Friday, March 30, 2007

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Although some may scoff at the idea that a reality TV show like "America's Next Top Model" can be used as a social critique and instrument for analysis, the show does provide many examples crucial to the domain of pop culture and gender.

Let's contrast last week and this week's episodes as experiments in hegemony and counter-hegemony. "Hegemony is the power or dominance that one social group holds over others," writes James Lull in his piece "Hegemony" (Lull 61). ANTM can often be a prime example of the powers of hegemony at work, with its insistence on the models to become objects of pure femininity and beauty. Last week, the girls posed in a photoshoot where they portrayed dead women, each photo grislier than the last, with models looking as if they had been shot, strangled, or stabbed. Who knew a gunshot wound could look so fierce?

This form of hegemony supports the popularity and power of the media in showing the classic female stereotype: the woman in peril. Shows like "Law and Order: SVU" and "CSI" are famous for showing viewers image after shocking image of women who have been raped, beaten, and killed. In a media atmosphere run mainly by males, this trend toward sexploitation seems to be rising, even gaining support from ANTM, which is produced by Tyra Banks, obviously a woman herself. Jeffrey Sconce, professor of media at Northwester University, commented on this in an Entertainment Weekly article "Femmes Fatal.",,1087860,00.html ''Since the American broadcasting system has more restrictions against sexuality, you can get away more with amplifying violence than you can with amplifying sexuality. It results in this weird sadistic element. Putting women in these sexual situations is a backdoor way of getting more flesh in" (Armstrong, Katz 1).

However, this week's episode seemed to turn hegemony and gender stereotypes on its head as the girls were made-over as men in a photoshoot where they posed with men made to look like women. This is a huge departure from last week's decidedly stereotypical and possibly even harmful attitude towards violence against women, as the girls seemed to become empowered by the gender-bending the shoot required. The girls giggled over their fake beards and short hair, and generally seemed to have fun and enjoy the look of their revamped gender, after weeks of posing in skimpy clothes, or in the case of one shoot, no clothes at all. Despite the negative images from the previous week, in this episode the focus seemed to be on reimagining and rethinking gender in a positive and fun light, without a whiff of the exploitation from the dead-girl photo shoot. In this context, the ideals of counter-hegemony are at work, as no one would expect to see these beautiful girls sporting stubble and leather jackets, a curious twist on the usual model or "Vogue" schema.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


This collage is based on the reading "Growing up Hidden" by Linnea Due, one woman's story of her attempt to hide her homosexuality by acting like a "normal," meaning heterosexual, girl. "I dropped out of the athletics I loved, wore nylons and makeup, carried my books in front of me, shortened my stride. I developed an imperious persona to go along with my new look and pretended an interest in boys," Linnea wrote (Linnea 154). Shows like America's Next Top Model propagate these stereotypes of femininity and hetero-normativity, making young girls believe that a "real" woman should be statuesque, thin, have flowing hair, wear flawless makeup, and of course, straight. Every season, there is a sexy photo shoot involving the models posing provocatively with men, as the above photos demonstrate. In season two, there was a photo shoot involving the girls to pose in nude pairs, but the lesbian dimensions were barely explored and only mentioned in regards to male titillation.
There have been lesbian contestants, like Ebony from season 1, Kim from season 5, who is shown above kissing another contestant, and Michelle, from season 4, among others. While they offer valuable exposure and contrast to more mainstream notions of femininity and sexuality, their sexual orientation is often exploited for dramatic purposes, or they are divided into stereotypical lesbian molds, which the pop art in the collage skewers. These contestants are told they are too masculine and need to work on being "girly." They fit neatly into stereotypes like the lesbian basketball player or the tomboy, and one is even an amateur wrestler, a career for which she is mocked, due to its masculine overtones. Girls like Linnea, who feel the need to keep their sexuality secret, are presented with conflicting views from ANTM. On one hand, the show does give valuable face time to lesbians, a group marginalized by the media. On the other, the show promotes societal ideals of heterosexuality and too often relies in well-worn sexual stereotypes.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Health vs. Politics: A lose-lose situation

The Dr. Susan Wood lecture last Wednesday proved a study in the dangers of allowing politics to seep into the medical field. As the head of Women's Health at the FDA, Dr. Wood resigned over this encroachment after the controversy over the Plan B emergecny contraceptive pill resulted in its failure to gain full over-the-counter approval for all age groups. Currently, those 18 and older can purchase it OTC, a decision that was made only this past August after intense lobbying by women's groups and various legislators.

