In today’s “Second Golden Age of Television,” a title referring to our current era of an abundance of high-quality, culturally and artistically valuable television shows, I am baffled by my own choice to watch the long-running reality TV show “America’s Next Top Model.” Instead of watching acclaimed shows like “Stranger Things,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” or “Black Mirror,” I found myself shamelessly tuning in to the live premiere of season 24 of Top Model. The series, created and hosted by Tyra Banks, features aspiring models competing to win the title of America’s Next Top Model, participating in photo shoots and challenges, with, of course, healthy doses of probably scripted drama in every episode.
To others, I refer to my watching of Top Model as a guilty pleasure; as someone who values and enjoys the literary nature of film and television, I am ashamed to admit that I find the stupidity and triteness of the show stimulating. But after watching the season premiere, I am no longer ashamed about how I devoutly follow the show, as there are several points one can make about its cultural significance, specifically, how it manages to be somewhat feminist even though at surface level it places ultimate value on women’s bodies.
If you watched or read “The Handmaid’s Tale” or simply have been tuning into the news lately regarding the outpouring of reports of sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood, you’ll know that women are, both in reality and in fiction, sexually exploited for the pleasure of men or for the utility of their reproductive organs. Salma Hayek, in a recent New York Times op-ed, wrote about how Harvey Weinstein forced her to add and act in a sex scene in a movie she was producing to make it a more sexually appealing film, or else he would not distribute it. Across the globe, women are trafficked as sex workers, raped by their family members, and forced to carry children they do not want. The tragedies of female sexual exploitation are infinite, and due to the patriarchal power structures which exist everywhere, including in America, the future looks bleak.
On reality television, especially on Top Model, but also on shows like The Bachelor, women are also exploited; their situations however, are not even comparable to victims of abuse and assault though, because these women who compete on reality television have signed contracts agreeing to be emotionally exploited on TV. The recent drama television show “Unreal,” though fictional, uncovered (and exaggerated) the reality that reality television is largely scripted and manipulated by its writers and producers to ensure that viewers are entertained and that the show stays interesting. So to some extent, as women parade around the Top Model house half naked, being bullied by other competitors, and likely being bossed around by producers, it is fair to say that these women are being emotionally exploited. They are being manipulated by staff in order to make for entertaining television.
This exploitation, though, is selective; as aforementioned, the models choose to be on these high-pressure, stressful sets and are therefore opting to be exploited. The competitors know full well the high demands of reality television, and when they submit their audition videos to the show, they are signing up for exploitation. June/Offred in “The Handmaid’s Tale” lies silently as she is raped because she wants to avoid being hanged in public, and victims of workplace sexual assault who endure abuse so as to keep their jobs and avoid public shame, are the objects of exploitation; they are not choosing to be exploited and are victims of a system which allows for exploitation. In contrast, Liz, a competitor on Top Model, is willingly exploited; she is perpetuating her own exploitation by competing on television. There is something feminist about this, about women taking control of their own exploitation. As has happened in the past, models are allowed, at any time, to leave the show because the pressure is too much. But the majority of the women endure the physical and psychological “abuse” of the show in order to pursue their professional and personal goals of achieving fame as a model. This, in a twisted way, is inspiring to me as a feminist; it reminds me that women are strong and can handle pressure, manipulation and obstacles to achieve their goals.
Of course, I can easily look elsewhere for this inspiration, as I have, by reading Malala Yousafzai’s “I Am Malala” or simply watching Oprah’s Golden Globes speech about how women cannot and will not be discouraged from speaking their truth. But there’s something valuable in uncovering the subtle feminism of Top Model competitors, in that it reminds me that you don’t need to be fighting for women’s human rights to be a feminist. It might be a stretch to call Top Model a social commentary on the critique of modeling as a feminist pursuit. Nonetheless, for the remainder of season 24, I’ll continue to relish in the cliché drama of Top Model competitors’ petty screaming matches about who gets to use the bathroom sink. Even if it’s egged on by producers, who doesn’t love a good catfight?