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.”