The FDA's postponement of this approval was in no manner due to any concerns over health or safety, but rather political pressure from certain groups who disagreed with the concept of emergency contraception, not to mention readily available EC, which could be purchased by anyone, of any age. Thus, a decision which should have been rooted solely in science and straigth facts was polluted by a political issue that should have had no bearing on the FDA.

Now, it seems as if everything from global warming to cancer vaccines contains political connotation. The Gardasil vaccine for HPV is a prime example of this. Proven to prevent ovarian cancer, a particularly deadly form, Gardasil promises to afford protection from cancer-causing strains of HPV for girls and women age 9-26. Despite the simple equation cancer=bad, Gardasil=good, much like the discussion around Plan B, opponents charge that this vaccine will promote promiscuity in young girls and teenagers.

Would critics be lobbying the "p" word if there was a vaccine preventing a similar STD in men? Is promiscuity only a threat to our nation's cache of young, virginal girls? It seems as if the classic male/female stud/slut dichotomy is at work here. As one absolutely ludicrous evangelist said, giving girls this vaccine would take the fear away from ovarian cancer, allowing them to indulge in more risky behaviors. Right. Because 9-year-olds should have the spector of Death floating over them.

It has become obvious that in the field of women's health, many people are not willing to step forward to best protect the interest of women. Instead of advocating medicine like Plan B, which could seriously reduce abortion and unplanned pregnancies, many are too consumed wringing their hands over its mistaken image as "the abortion pill" or the notion that teenagers will have more unprotected sex if they have easy access to EC. The facts are clear: Plan B is safe and effective. Gardasil is safe and effective. Would this much controversy surround a heart attack prevention pill? Of course not. Throw sex, gender, and medicine into the ring, however, and you've got yourself a good fight.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

"Fierce is the New Fierce" on FourFour

One potential downside to the setup of this cycle is the positive angle -- the girls obviously were prompted during the semi-final round to talk about what they wanted to accomplish if they were to be selected for/win ANTM (Micheline, for example, wanted to show other tattooed girls that it's OK to look like that. She's really a saint, trying to raise confidence in the perpetually maligned inked youth of America). And then there's the philanthropy thing. But really, if the results are as hilarious as Whitney thinking that she can change the modeling industry's standards with her thick, curvy hands alone, or as hilarious as, uh, this...

Love your recaps! I can't wait until the inevitable episode where Tyra tells both Whitney and Diana that they are losing their personality, a la Tocarra, since in her world, plus-size girls have to have a "plus-size" personality. It's as if their sole reason for existence is to be the show's jolly, fat jester.

I'm giving them both only a few more weeks at most. As progressive as Tyra liks to think she is, I still think there's no way she'll let a plus-size girl win, or even go very far. Look at all the criticism Anchal got last year for not having a "runway" body, and she wasn't even considered plus-size. Stick-thin rules the runway, and the very little success the winners have anyway would be even less if the winner was one of the bigger girls.

Posted by: Erin March 08, 2007 at 09:49 AM

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Mixed Signals--ANTM and Masculinity

As easy as concepts of femininity can be found in ANTM, representations of masculinity are a little more complex. As the above post on femininity alludes, these girls are often paraded on the show as eye candy for the show’s heterosexual male audience, who are portrayed as hungry for all the lithe, young sex kittens the show provides.

(Left to right) Ms. J Alexander and Mr. Jay Manuel
On the other side of the masculine coin, however, are two of the show’s main characters, for lack of a better word, Jay Manuel, the art director of the photo shoot, and “Ms.” J. Alexander, a runway coach and judge. Not only are both openly gay, but J. Alexander often refers to himself as a woman and wears women’s clothes, including heels and full make-up. These two are introduced as close friends of Tyra Banks and are an integral part of the show.

In a television landscape where hegemony rules and few representations of gay culture can be found, ANTM is seemingly chock full with gay men, like the aforementioned “Jays,” hair artist Danilo, make-up artist Sutan, who shows off his drag alter-ego “Raja” in “The Girl Who Graduates,” and various designers, photographers, and guest judges. “‘The reality is there are many people in the fashion world who are gay, and we are going to represent that on TV,’” said the show’s executive producer Ken Mok, in “America’s Next Top Role Models” by Adam Vary, a story that appeared in the GLBT publication The Advocate.

