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.