|Posted by Jennifer L Pozner|
March 27th, 2007
Turns out we at WIMN’s Voices aren’t the only ones who think that America’s Next Top Model’s “beautiful corpses” episode provided one of the uglier moments in reality TV history.
It’s rare that a pop culture criticism post generates this many ripples in both the blogosphere and the corporate media, but ever since I wrote “Top Model’s beautiful corpses: the nexus of reality TV misogyny and ad industry ideology,” many of you have waved the outrage flag high and loud, leading the critique from the blog to the major media.
On Thursday afternoon, Mar. 22 I wrote:
“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… 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.”
As I argue in the multimedia presentations I give on the college lecture circuit (contact me if you’d like to arrange a talk), 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. As such,
“ANTM is less a “guilty pleasure” 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).
“…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.”
By Thursday evening, Jill at Feministe wrote, “…I think we often underestimate just how much they hate us. But they aren’t really trying to hide it, are they?” Meanwhile, Echidne of the Snakes (also a WIMN’s Voices blogger) remembered a telling Tyra truism from her judging comments during a previous episode: “Most modeling is acting like a ho but making it fashion,” noting that the ho+fashion equation often yeilds advertising in which models are “routinely portrayed as broken dolls, with vacant eyes and permanently gaping mouths, like toys flung about after the giant child who played with them has left,” and, as such, the death spread is a troublesome extension of that trend.
Later that night, A Bird in a Bottle wrote:
“Violence against women is already closely tied to sex. Pregnant women, for example, are more likely to be domestically abused than their non-pregnant peers – as many as 324,000 pregnant women annually. After car accidents, murder is the most common cause of injury-related death among pregnant women. Statistics suggest that up to 23% of women seeking prenatal care have been domestically abused; for 40% of those women, they did not face any domestic violence until they became pregnant. Seems to me like violence is already sexualized. In the case of pregnancy, it’s not because violence against women is a turn-on (as it is clearly intended in the ANTM episode), but as a means of control. But it’s all from the same assumption that violence against women is connected to — or even counseled by — women’s sexuality and the expression of that sexuality. And here I thought TV these days wasn’t political…”
Rachel on Alas linked the ANTM photos to the New York Times Magazine, which recently featured “another blatantly misogynistic fashion spread… includ[ing] women in nooses and bondage.” (Quick aside — good on you, Rachel and Musings of a Working Mom, the blogger she found those photos from! I’d been talking about that egregious NYT spread with fellow WIMN’s Voices blogger Keely Savoie the weekend it appeared, and we’d both meant to blog it up, though both got too busy. Glad to see you’ve both taken it on.) In another route to accountability, Rachel provides contact info for ANTM sponsor Sprint/Nextel, encouraging people to let the company’s Executive Services department (866-398-4606, email@example.com) and their Director of Consumer and Business Communications (Laura Lisec
Laura.m.Lisec@sprint.com) know that their consumers are none too pleased with their financial support of such trash.
The next day, the NYC chapter of the National Organization for Women distributed a press release headlined, “The Top Ten Sexiest Ways to Kill a Woman: America’s Next Top Model Viewers Outraged,” giving a stamp of institutional feminist ire to ANTM’s beautiful corpses episode.
By Friday morning, the news of our outrage had traveled from the feminist blogosphere to the print and online corporate press, as well as to independent online media.
The New York Daily News’s short piece, headlined, “Tyra’s rapped on gory TV pix,” implied that the gruesome nature of ANTM’s photos was befitting of NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and quoted Sonia Ossorio, president of the NYC NOW, as saying, “Violence against women is such a reality in our society that I certainly don’t need the entertainment industry making light of it and making entertainment out of it.”
From the Daily News, the story jumped to TV Guide online and even across borders to Canada, where it was picked up by the New Brunswick newspaperThe Times & Transcript.
By Saturday, Women’s Enews included a paragraph about Top Model’s sickening spread in their “Jeers of the Week” column, noting their connection to a larger trend of ads glorifying violence against women as a way to promote everything from the salacious torture-chic movie Captivity (Lions Gate with After Dark Films) to misguided Susan G. Komen poster about curing breast cancer, in which women’s torsos are covered with taglines threatening to “punch it, strangle it, kick it, spit on it, choke it and pummel it until it’s good and dead” [”it,” ostensibly, equals breast cancer].
By Sunday, even generally anti-feminist bloviator Andrew Sullivan recognized the deeply hateful nature of ANTM’s deadly antics, linking to Echidne on his Atlantic Monthly blog.
And in today’s London Guardian article, “Model of bad taste; Should contestants on TV’s America’s Next Top Model have posed as murder victims?” (Tuesday, Mar. 27), Kira Cochrane writes:
“This intersection of fashion and violence is hardly new. Traditional ideas of femininity and female sex appeal pivot on vulnerability, and fashion heightens this with the blanket use of exceptionally thin and young models. Taken to its wildest extreme, depictions of violence against women have become a staple of fashion imagery. Earlier this month, a Dolce & Gabbana ad was withdrawn after widespread protests. It showed a woman being held down by a man, surrounded by other, apparently predatory, men. It looked the prelude to a gang rape, although Stefano Gabbana protested that it simply recalled “an erotic dream.”
