I’m a big fan of trashy TV. For a long time, my favourite programme was The Only Way Is Essex; and my idea of a banging weekend is binge watching Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl in my pyjamas.
Sure, I love a good documentary as much as the next girl. I love films and TV shows that challenge me and stretch my mind. But I also love a good 45 minutes of petty drama. Sue me.
Nothing exemplifies my love of trashy TV quite like America’s Next Top Model–except Top Model isn’t quite as trashy as you might think.
“America’s Next Top Model is one of the most progressive shows around.”
In case you’re not familiar with the iconic show (where have you been for the past 14 years?), America’s Next Top Model sees young American women (and sometimes men, and once some British women too…) compete for a cash prize, a modeling contract, and a cover on a big magazine such as Vogue or Paper. The show is hosted by Tyra Banks (apart from the latest series, which was hosted by Rita Ora) and judges have included runway coach Miss J Alexander, fashion photographer Nigel Barker, and fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone.
On the face of it, the show is a breeding ground for internalised misogyny, fatphobia, and all the typical pitfalls of reality TV. It takes a dozen young, impressionable girls and forces them to compete against each other to be the most ‘fierce’.
Yet while America’s Next Top Model undoubtedly falls victim to the same tired tropes that all reality shows perpetuate–namely the notion that girls are bitchy and dramatic, and that to get ahead you need to be ‘not like other girls’–it is also, I think, one of the most progressive shows around.
For a start, the host is a woman of colour. This shouldn’t be revolutionary, and yet it is–particularly when you remember that the show started in 2003, when intersectionality and diversity weren’t so ‘in vogue’.
What’s more, regular judge J. Alexander–referred to primarily as Miss/Ms. J–is a black person who clearly gives zero f*cks about gender norms. Whilst Miss J. has never explicitly said that they identify as anything other than male, they regularly rock high heels and flamboyantly feminine outfits, and flout traditional gendered stereotypes. In a world where trans women are murdered in the street, and young men commit suicide because of toxic masculinity, it’s refreshing to see such an unapologetic subversion of gender norms on a popular TV show.
“America’s Next Top Model tells us that beauty is whatever the f*ck we want it to be.”
And it’s not just the judges who are diverse. America’s Next Top Model regularly features multiple black, Asian, and Latina models in each season, and of the 23 winners, nine have been non-white.
The show has also featured people across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, including many lesbian and bisexual women, one openly trans model, and, most recently, an openly gender queer intersectional feminist.
While Hollywood seemingly struggled to find an Asian man to play Aladdin, and seems incapable of celebrating anything other than white, straight women, this unprecedented level of diversity feels groundbreaking.
What’s more, America’s Next Top Model’s diversity is revolutionary because it’s there in a show that centres on beauty and aspiration. America’s Next Top Model doesn’t just show us black, Latina, Asian and LGBTQ+ people. It shows us that black, Latina, Asian and LGBT+ people are beautiful.
Of course, beauty shouldn’t be the be all and end all. People are valid, regardless of whether not they are perceived as, or even feel, beautiful. But we live in a society that tells us that beauty is thin and white and cis and straight. America’s Next Top Model turns that idea on its head and tells us that beauty is whatever the f*ck we want it to be. Beauty is a black man in high heels and a gender queer person in overalls. Beauty is trans and working class and bisexual and everything in between.
So yes, I love trashy TV–but no, America’s Next Top Model is not trash. It’s woke AF.
Image via @antmvh1 Instagram