Tagged: America’s Next Top Model

Beauty Genres: ANTM Uses Music to Play with and Reinforce Racial Difference

Happy new year, y’all! I trust you all have woken up by now and had pancakes to soak up the hangover. Or maybe you just quietly sipped some tea, played with a noisemaker, and went to bed at 12:01. Either way, let’s make 2012 our year. And since a number of us found out that we lost a good friend today and are reeling from the horror and tragedy of such a deep loss, let’s make this Esme’s year too.

Earlier this fall, I expressed interest in contributing a piece on America’s Next Top Model for In Media Res. The forum is running a series on the show later this month that will be worth checking out when it goes live. But as sometimes happens, I bit off more than I could chew. Long story short, I missed the deadline by about a month due to end-of-the-semester scrambling. So I thought I’d offer up what I planned to pitch to IMR in order to circulate my ideas and help publicize the site. Also, next time I’ll write the deadline into my calendar.

I stopped appointment viewing ANTM about a year (roughly two cycles) after I earned my master’s degree. But the show was very much a part of my schedule during graduate school, particularly my second year when I was working on my thesis. My deadlines always seemed to fall on Thursdays, so an episode of ANTM, cycle 8 and Chinese takeout helped prepare me for a long Wednesday night. And I will drop everything if a cable network is airing a marathon. I’ve lost weekends over reruns of the show on VH1 and Lifetime.

What do I find compelling about the show? Tyra’s certainly a fascinating character, but it’s not just her. Some time ago, a BUST contributor argued that the show had radical potential by depicting the modeling industry as a strange, discursive sites for experimentation and play with feminine beauty. This may be an overly generous interpretation, but it’s part of my interest. But to borrow an observation made by a colleague at a conference a few years back, I’m troubled by how Tyra and the ANTM staff enforce their supremacy over black contestants by messing with their hair, a major and highly contested site of identity for many black women.

Yet I do think the show offers a number of teaching moments regarding the intersections between race and gender throughout the show’s run. In cycle 8, Jaslene and the crew did a photo shoot in male drag. The results, particularly Natasha Galinka’s hip-hop-inspired shoot, reaffirmed many of Judith Halberstam’s assertions about the ambiguous nature of play and racial performance in drag king shows. Thea Lim called out the show’s use of colorface in a controversial cycle 14 episode that featured a photo shoot where the models had to pass as women of mixed ethnic heritage. I imagine there’s some kind of postracial rhetoric operating here–if models are supposed to transcend any identity in order to be commodifiable in an international industry fixated on edge and nowness, why not have them transcend racial difference?

Natasha Galkina used a gum wrapper to make her grill; image courtesy of examiner.com

Erin Wagner is neither Egyptian nor Tibetan; image courtesy of wiznation.com

Yet as any casual ANTM viewer knows, the show often has trouble transcending race (fact: it’s something none of can do). One common trope in the show’s 17-season run (one swiped from The Real World, masterfully satirized on Chappelle’s Show, and recirculated in basically any show where people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds share a house) is the simmering feud between white contestants and black contestants. Often, the white contestants with beef on ANTM come with a coalition of passive-aggressive housemates from the ‘burbs in desperate need of enrollment in a critical race theory course. They tend to target, or be targeted by, one to at most three contestants of color. The feud is usually shaped by regional difference between suburban white girls uncomfortable sharing space with ’round-the-way black girls.

But I think the show also reinforces racial difference in a variety of ways. As mentioned earlier, the makeover episode is a site of articulating difference in a way that asserts cultural supremacy against black women. But sometimes a shoot’s creative direction affirms such difference. Witness cycle 10’s music photo shoot. Many of the models who excel at this shoot are white girls working within rock and pop contexts. The contestants who do poorly or cause concern at panel are those whose assignments worked against the raced implications of musical genres–an African model posing as heavy metal, two women from multicultural backgrounds representing white-dominated genres like country and folk, and a lily-white contestant whose “tone-deaf” interpretation of R&B costs her the competition.

What I find especially interesting here is how race informs generic affiliation. Notice Paulina Porizkova having to explain “emo” to Miss Jay, which she dismisses as white people music. Note too that Tyra admonishes Aimee for failing to embody a genre as popular as R&B. The subtext here is that R&B is Tyra’s music but not Aimee’s, and thus racial difference is once again reinforced. Granted, Stacy-Ann and Anya are called out for playing it safe or relying on costuming and lighting for shoots that respectively represented house and punk. But Whitney is given disproportionate praise for representing a musical genre that fetishized white-trash and thrift-store aesthetics, which no doubt made the contestant–who was repeatedly compared to Anna-Nicole Smith–bristle. Finally, Fatima’s repeated use of the term “metal rock” seems to demonstrate that the model has literally no connection to the genre beyond sticking her tongue out.

Interestingly, hip-hop is not represented in this shoot. That’s a missed opportunity, as the genre simultaneously reifies stereotypical notions of black American masculinity and is global in scope both in terms of production and reception. While hip-hop seems to have a racial affiliation, it doesn’t always have the same affiliation depending on what national borders are crossed. While racial and class privilege bolster eclecticism, this shoot confirms the still widely-held belief that when you announce your affinity for a particular musical genre, you reaffirm cultural assumptions of racial categories in need of troubling.

