Another Cycle of the prolific series America’s Next Top Model is coming to a climactic close with the end of 18. Amid a grid of sticky-sweet and guilty media indulgences, ANTM is the cherry-vanilla of reality television: a proverbial guilty pleasure. Captivating for its focus on one of our most mesmerizing creatures, The Young, Spirited Woman; it offers a hilarious, cute, yet dramatically powerful glimpse into the lives of girls, wherein Ms. Tyra Banks reigns supreme as Power Spice.
Is the program truly a positive influence on young women? Since a largely targeted demographic of the show is our adolescent children, we should examine ANTM with an especially discerning eye. As with anything, ANTM has positive and negative attributes; however, we must realize that the series holds a steadfast theme of empowerment.
Compelling evidence for the program’s popularity is our collective obsession with divisive and drama-inducing topics such as physical beauty, competition, negative human interaction, and sex. It stirs us because the focus is on troubling, yet richly fascinating and exciting fears we hold about our differences, instead of peaceful common ground. Such is with reality television. It does allow us to rather grotesquely examine human behavior and makes for great entertainment.
In favor of ANTM, the competition accepts girls of all colors and backgrounds; there are no prerequisites. The selection of candidates is compellingly based on ambition, commitment, confidence, and personality (as per a thorough application process involving rigorous interviews and home-made video diaries). In many of the interviews and challenges, physiognomy can take a backseat in instances wherein the girls are asked to act, dance, speak publicly, be creative, test out the career hiring process (go-see’s), think on their feet, use athletic ability (that power-packed Nicolas Tse challenge, this Cycle), navigate foreign cities and international travel, and practice social skills with each other and more mature, professional peers (who can, by the way, be gentle and encouraging, and not expressly caustic and derisive considering their charming subscriptions to counter-culture*). And, there have been quite a few refreshingly unusual beauties. In recent years, the program has expanded the competition to include shorter girls (Cycle 13), and a wider age range from 18 to about 26.
Potential (role) models are treated like princesses. They are situated in lush, powerfully artistic apartments. Legally able to indulge in smoking and drinking, girls must practice exercising self control and using prudent judgment. Girls also enjoy the safety of exploring their blossoming sexualities by gifts of visits from young men (temporary boyfriends). The queer girls always seem to just find each other. They are rewarded with gifts of high quality clothes, jewelry, trips, and job opportunities for exceptional performances. Close relationships are encouraged with the “pick a friend” technique when a shopping spree (favorite female communal activity) is awarded. It is literally the Playgirl Mansion for these developing women.
America’s Next Top (Role) Models are naturally wrought with strife, as per adolescent angst. Negative behavior and attitudes, female interrelationship bullying, and false confidence from abiding physical perfection all prey on young women’s worst insecurities. Challenges and photo shoots are dangerous, and ask that these ordinary girls perform absurd stunts that need require the skills of a professional. Sometimes, someone is injured or becomes seriously ill. There are instances of trauma and dubious sexual contact (remember Shandi’s Cycle 2 tragedy?). A girl is sincerely praised for her bravery and courage if she suffers a setback but manages to do her job and knock the photos out of the park. So many times, our models are asked to pose completely nude and don extreme, painful-looking costumes and beauty regimens. Crises can occur during the “makeover” episodes (Catie’s Cycle 2 meltdown over an androgynous haircut) which bring dramatic transformations, yet provide a refreshing new sense of self and a chance to start over. There are candidates that are also mothers, and must make prudent parenting decisions upon choosing to accept a role on the show. It is quite a tall order to confront the most serious of social issues and grow up all at once. This teaches recognition and control over one’s weakness. There is no time for doubt when one truly wishes to succeed.
But, these girls are gently guided by Ms. Banks and her crew to think things through deliberately and carefully, take action, and make independent decisions. They must decide how important fame and fortune are in contrast with learning lasting life skills and building a strong, supportive sisterhood by recognizing each other’s strengths and working out their differences. For the young and modern woman, this is the ultimate test. It’s Beauty Boot Camp. And they do it all under the scrutiny of the entire world. In heels.
Yes, ANTM today is still drastically skewed in favor of circumferential body types, and the spontaneous “plus size” girl is actually average, normal size to a degree that we still know the fashion industry itself is ever cruel, cutthroat, and torturous to girls who will begin modeling as young as 13 (Ms. Banks at 16). These are precious, formative years. These young women are under intense pressure to master their bodies and their minds simultaneously. The vast majority succeed.
It would be terribly remiss not to acknowledge the influence of Ms. Banks. Tyra Banks is totally your home girl. Noted as one of the nation’s most influential people, she is indeed fierce. She exudes a powerful, yet quiet confidence. Intelligent and blessed with many gifts, she is poised and hardworking with clear business-savvy and a creative, loving prowess. She functions as life coach, public figure, business mogul, artist, musician, actor, dancer, comedienne, photographer, social critic and author. As a model, her consistent look has been one of health. Her figure is softer and more robust than so many others, and is not shy about her love of food. She expresses a balanced and comfortable self-love. One genuine and charming attribute of her self-made industry is the modeling vernacular she creates, with affectionate, quirky-cute buzzwords such as SMIZE (Smile With Your Eyes); “Say ‘nooch’ to the hoochie tooch!”, and H2T (head to toe). Most notable is her reclaiming of the word “fierce”, which translates to strength and mind-body confidence, instead of hostility or volatility (as in, “Fierce and Love, Ladies!”). She clearly loves her business, and leads by example: her policy is tough love, and she supports diversity and individuality. She is an inspiring, vibrant, and stunning (role) model: a new post-modern American Beauty, but not without her own troubles, challenges, or sacrifices, which she will discuss with her brood in tender, sisterly moments. These are the kinds of values that America as a nation and as a leader must glorify, when our proverbial melting pot is bubbling over with joyous diversity.
Let’s strive to treat each other with love and respect, and extend generous praise especially to our young women, because they are our future. We expect so very much of them. It is so very exciting to think where these girls will be in 10, 20, or 30 years. Every cast is a cast of survivors.
All women, all peoples are beautiful and everyone has the ability to work together.
And one last thought: In Genesis, Eve had the courage to question God, and she has paid dearly for making an unfortunate decision. So have her Sons, and all of humanity, including our Christ, who says: “ So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” – Matthew 7:12
*A brotherly, gender-bending homosexual male makes an excellent mentor for adolescent girls (The Miss J’s, Andre Leon Tally).
**Anamaria from Cycle 15 was the first to be eliminated and would have benefitted from referral to immediate hospitalization considering her state of physical and mental emergency. She was cast on the show and made into an example. We will pray she has since been rehabilitated. At their parting, Ms. Banks’ advice was: “eat some avocado and a little bread with butter on it”. This is the most heartfelt, gentle, sincere, and sound advice Ms. Banks could possibly give. I, Lauren E Wood of Michigan, nominate Ms. Tyra Banks for President of the United States Year of Our Lord 2012. (Are you positive you would NOT enjoy a smokin’ hot babe giving you orders on foreign policy and the economy? How about: “Love Women? Vote Banks!”)
Post Script: For further discussion, consider Cindy Crawford’s contribution to Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, by Nancy Etcoff. Consider Global B.I.O. advertisement.