Friday, May 19, 2006

The Racial Politics of America's Next Top Model

When I wrote the blog post The Racial Stereotypes and Voting Politics of Dancing With the Stars, I thought to myself, "blog power! no self-respecting journalist or respectable publication would take the time to dissect something so banal as the racial constructs in reality television!" But apparently I'm not the only freakshow who writes these kinds of things! J.E. Dahl, writing for Slate, has this to say about Tyra Banks possible internalized racism:

Though she illustrates her allegiance to the sisterhood by making loving references to her booty, for the past few cycles Tyra has been discouraging any behavior that could be considered "too black."

Reality television has not been kind to black women, who are often portrayed as bitchy (see Alicia from Survivor: Australian Outback), crazy (see Stacy J. from The Apprentice II) or both (see Omarosa from the first Apprentice). So, on some level, Tyra may be working to counteract the efforts of producers who cast self-described "strong black women" hoping for a bit of drama. When casting Cycle 3, Tyra made her diva disdain known:

"I don't want another black bitch," said Tyra to potential contestant Eva Pigford, confronting what had long remained subtext on reality TV.

Tyra seemed unable to bear the fact that Danielle had regional inflection in her voice. Even more to the point, Nnenna, the recently booted stunner from Nigeria, also spoke with a thick accent, which Tyra and the rest of the judges found fetching. Evidently, an African accent is fine, but not an African-American one. At last week's judging, Tyra told Danielle the judges "didn't trust her when she opened her mouth." But the truth is that the other judges loved Danielle, especially when she spoke, because she was articulate, modest, and hugely charismatic.

On last night's show, when Tyra was evaluating finalists Joanie, Danielle, and Jade on their Cover Girl commercials (the girls had to recite a few lines about mascara), she singled Danielle out, imitating her delivery and demonstrating the difference between an acceptable black Southern accent, and an unacceptable one. Tyra's deft imitations of the cadences of black speech were impressive, if somewhat broad, and suggest that she too may have learned to modify her speech. Perhaps Tyra was simply trying to toughen Danielle up: The fashion industry is run by white people, many of whom may think "black" or "country" accents are uncouth, a mark of poor upbringing. But shouldn't Tyra be using her clout to challenge this stereotype?

On camera, many of the black ANTM contestants talk about how thrilled they are to be in Tyra's presence; how her success as a black supermodel inspired them, helping them see themselves as beautiful for the first time. But how does she repay their adoration? By trying to eradicate ethnic idiosyncrasies in their personality and appearance. Tyra tells the aspiring models that they need to develop a thick skin. But she seems to think dark skin should be tougher than light.

To be honest, I don't watch this show much. I don't watch much reality television, not with the nightly offerings of crime dramas and Star Trek in syndication. Dahl's points are illuminating though--I've always thought of ANTM as being a variation on any other competition show--you know, the dance off, the cook off, the be-a-corporate-bastard-off. I just thought of Tyra Banks as another Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, that Japanese Liberace guy from the original Iron Chef--appropriately bossy, sarcastic, demeaning to others, and above all necessarily melodramatic. As if all the corporate plattitudes really mattered, as if all the requirements for being a model were intrinsic or naught (if so, why do they pluck 14 year old girls from Romania?), and as if losing this cooking battle means you have lost your honor and must perform harakiri. This is why the shows become tedious--eventually you stop wanting to hear about leadership and "synergy," what model attitude is all about, and "whose cuisine will reign supreme."

But this article has brought a whole new dimension to Tyra Banks. I can no longer hate her for being just another generic reality TV host. She is not just another generic reality TV host. I have something else to dislike, as well as pity--her possible internalized racism. And to a certain degree I can sympathize. She's been through the business, since she was a teenager chosen to walk the catwalk for Chanel--she probably knows better than any of us what an "African American accent" can do to harm your career. She probably has spent a lifetime trying to downplay her "afro-centrism." This is what Kenji Yoshino talks about in Covering--when we are required to assimilate in order to achieve success, there is as much lost as there is gained. Maybe it shouldn't be up to Tyra to change the entire industry. She probably believes her very presence achieves that goal. Maybe she is just trying to prepare young aspiring black models for the worst in the industry, rather than papering over that reality with false optimism. I can't blame her for doing this. I am not happy that she is doing this, or believes she has to--but I can't blame her for it. Maybe by toughening up the skins of black models to the realities of the industry (although I disagree with her being so mean in the delivery) she is merely stating a reality of our social order--that in order to succeed, we must "cover" our ethnic identities as we aspire to be a melting pot. I don't like it--but I don't put the burden on just Tyra Banks to change this.