Power and who has it is an interesting subversive thread on "America's Next Top Model." Never overt, as little is on the show, the concept of empowerment has taken a curious turn in this era of models, reality TV, and scantily-clad celebrities. Where it seems as if empowerment in the past had to do with proving oneself as being more than a sex object, empowerment on ANTM seems to come from being this very thing.
Many of the women on the show are portrayed as having low self-esteem, exhibiting signs like mumbling at panel and putting themselves down when they see photos of themselves. Tyra and her panel of judges often critique those who lack confidence, telling them that no one will book a model who doesn't even believe in herself.
Sounds motivational, right? However, the only means the panel comes up with for raising this self-esteem is by pointing out their ultimate asset: their attractiveness, the very culprit that started the vicious cycle of low confidence. Tyra and co. reassure the model, telling her that they see a beautiful girl in front of them, one who should be proud and confident of her beauty, as if looks are the key to cultivating and maintaining positive body-image. These models often seem to believe that controlling their weight and beauty are the only tangibles they have in their unstable world. As Jean Kilbourne wrote in "The More You Subtract the More You Add" "Cultivating a thinner body offers some hope of control and success to a young woman with a poor self-image and overwhelming personal problems that have no easy solutions" (Dines 260).
So how do these young women empower themselves? By embracing their status as a sex symbol, and ultimately a sex object. As Natalie Nichols wrote in a recent article for CityBeat, shows like ANTM "perpetuate the notion that a woman's hotness is directly related to the amount of 'power' she has. As though the best power women can hope to wield is sexual sway over men" (Nichols). This notion of empowerment through taking control of one's sexuality is not a new one. However, there is a fine line between flouting gender norms and reinforcing them by becoming little more than "empowered" eye candy. In addition, one's empowerment can be another's debasement, by enforcing the idea that beauty and hyper-sexuality equals autonomy and independence, bringing to mind the Spice Girls' somewhat hypocritical "Girl Power" motto of the late 90's, which seemed to suggest that Union Jack hot pants and female empowerment went hand in hand.
Furthermore, Tyra often seems to relish in breaking these girls spirits even more, forcing them to re-live often traumatic incidents in laughable therapy-esque sessions that have caused many Tyra detractors to call her "Typrah" for her seeming emulation of Oprah Winfrey. Every year, there are girls who have led hard lives and experienced the unthinkable, from having children at a very young age, to having home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, like contestant Wendy, to having lived through a plane crash at age 8 by lying under her mother's dead body for warmth, like Meagan (I'm not making that up). Tyra makes the models explain and often re-live these painful memories, often while they cry, all for the sake of "empowerment," which seems strikingly similar to "ratings." This belief that revealing secrets and hardships to virtual strangers, in front of a camera crew, seems contradictory to the more traditional definition of empowerment, and seems more akin to the kind of exploitation that is all too common in this age of Dr. Phil.