Scene It: Joni Mitchell and the Kids Are All Right

The Kids Are All Right's principal ensemble; image courtesy of filmschoolrejects.com

Last night was must-see TV, at least at my house. Having followed former NBC executive Jeff Zucker’s stupefying programming decisions, further driven home after reading Bill Carter’s The War For Late Night, it’s a wonder the network even has its Thursday night comedy line-up. I sat through Perfect Couples‘ cold open and shaved my legs during The Office, but Community and the triumphant mid-season return of Parks and Recreation did not disappoint. But since I refuse to watch Outsourced or Leno but planned to stay up for the Dismemberment Plan performance on Fallon (seriously, music booker Jonathan Cohen is turning it out), I needed something to occupy my time. I stumbled on the chords to “Jane Says” and attempted to untangle a necklace. I also watched Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, after Dana Stevens and virtually everyone else told me to see it. Also, Cholodenko’s comments during the Hollywood Reporter directors’ roundtable won me over and Annette Bening’s recent Golden Globe win reminded me of her cerebral sex appeal. Plus I’ll literally see any movie Mark Ruffalo is in.

I was more than a little skeptical of this movie during its theatrical run. The possibility of a dalliance between a lesbian and her heterosexual male sperm donor made me grimace a bit. My principal concern was something Amanda Klein touched on with in part of a tweet that stated “lesbians really love getting pounded by straight dudes.” To my surprise, the affair between Julianne Moore and Ruffalo’s characters didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. The affair certainly isn’t the focus of the movie, which breezes through it to devote considerable time to the aftermath. Moore’s Jules discusses human sexuality’s fluid nature in an earlier scene. Yes, this is rather obvious foreshadowing. But frankly, I’ve known a few lesbians who’ve been involved with men in various capacities. It didn’t make them any less queer.

This commitment to representing lesbians as complex beings because of and apart from their sexuality was reflected in the performances. Bening and Moore very much registered as a couple to me. They’re possibly the sort of couple where one partner was queer long before she found the other, who may have discovered her lesbian identity through this relationship. The movie handled the affair as an indiscretion and lapse of judgment between two aimless people who briefly take solace in approaching middle age as one party’s daughter is heading off to college and the other is just getting to know the kids he helped create. Furthermore, I thought the exploration of lesbian partners who shared the experience of child-bearing fascinating, especially when they have to confront parenting differences in relation to which child they gave birth to. Seriously, I want to read more about this.

However, The Kids was merely all right. There’s a lot to recommend. The ensemble is fantastic (recognition should also go to Mia Wasikowska, who I loved in the first season of In Treatment and is great as older daughterJoni). Music supervisor Liza Richardson does an exceptional job locating the songs these characters would identify with (Joni would totally throw the Knife on while loafing in her room). The production design is phenomenal. The homes immediately resonate as the dwelling places where upper-middle-class bougie southern Californians. Thus Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg’s script, which my partner had an allergic reaction to, also registers. I don’t necessarily like these people, but I buy them. Every clipped line or wine ovation Bening delivers as breadwinner doctor Nic strikes the right balance between surreptitious and well-mannered. Likewise, every time Julianne Moore says “man,” it seems like a joint is being passed just out of frame. And when the couple interrogate their son Laser (Josh Hutcherson, playing a role with a name only ex-hippie types would come up with) about their suspicion that he’s gay or goad their children into sharing their feelings, the premium they place on unfiltered self-expression scans as the tactics of people who use phrases like “higher self” and spend thousands of dollars and hours in therapy. While I’m not enamored with the efforts, I certainly appreciate their sensitive realization.

My biggest problem with the movie was exposition. I know that the movie was made for a pittance and under a truncated shooting schedule, but I would have appreciated ten more minutes of set-up. Why are Jules and Nic in a rut? Why does Ruffalo’s Paul care about being a father after forgetting that he donated his specimen when he was 19 and broke? Why is Laser’s friend peeing on cats? Who exactly is Paul’s girlfriend Tanya (played by Yaya DaCosta, who should have won the third cycle of America’s Next Top Model but is doing okay by herself as a working actress, particularly in John Sayles’ Honeydripper)? This is drawn together too hastily for me, especially given the care put into the rest of the movie.

However, the scene that’s the center of the movie for me is Nic impromptu performance of a verse from Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” at a dinner at Paul’s house. When perusing his record collection she discovers, after weeks of suspicion about him and his proximity to her partner, that they’re both fans. This part didn’t surprise me, nor did the reveal that Wasikowska’s character is named after her (seriously, poll a sample of late boomer or early Gen Xer women — 4 out of 5 probably love Mitchell, especially if your pool resides in California). I could be snarky and say that it would be better if they dug a little deeper than track one of the canonical Blue. What, no love for The Hissing of Summer Lawns? But Blue captured the zeitgeist and lives on across generations for a reason. It’s a devastating record about love curdled by deception and human error.

Joni, Joanna -- thus the circle game continues; image courtesy of spinner.com

It totally works here, bolstered by Bening’s disarming performance. The camera lingers on Nic’s ostensibly private reverie. It’s a purposely awkward but deeply informative scene. Nic might be embarrassing her kids but she’s ultimately singing to herself. Jules and Paul watch, perhaps only slightly aware of how deeply affected she is by what’s going on. Following her performance, she will walk into Paul’s bathroom and have the truth she already knows confirmed for her. But this scene gives you insight into her interiority and why she’ll remain committed to her family after the fallout. It’s a subtle, powerful moment that demonstrates what the movie is and what it could be.