Saturday, 2 August 2008

ANTM: the day after

It was dreadful, ludicrous and ultimately, emotionally unsatisfying. But when I stopped howling with laughter and paused to reflect on last night's final of America's Next Top Model, I felt disturbed by the racism which accompanied the show's usual egomania and oppressive gender ideals.

For me, the most bizarre scene was the last two contestants' runway showdown, which encapsulated every racist stereotype a Westerner might hold about the Chinese. Tyra and co strutted up the long runway to take their places on thrones overlooking the proceedings, amidst imagery of temples and dragons. More condescending exoticism and general narcissism than you could shake a stick at.

But, most distastefully, the runway was flanked by hundreds of Chinese people in uniform peasant garb, sitting cross-legged at neatly spaced intervals - an undifferentiated horde of simple commoners there to marvel at the models, Tyra and the other 'dignitaries'. (I thought this was icky because I have a theory that it suits certain geopolitical interests to imagine certain non-white people in this way. If we thought of them as being fully human individuals as we do ourselves, we might feel compelled to intervene when they starve, are ravaged by HIV, suffer through civil wars, etc).

Despite all this, I still laughed pretty heartily when Chantal somehow managed to foot trip one of the guys on stilts.

During the large amount I've time I've wasted analysing ANTM, I think I may have worked out the purpose of Miss J - and it is, I think, very much about having the 'last word' on femininity as Harvest Bird suggests. As a genderqueer male, Miss J can simply get away with saying far more offensive things about the models than a woman might.

Tyra has found herself what I think is an interesting market niche. On one hand, she's selling us pretty standard and repressive beauty ideals. On the other hand, she's the hero who challenges the beauty industry, reassuring us that it's OK to be voluptuous, have curvy hips and big boobs. In order to be the hero - the one who sympathises with us as women victimised by callous beauty imagery - she needs someone else to deliver the bad news that conformity matters as much as ever. When Miss J calls someone a horse-face or a drag queen, it's somehow funny by virtue of his gender identity. The same thing applies when Tyra dismisses a 'plus size' model from the show. It's not Tyra's fault - it's simply that big girls don't meet the expectations of the industry. It suits Tyra's commercial and egotistical purposes to expand the definition of beauty just enough to include herself as she gets older and less slim, but no further.

And that's the last ANTM rant you'll get from me. Promise.


Joanna said...

We amused ourselves after the show by shooting our own takes on the Covergirl commercial, because we've always sneered "Dude, that would be SO easy" - as you'll see when I post the videos onto Prettyprettypretty, it turns out it's actually bloody hard. Especially after a bottle or two of wine...

harvestbird said...

I'm not sure that the Chinese exist as people for the show's production team, at least as they're realised iconographically. This is in constrast, if I recall correctly, to their treatment of Japan some seasons ago, where an emphasis was placed on history and decorum (remember when Amanda cried during the tea ceremony because of her feeling that she was experiencing something culturally important?)

Having said all that, I feel obliged to disclose that, back in 2006 when I was visiting some former students in Yokohama, they took me out for purikura and invited me to decorate some of the images. Faced with a time limit and a series of photos of young women clustered in groups, I wrote "Fierce" across our foreheads.