Friday, 1 August 2008

Rouge against the machine?

I'm an idiot.

Tonight is the final of American's Next Top Model, and my friend and I - both committed feminists - will be spending it together, glued to the TV. Our children will be with us, my six year old dressed as a supermodel in honour of the event, ensuring our feeble-mindedness is transmitted to the next generation.

Watching ANTM doesn't even fulfill my own definition of harmless, aesthetic, fun beauty (versus the competitive, self-punishing type which can be so damaging to women). Part of the enjoyment of ANTM is making fun of the contestants.* And while we watch we're sure to eat a tonne of junk food, then later agonise about possible weight gain. Why do I take part in this dreadful, anti-feminist ritual?

I grew up surrounded by odd, contradictory views on what it is women should be. On one hand, girlie things were - and still are - regarded as frivolous. Make up and flashy clothes reflect the vanity and shallowness of their wearers. The only thing worse than announcing yourself as vain and shallow is not to. We've all heard derogatory comments about those women who reject beauty conventions: the bitter, childless, hairy-legged manhaters with giant and unlovely chips on their shoulders.

I think it's this damned if you do, damned if you don't situation that makes ANTM so pleasurable. You get to participate in the beauty industry (even if only as a Tim Tam gobbling spectator) and at the same time disavow it. You get to be a 'real' woman, interested in make up and clothes, while distancing yourself from the stupidity that this sort of frivolous, girlie stuff is thought to entail. It's a very small scale rebellion: a way of saying that partaking in girlie stuff does not necessarily make one stupid.

I'll spend tonight laughing at the remaining three contestants: their catfights, wardrobe malfunctions and emotional crises. But the joke may be on me. Despite thirty-two years of practice, I haven't quite worked out how to be a girl properly.

*Eg, the girls are currently in Beijing. Heather declared that Chinese was all Greek to her. I've been laughing solidly about it for a week.

22 comments:

The ex-expat said...

Though at least you have girly friends to enjoy ANTM with. I'm stuck alone or with male flatmates which just isn't the same.

My favourite comment of this series has been: 'there will be fantastic shopping in China because everything is made in China.'

Danielle said...

My husband and I are obsessed with this show. If you haven't had the pleasure, http://fourfour.typepad.com does absolutely magnificent recaps of each episode, with such hilarious animated gifs. There's a 'Tyraism of the Week' too - I think what I like so much about Rich at fourfour is that he understands that Tyra is basically a horrendous megalomaniac. One of the true joys of the show is seeing how much she can make everything about 'me me me!' Even her photo shoots are all about how she could do it better than any of the 'girls' still in the competition. It's all about humiliating the contestants who get too 'uppity', because Tyra and the judges desperately want all the contestants to be little brown-nosing morons so their egos don't get deflated. Oh, and the totally random reasons for the eliminations! It's clearly all rigged.

Ahem. Yeah, I love this show. I am a bad feminist. Again. :)

harvestbird said...

One thing I was ruminating on last week while watching the show was the teacher-student dynamic between Tyra and the young women. I am, I think, about Tyra's age, and the contestants about the age of most of the students I teach. They are expected to "learn" from Tyra, but what, exactly? Fierceness? This seems to be a cypher for being a woman, or perhaps a woman of colour, in power.

I sometimes think I'm teaching my students something akin to this--how to step up to their tertiary education--but how different my methods are: no bullying, no mocking, but possibly as many conversations about our hair.

Anna McM said...

I'm always a bit bemused by the calibre of Tyra's advice to the contestants. Half the time, it's contradictory, or I simply have no idea what she's saying at all. No wonder my modelling career hasn't taken off. I haven't done a huge amount of reading on workplace bullying, but what I have looked at suggests that moving the goalposts, so people can never actually achieve desired outcomes, is a key power/control tactic. It's true of the beauty industry generally, of course - if we all actually mastered being beautiful we'd stop buying products, so standards have to keep changing.

Danielle said...

She's *totally* a bully, I agree. I think Tyra could quite easily become a dictator of a developing country, given the chance. I have a distinct Kim Jong-Il feeling about her, like she would put people to death in the service of her 'I am FIERCE and VERY IMPORTANT!' worldview. She's just on the edge of evil...

We spend a lot of time discussing this issue at our house. We are dorks.

Anna McM said...

Danielle, you'll safe with us. We understand your secret shame.

ANTM is the closest thing we have to family time at my place.

Anna McM said...

You'll? You're perhaps?

harvestbird said...

I'm also interested in the way in which the variety of positivity that Tyra embodies seems to be a kind of veneer, or cypher, for a rather more brutal industry, which contestants are both deliberately and unintentionally exposed to at key moments.

I remember some seasons ago the finalists were sent on their "looksee" (no idea if that's spelt correctly) in NYC. One of the finalists was the so-called "plus-size" contestant and literally none of the designers to whom the finalists were sent had anything that fit her. One designer remarked that his clothes were suitable only for thin models, and when the young woman called the team out on this at judging time, it only gave rise to a "that's the industry..." kind of answer.

