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Top Model’s beautiful corpses: the nexus of reality TV misogyny and ad industry ideology

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

March 22nd, 2007

Ain’t nothin’ hotter than a dead girl. That’s the take-away message from this week’s episode of America’s Next Top Model, in which Tyra “I care so much about my girls” Banks & co. created the most brazen bit of ad-industry misogyny ever to grace the reality TV genre: an entire episode presenting a gaggle of underfed model wannabes as the mutilated, mangled and murdered epitome of beauty.

I’m so disgusted by the photos that I refuse to give them extra visual traction on this blog - but do click over to Zap2it’s photo gallery if you’d like to see for yourself how ANTM gives new definition to the phrase “suicide girls.” The lithe lot of ‘em are arrayed in awkward, broken poses, splayed out in cold concrete corridors, lifeless limbs positioned bloodily, just so, at the bottom of staircases, bathtubs and back alleys, mimicking their demise via stabbing, shooting, electrocution, drowning, poisoning, strangulation, decapitation and organ theft (!), to judges’ comments of “Gorgeous!” “Fantastic!” “Amazing!” “Absolutely beautiful!” and, of my favorite, “Death becomes you, young lady!”

For decades, media critics such as pioneering advertising theorist Jean Kilbourne have argued that ad imagery equating gruesome violence against women with beauty and glamour works to dehumanize women, making such acts in real life not only more palatable and less shocking, but even aspirational. ANTM’s pretty-as-a-picture crime-scene challenge epitomized the worst of an insidious industry trend that, ahem, just won’t die.

The “beautiful corpses” episode of Top Model (a series that traffics in bottom-feeder humiliation, objectification and degradation of women in the name of fashion, fun and beauty for the deep profit of integrated marketers such as Cover Girl and Seventeen magazine) serves as sharp reminder that what millions of reality TV viewers believe is harmless fluff… is anything but. ANTM is less a “guilty pleasure,” as TV Guide and infotainment shows have called it, than it is a cynical CW cashcow guilty of making product placers, and Tyra Banks, rich at the expense of not only the self-esteem of the few hungry (in every sense) young strivers appearing in the modeling competition, but of the millions of girls and women, boys and men, who watch the show uncritically, learning that unhealthily underweight, Brazilian-waxed waifs can only achieve the ultimate in beauty when they appear to be erotically, provocatively maimed and murdered (as they were this week), self-abusive (as when models were made to pose as bulimics mid-purge last season), corpses (as they were during a prior season when the challenge involved posing in caskets lowered into open graves in a cemetery).

Since 2001, I’ve been monitoring the deep-seated bigotry against women in the reality TV genre, especially in the modeling and cosmetic surgery series such as the competitive farces and the butchered-for-beauty gorefests of Top Model and The Swan. In articles (such as “The Unreal World” for Ms. magazine and “Triumph of the Shill: Reality TV Lets Marketers Write the Script“) and in multi-media presentations on the college lecture circuit (such as “Bachelor Babes, Bridezillas & Husband-Hunting Harems: Decoding Reality TV’s Twisted Fairy Tales” - email info[at]wimnonline.org if you’d like to bring this lecture to your community), I’ve been arguing that we need to pay critical attention to the reality TV genre’s function as the cultural arm of the current political backlash against women’s rights.

Some of what deserves deconstruction is subtle — say, the way adult women in reality TV are constantly infantilized, only called “girls” regardless of age, never referred to as “women” — but much of what passes for entertainment in this genre couldn’t be more a more blatant nexus of the worst of the ad industry’s long-held hostility toward women coupled with corporate media’s ever-present pursuit of the almighty dollar. This misogyny has been manifesting itself in print for years as advertising’s fetishization of images of beautifully beaten, raped, drugged, tortured and murdered girls… today, advertisers are advancing these same backwards notions in 3-D, in the name of “reality,” their product placement bucks allowing them to influence and sometimes even control the dialog, sets, themes and plotlines of primetime’s most popular “unscripted” programs.

This is deeply dangerous to our culture, as I wrote in Bitchmagazine:

Advertising is profoundly manipulative at its core. Its imagery strives to deprive us of realistic ideas about love, beauty, health, money, work, childhood, and more in an attempt to convince us that only products can bring us true joy; numerous studies show that the more ads we view, the worse we feel about ourselves. How much worse will this psychological exploitation become when woven directly into our narratives?

Again, do contact WIMN if you’d like me to bring a discussion of gender roles in reality TV to your campus or community group.

And, if you notice noteworthy tidbits in any reality TV shows you watch that you think deserve comment, please let me know. If you can provide DVD or VHS copies of the shows you’re commenting on, all the better — I might be able to use them for an upcoming book I’m planning on this topic.

Thoughts on Top Model? Share them in the comments field.

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