Friday, September 17, 2010

Tyra bullies contestants in an anti-bullying episode of ANTM

Today, I am going to do a post on reality television, more specifically, this week's episode of America's Next Top Model (which, unfortunately, means admitting that I do watch the show on occasion, lets just pretend it is for research purposes).

This weeks' episode really bothered me. The aspiring models did a photo shoot where they had words written on their bodies, one was a 'bully word' which was supposed to represent names that they were called by others. The other word was supposed to be an empowering word, reframing the bully word into something more positive and powerful. I like the idea of drawing attention to real world problems like bullying, however, I didn't like how it played out. Some of the women were obviously not comfortable with their 'bully word' and others did not seem very genuine (I guess not everyone has experienced bullying). Some of them even had fun with it, laughing at their bully name as though it were all a big joke, whereas others broke down crying at the thought of painting a word that has been used to hurt them so many times on their body.

One woman used the word Queer as her 'bully word' and Free as her 'power word'... it was a beautiful picture, but I wish she had used queer for both in order to further reclaim it, but that is probably hoping for too much on a show like this.

Then, in judging (where the judging panel rips apart the models' photos, poses, and overall appearance), they reverted to name calling. Here are a list of the words and phrases used in the 2 minute judging panel that appeared on television to describe these women
  • dreckitude (This is a new word, which appears to be a combination of Dreck and Attitude. If I am not mistaken, the word Dreck is a German word, something like 'dirty' in English, used as a sexist and classist form of moral regulation)
  • Gauche (can mean socially awkward, or lacking social class)
  • Don't like her muscle (she had awesome biceps)
  • her body does nothing for me (sounds very sexualized)
  • Terrible picture of her
  • she is trying to model
  • hoochie, too overly ripe, almost stale (this woman had large breasts, but was not dressed or posed any more provocatively than many of the other women)
And these comments end with a panel member saying "This has been a wonderful wonderful first, cause it's really social consciousness. I think we helped so many of those young ladies."

Please don't help me Tyra. I'd rather be left out of all of this supposedly therapeutic coming-to-terms-with-bullying than have you and your elite friends tear my body apart like that (yes, I understand that this is a big part of what modelling is about right now, because only perfect female bodies sell clothing, but don't pretend that you are helping these women and fighting bullying when you are picking apart their bodies).

The episode got me thinking about my own experiences of bullying, and I realized that I could not come up with a bully word if I were asked to. I was tormented at school from grades 4-10, especially in grade 7 and 8. Acne combined with good grades and poor social skills led to bullying that made school a frightning experience for me. I would stay up all night worrying about how to try and avoid it the next day or how to convince my mother to let me stay home. Still, I could not take these experiences and sum it up in a single word or a short sentence, it was so much more complicated than that.

And I don't mean this to sound like an afterthought, but I think it needs to be mentioned that there was also a model who appeared as though she might have an eating disorder. She was quite skinny with protruding bones and she discussed being on a strict low calorie diet. Tyra told her to eat some bread and butter before eliminating her from the competition. I'm really hoping that there was more follow up for this contestant than just telling her to eat, because I'm pretty sure that is not how to help someone who may (or may not) have an eating disorder. I would suggest that it is a form of bullying to go up to a skinny person and just tell them to eat; if she is anorexic, it is so much more complicated than just going to the kitchen and buttering a slice of bread.


  1. I'm not sure if it was the show or the woman herself who chose not to use the word queer as her free word. The way she reacted to telling the story and having to write the word on her body she might not be aware of the communities attempt to reclaim the word.

    As far as the girl with the eating disorder. Throughout the show I didn't notice her body until the photo shoot and saw the ribs appear in her back. I had a feeling that they were going to eliminate her because keeping her on week after week can be damaging (not to the girl, but to Tyra and the show). It would also show other girls watching the show that this might be something acceptable to get the "perfect" body.

    And I watched it for research purposes also.

  2. Riffing off the above comment, I really can't understand how someone would think, now, that "queer" is a "bully word" when it's pretty much the standard anti-heterosexist term. And "free" makes it so nebulous that it is impossible to understand what she is trying to say.

    Also, I always feel slightly ill when people like Tyra Banks (and yes I get a guilty pleasure out of watching the show) talk about being "socially conscious". This is a woman who fired her writing staff because they wanted to unionize, hired scab labour during the writers strike, and has consistently come out against attempts by the majority of the working model population to unionize.

  3. Good to know I'm not the only one who watches this show. I agree that Tyra would have taken a lot of criticism if she kept such a skinny girl who talks about restrictive dieting, considering her body acceptance politics. I also wonder if getting rid of the super-skinny contestant could be a way of making up for the fact that she doesn't seem to have a plus size model this year, and she usually has one or two in the group.

    As for Queer being a standard anti-heterosexist term, I think it still depends on where you are from. When I am in Toronto, nobody thinks twice when I mention that I am queer. In my hometown, on the other hand, I often have to explain that it isn't necessarily a "bad" word anymore, and my understanding was that this contestant was from a small town so maybe she has had similar experiences with it.

    I hadn't heard about Tyra's employment practices, but now I feel the need to look them up... I can't say I'm surprised by a lot of this, but it seems rather hypocritical coming from someone whose talk show often discusses issues like poverty.

  4. It's quite amazing that people come up with these concepts, seemingly without any awareness of the contradictions they create. It sounds like the goal was to depict people overcoming bullying, but without being too concerned about the actual victims (if they all were victims?) and how the dramatization might affect them. Like a semi-improvised play with a pre-determined plotline, in which people play versions of themselves.

    One of the things that gets me about "reality" shows is that they all rely on constructing reality in the same way--Hobbes' war of all against all. If the competitors can't directly assassinate each other, the judges need to do it with their caustic comments.

    I guess these kind of shows fit with what viewers want from TV--drama, voyeurism, vicarious triumph and humiliation, all without being forced to think or feel anything that really challenges or disturbs us (ok, maybe it disturbs Ms. Marx, but I think she is the exception). I suppose you *could* make an entertaining show in which people co-operate and speak kindly to each other, but the slash and burn formula just seems so much easier (and more bankable).

  5. Good point... I'm trying to think of a show where they don't trash talk each other and am having trouble coming up with one... maybe it is because I don't watch a lot of reality tv. Amazing race the partners tend to trash talk each other when they get mad. American Idol, the judges are often quite mean even though the contestants aren't mean to each other. Everyone is nice on most household makeover shows, but even they are most entertaining when people come home and don't like their room.

  6. I believe the intentions of Tyra in the discussed episode of ANTM was fantastic, given that it was to face your insecurity/ies, given that you had one. And I agree with you in that the judging was contradictory to the moral of the shoot, but that doesn't give means to completely over see the intended good.

    Also, Ms. Marx, i'm curious as to why you think "trash talking" on reality tv is a bad thing. Amazing Race is not intended to be a cruisy, happy, let's all be nice show. It's a competitive show with no moral messages to kiddies.

    I guess my latter point, Ms. Marx, is that reality tv shows are designed to entertain, which is generally entails bitching, fighting and emotional ruin. If you don't like it, don't watch, or even worse, don't indulge in it and pretend you didn't mean to.