Further to this, I'm intrigued, too, by the roles played by Jay and Miss J. in the judging. Each occupies at least some of the femininity that the girls are expected to learn to embody, through their skills in posing, walking and fashion editing, and, in Miss J.'s case, through his slippery gender.

Thus the contestants get the triple whammy of criticism of their gendered performance: from Tyra (embodiment), from Jay (didactic) and from Miss J. (performative). Given the way in which modelling is associated with a kind of high femininity in our culture, there's something illuminating about the way the show offers someone genderqueer as an expert in it.

(Dissecting this show is happy funtimes for gender and culture geeks. I don't think we should apologise too much for wallowing in the cultural muck therein.)

Azlemed said...

I love your blogs... wish i was able to come up with stuff like that, love Demelza

Anna McM said...

I'm not sure what to make of Miss J's performance or involvement more generally. Since it's not clear what claim to expertise he has in the whole thing, I wonder at times if he's there for freakshow/comic relief reasons? He often comes out with what I regard as the most repressive views on feminity - he complains about women being masculine, looking like drag queens, having horse faces, etc.

Gender and sexuality - even when queer - are pretty tightly managed on ANTM. Remember the celebrated lesbian chick from a couple or more 'cycles' ago? (I can't remember her name, but she was little with short hair and a button nose?). Her sexuality was the only aspect of her character which survived the editing process - her sole purpose was to be the token lesbian.

In a following cycle, in one of those space-filler out-take shows they have, another contestant mentioned that she's gay, but that the show hadn't focussed on it because 'They'd already done that plot line'. I guess she'd been assigned some other two-dimensional role to fill instead. Stage-managed deviance?

Anna McM said...

Thanks Demelza! :-)

Danielle said...

Harvestbird, you are extremely clever, and I wish to wave your awesome paragraph about embodiment/didactic/performative in the faces of all the people who mock 'reality television audiences', as if we're all drooling nincompoops with horrible life priorities.

(On the other hand, it should be noted that I *do* have horrible life priorities and most of my reality tv watching is based on schadenfreude. Oh dear.)

Danielle said...

The token lesbian's name was Kim. She snogged big-lipped Sarah in the bus, right?

Azlemed said...

just a question for the bloggers.... where would i find blogs about the difficulties in accepting being an at home mum when you have been brought up to believe you werent going to be one lol... D

artandmylife said...

azelmed - let me know if you find them. I never dreamed in a ZILLION years I'd be an at home mum to 3. It still shocks me to think of it. And financially dependent on a man? - never. Yet here I am....

Anna McM said...

Hey Demelza - I probably don't know the blogosphere well enough to offer particularly useful advice, but you might try having a search by topic on THM, through the 'work-life balance' bit for example. I don't think off the top of my head that's there's anything specifically addressing the issue you raise, but there could be stuff of interest?

harvestbird said...

Anna I should probably clarify my use of the word "illuminating" in my early comment (which is to say, I agree with you): I think one of the roles of Miss J. is to be a kind of "last word" on femininity, which, when the show refers to it, is in that faux-camp kind of way. Like an old-fashioned kind of drag performer, Miss J. mostly expresses contempt for the contestants' attempts to embody femininity with exactly the kind of dismissive talk you identify.

It reminds me in some ways of a documentary I saw about the history of metal a while back, which noted how hair metal took the hypermasculine position of 70s metal and feminised it, so that bands like Motley Crue ('scuse the lack of umlauts) were both masculine and feminine: women were excluded from their world except as objects because they already did the signs of femininity (big hair, bright colours, makeup) themselves.

The queerness of ANTM is definitely a managed kind of queerness, hostile by the nature of the show to (for example) the idea of self-realised gay girls. That kind of deviance can't be stage-managed, therefore it gets exclude, maybe?

Danielle, thanks for your kind remarks and borrow away :)

Anna McM said...

I saw that same documentary! The thing that fascinated me was the way the leather and studs imagery, which came to be associated with masculinity, came from the fetish shop via the Judas Priest singer. It was kind of parodic, but the metallers didn't get the joke...

ideologicallyimpure said...

ANTM just fascinates me. Actually, all reality TV fascinates me. Watching how people's actual behaviour seems to be changing in reaction to what reality TV portrays as "normal" through heavy editing ... I probably overthink it, but darnit, it's interesting!

Anna McM said...

That's one of the things that intrigued me most about the second gay girl saying 'They'd already done that plot line' - it shows how heavily edited the whole thing is. Which begs the question, what message are we supposed to be drawing out of it?

Azlemed said...

I didnt grow up thinking i would go to uni, have a career and be earning equal to my partner so that I could be an at home mum to 3 either, its something that seems to have happened though through circumstances and several run ins with depression that makes having the career and the kids impossible, maybe i should just learn how to blog too... D

Danielle said...

Jena was robbed! As someone who is also given shit for not 'incessantly spewing rainbows', she was my favourite!