH OTHER LIKE, REALLY, WHEN DOES THE FUCKING START ALREADY. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that good-looking people in their teens would want to cash in on the sexual carte blanche that the CW has clearly given them. I would even say: go for it, because y’all know you won’t be given that hall pass again any time soon. What really rubs me the wrong way is how, basically, the straight guys are here for the girls, the gay guy is here to idolize Tyra, the lesbians are nowhere to be seen, and the straight girls are here because “[they] want this so bad”, as they always have. Everything is the same, our cis world keeps spinning, cue: High School Musical‘s Stick to the Status Quo.
As I mentioned before, “popularity” isn’t really that much of a concept in Parisian high schools, and because our experience of cattiness in Paris goes for men and women alike, it took me a while to understand the deeply-rooted misogyny that the presence of mean successful women on television entails. On top of that, as a gay man, I was spoonfed with the idea that our best allies were divas. As I became more familiar with gay culture, I started believing that the ultimate female in a gay man’s world was to be a high-maintenance successful sassy woman. Singular, because divas were always pitted against one another in ridiculous wars like: Britney vs. Chrisitina, Cher vs. Barbra, etc. But what I didn’t realize right away was that this is doing the exact same thing as what I now blame Kelly Cutrone for: thinking that women’s success should not be celebrated as a group effort. Granted, as part of a minority, I am able to understand the struggle that hegemonic visions of masculinity creates. However, idolizing divas only encourages individualistic views of female success and, therefore, validates quite dangerous stereotypes about social dynamics amongst women. As a cisgender white male, how could that not benefit me? It is fairly easy for me to throw stones at ANTM when one of the subcultures I relate to the most is not exactly helping by deifying women who don’t partake in female solidarity just because they have sass. But over the years, I have learned the difference between witty repartee and defensive maliciousness in order to pick icons —or models, if you will— who aren’t just bloated projections of my male privilege. [Side note: I’m not going to enumerate them here, I think it is and will be apparent in most of my writing, but I will tell you this: Madonna is not one of them.]