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.”