TYRA BANKS'S UNUSUAL BRAND OF FEMINISM

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Diva, den mother, wackjob, tycoon: Tyra Banks, host of "America's Next Top Model", has it all. Molly Young considers the paradox of her doctrine of self-acceptance ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE 

Tyra Banks, the creator, producer and host of "America's Next Top Model", is a hybrid animal. She doesn't gravitate toward a single familiar archetype, as other female media barons do (eg, Martha Stewart's über housewife, Rachael Ray's perky girl's girl), but divides her persona into four: diva, den mother, wackjob and tycoon, all of which battle for prominence in every episode of the show. It can be unsettling (or merely bewildering) to witness these shifts in personality, since every iteration is equally convincing. She is not a woman with whom you would want to be trapped in an elevator.

"America's Next Top Model", the highest-rated show on the CW network, is now three-quarters through its 12th season. The programme's success is mysterious, even as it shrewdly combines the tried-and-true reality television tropes of an elimination challenge and a makeover. The source of the conundrum is Tyra Banks, a host whose persona is so polarising and whose charisma so uneven that a viewer can easily swing from you-go-girl admiration to stark revulsion in the course of a five-minute segment.

The actual contestants of the show, battling it out for modelling contracts with Elite and Cover Girl, are intermittently engaging. But many have the personality you'd expect of a model: blank, if not quite dim-witted. One aspiring model on the current season repeated the mantra, "I'm here to be America's Next Top Model" so many times that it merited a robot-like montage on the show. By definition the contestants are beautiful, but very few deliver perceptible zing.

Curiously enough, it's this last point that turns out to explain the show's appeal. Consider the odd dimensions of public sentiment toward models, who are apt to arouse feelings of jealousy and self-loathing in most American women. This dynamic explains why shows like "Pretty Wicked" and "America's Most Smartest Model" exist: both offer the satisfying proposition that physical beauty comes at the expense of some other, more meaningful virtue. They reaffirm a viewer's superiority while affording the pleasures of observing young beauties in savage competition.

Tyra Banks"America's Next Top Model", which targets the same schadenfreude-keen audience, scratches this itch by turning its models into pitiable figures. The women on Ms Banks's show are pushed to struggle, fail and suffer humiliating challenges (to watch a woman with weight issues be stripped down and wrapped in leather straps for a photo shoot is a heart-clenching experience). They are filmed without makeup and exposed to the stings of bitchy photographers. The glamour of the fashion world is de-emphasised, to put it lightly. The women sleep in bunk-beds and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Many are not conventionally pretty, and most shed real tears at some point. Youth and beauty are rendered vehemently unthreatening, treated as handicaps rather than assets.

The hour-long show maintains the same structure from week to week, consisting of two challenges followed by a judging panel and a dismissal. Each judging portion of the show is preceded by a strange video clip of Tyra playing with small children and reciting a few lines in voiceover. "Once there lived a supermodel who wanted to guide future girls," her voice narrates. "So she broke out the rules to owning your inner fierceness." This short speech is followed by a Tyra-minted koan that changes weekly, and which might be something like "You need to paint on your game face and show the industry your true colours" or "Sometimes getting lost is the only way to be discovered."

The injunction to summon one's inner resources is a confusing message to wield in a modelling competition, though Tyra never appears less than certain on her show. Girls are told that they're beautiful just as they are while being strenuously advised to transform themselves. "A model's job is to look better in pictures than she does in person--and you do that," Tyra explains to a quivering girl in front of her. At another panel she warns the models that "We're gonna break you down, one by one." A model with full-body scarring from a childhood accident is encouraged to love herself, even as a designer outfitting the contestants for a runway show puts the scarred model, and only the scarred model, in an outfit that covers her from head to toe.

Modelling is not a business for the faint of heart; we know this to be true. Tyra's notion of "inner fierceness" holds no water in an industry that trades in exteriors. The fiercest determination in the world can't add two inches to a model's height, straighten her nose or eliminate her scars. Tyra's gospel of goodness and strength is not actually meant for the contestants of "America's Next Top Model", but rather for the viewers at home. Indeed, it's when the models attempt to pursue their inner beauty at the expense of strategising that they begin to slip in the competition.

When a contestant named London in the current season was eliminated owing to a small weight gain, the dismissal sat uneasily with Tyra's doctrine of self-acceptance. Hardly a blimp, London was tall and thin with the lucky addition of hips and a squeezable bum (not to mention a history of eating disorders). It felt unseemly to watch Paulina Porizkova, a model/judge, berate the younger woman for wearing shorts judged as "not becoming". Another judge sniped, "What are you eating?" Though Tyra bangs on about the importance of "personality" to her modelettes, the fact remains that the prerequisites of the business are skin-deep. One needs a lanky frame, a glowing complexion and bone structure that shows up nicely on film. London had two out of three and a lively personality (her side hobbies included street preaching), but this wasn't enough.

Dismissals happen at the last possible moment of the show, making for great, suspenseful television. We root vigorously for our favourites, and curse their brittle, bloodthirsty rivals. But once a model is given the axe, the show gives way to an awkwardly crushing display of emotion, mercifully edited down to a tidy, minute-long segment. (No one wants to see a loser weep.) It is tempting to switch off the TV as soon as Tyra announces her verdict, except that this would pre-empt the show's piece de resistance: Tyra's farewell pep talk.
 
And this is where the paradox of Tyra comes to a head. She hugs and gives rehearsed counsel to the eliminated contestant, encouraging her to still follow her dreams. But to emphasise inner strength in a game where success hinges on ten pounds or a bad photo is dishonest. Tyra has a chilling ability to shuffle among masks without acknowledging their incoherence, which is an eerie quality for a self-styled self-empowerment guru to have, since it obscures any idea of a "self" to begin with. But it is also, in a nutshell, the only learned skill that a model must possess.
 
Tyra doesn't use the word "feminist" on the show, but her woman-specific shtick is indeed a feminist manifesto: one that finds empowerment in looking extraordinarily beautiful in photographs (or in becoming the star of a hit reality show), and in achieving this by any means necessary. In this way Tyra Banks gets to have it all, as both sadist and nurturer, foe and big sister. It is bewildering and riddled with bad faith, but also impressive. In the case of "America's Next Top Model", Tyra's girls would do best to plug their ears to their host's advice and to watch her in action--very closely--instead.


Picture credit:
Jim DeYonker/The CW

(Molly Young is a writer living in New York. Her last piece for More Intelligent Life was about kombucha, antioxidant moonshine.)