Indeed, the only straight man on the show appears to be photographer and judge Nigel Barker, who seems to overcompensate for this by making frequent sexual innuendos about the show’s contestants. This propensity for either homo- or heterosexual extremes is continued in this episode with the inclusion of Fabio as the girl’s guest-star in a photo shoot where they pose with Fabio for a mock romance novel cover. Fabio is described by model Caridee as “the love icon of all love icons,” and is a visual representation of the stereotypical man: burly, tall, muscular, (very) arguably handsome, and certainly virile.

Such a portrayal seems a strange juxtaposition with the show’s gay-friendly atmosphere and provides a puzzling contradiction concerning the role of men on the show. Are they the gossipy, flamboyant hairdressers and stylists, or the handsome, straight male models who often co-star with the female contestants and often hook up with them after the shoot? ANTM seems destined to provide no straight answers—no pun intended.

“She had on a skirt, and she was up there with her legs spread, and I was like ‘Girl, I can see your PANTIES!’”

America’s Next Top Model and Femininity: An Analysis
It seems almost too obvious to analyze female roles on a show strictly focused on women, their looks, and how they use their beauty to succeed in the world. Nevertheless, America’s Next Top Model (ANTM) provides a fascinating case study of young women whose sole goal is to be the most feminine, the most desirable, the most beautiful.
This episode, from Cycle 7, is called “The Girl Who Graduates,” and is this season’s ubiquitous “sexy” installment, where the contestant’s learn how to use sex appeal in the modeling world. As Laurie Ouellette writes of models and their place in pop culture in her article Inventing the Cosmo Girl: "Bourgeois tastes were transgressed by these images...where the desirability of the model was constructed through class-coded signifiers such as exposed cleavage, teased hair, heavy make-up, and flamboyant and suggestive costumes" (Ouellette 123). Trying to study gender in this particular episode is like shooting fish in a barrel, as image after image is shown of the girls in scanty clothes, brandishing props like riding whips, and ultimately posing with Fabio for the cover of a mock romance novel.
The opening of the episode shows Anchal, one of the show’s most striking girls, exhibiting anxiety over her weight, which she believes is much greater than the other girls, despite the fact that no one in their right mind would ever classify this girl as fat. The other girls chime in, labeling Anchal as “insecure” due to her perceived body image, an insecurity that seems rather warranted after the girls blast her for overeating and she is told by a modeling representative that she “does not have a runway body.” The show portrays that the only body type for a beautiful, successful woman must be ultra-thin, and that even a gorgeous face is worth nothing if a woman does not have a svelte body to match, a disturbing message to impressionable young girls who may easily take these notions of femininity to heart.
Next, the girls are paid a visit by world-renowned burlesque artist Dita Von Teese, who teaches them “how to be sexy,” a rather vague and subjective concept. After the girls perform suggestively with various props, Dita gives them critiques, many of which alarmingly fall victim to the Madonna/whore dichotomy. One model, Caridee, is criticized for being too sexy and over the top, as another, Brooke, is chastised for being too shy, asexual, and uncomfortable. A side note: Brooke was this cycle’s youngest contestant, at 18, and at the time of taping was only a high school senior, a disquieting fact considering her critique that she “wasn’t sexy enough.” “I need to be seductive and sexy,” Brooke said, “and that’s not normally something I am. I feel very uncomfortable.”

The sexuality of these young girls is painted with an overly-broad brush—there are the “too sexy” girls, and then there are the ones who are “too virginal.” Indeed, contestant Michelle, who comes out as a lesbian on the show, is criticized by Tyra Banks and the show’s other judges for looking awkward and uncomfortable lying in a bed with Fabio, a man over twice her 18 years. After she reveals that she is a virgin and has never lied in bed with a man before, Tyra leaps on this statement and yells at Michelle for making excuses, exploiting this poor girl’s sexual inexperience to provide a lesson on whining, repeatedly telling her, “there’s no excuse.”
Finally, contestant Jaeda, whose hair was shorn boy-short in one of the first episode’s, provides more insight into femininity on ANTM as she laments the loss of her long hair. “It’s a lot harder for me to feel sexy with short hair,” she complains, giving credence to the stereotypical view of the “feminine” woman with luxurious, lengthy hair, maintaining that short-haired women lack sexuality and the essence of what it means to be woman. “Hair is really important to a girl,” Jaeda continues. “I don’t feel like a woman.”