“In a society where women are still regularly brutalised, raped and murdered, these depictions matter. It would be facile to suggest that someone seeing these pictures will head out into the night and brutalise women, but the widespread glamorising of this kind of violence makes real violence against women more palatable, less shocking. It provides this violence with a sick sexual frisson that isn’t just tasteless - it’s entirely unacceptable.”
Media attention to the story hasn’t been relegated only to print and the web — what began as a deconstruction and denunciation here in WIMN’s Voices has now, through the power of the feminist blogosphere (more bloggers’ comments below), become the subject of debate in several corporate broadcast outlets, from the infotainment pulp show “The Insider,” syndicated across hundreds of stations, including radio and TV affiliates of NBC and other major corporate media.
Finally, this morning (Mar. 27), a Fox News producer for the show “America’s Newsroom” contacted me at 8:30 am to appear on a morning segment about the murdered-model controversy. Unfortunately, the very tight deadline didn’t leave me time to do it, but I hear that NYC NOW’s Ossoria was able to jump in at last minute, and did well.
To me, this is a great story about the ways that feminist blogging can be used as part of an explicit strategy to positively impact public debate — moving a message not only from one blog into the broader blogosphere, but into the media at large. This is one of the primary goals of WIMN’s Voices; as we stated at our inception, Women In Media & News created this women’s media analysis group blog to “Propel our perspectives into the blogsphere at a time when corporate media are recognizing the power of blogs yet claiming women don’t exist in this new frontier,” and to “Answer the marginalization of women’s voices on the nation’s op-ed pages and in other print and broadcast news areas by positioning a diverse group of feminist intellectuals as opinion-leaders, sources and pundits for mainstream and alternative media.”
Speaking of moving messages, let me backtrack to the feminist bloggers who created the collective tipping point that led to the controversy over ANTM and the larger conversation about violence against women in entertainment and advertising.
After Feministe and A Bird in a Bottle picked up my post, the next day, Jessica from Feministing (also a WIMN’s Voices blogger) encouraged readers “to give the folks at the show a piece of your mind” by emailing a complaint with the CW to firstname.lastname@example.org, while Tracy Clark-Flory at Broadsheet wondered, “What’s the next photo shoot going to be? A skin-and-bones model splayed out on the runway where, after months of subsisting on lettuce and diet soda, her heart failed her? (Wait, they’ve already damn near done that).”
Then, in an open letter to Tyra Banks, Liza’s LiveJournal railed:
“I’m sure you and the producers thought that by playing up the fantasy that the models were victims of other models would erase the idea that men had raped or murdered the sexy dead girls. Instead, that further fosters the stereotype that women are catty, murderous bitches and, oh, how funny and fabulous that is! And to top it off, a girl who recently lost her friend was essentially told to lie there like an excited sexy dead girl and get over the death of her friend that had JUST HAPPENED! Absolutely despicable. I thought the season when Kahlen was lowered into a grave after her friend’s death was shockingly tasteless, but at least those models weren’t made up to look bruised and slashed!
By March 25, the episode was still hot on bloggers’ minds. Megan at PostPony linked ANTM’s models-murdered-for-reality-ratings photo shoot to similarly disturbing real-world ads such as Cesare Paciotti’s managled corpse, Dolce & Gabbana gang-rape glam, and Perry Ellis’s beheaded babe, giving the ads academic context:
“The “female crime victim” – that gory image that finds its way into almost every episode of CSI. The body in pieces, the body beaten to the point of being unrecognizable, the body as material that has been radically transformed through violence. This is objectification. Literally, taking a whole human being (a woman) and gutting her until she is nothing more than her body, her sex. Objectifying a woman is an act of power. You impose an identity on her – you say, “you exist only in response to my desire. Any other part of you is irrelevant.” It doesn’t matter if the woman is being reduced to a sex object, or a corpse – as long as she is being reduced. It is this reduction of women that is so tantalizing, not because it it necessarily sexual, but because it imbues the onlooker with power.”
Andrew Jaffee at NetWmd blog drew connections between the prevalance of dehumanizing images such as those pumped out in this ANTM episode and brutal crimes against women, such as the Dayton Daily News-reported murder, dismemberment and burning of a college student by her ex-boyfriend.
Going multimedia with her call for media accountability, BeansBeans’ YouTube slideshow opens with a simple declarative: “The producers of America’s Next Top Model think violence is sexy. They want you to think so, too,” then superimposing statistics about battery, domestic assault, rape, murder and the cycle of violence — and ends encouraging viewers to demand better from the CW (email@example.com), Tyra Banks’ production company (firstname.lastname@example.org), and sponsors CoverGirl and ElleGirl magazine.
Oh, and I should mention that my original post — which has garnered more than 30 comments (and they still keep coming) at WIMN’s Voices, was reprinted at HuffingtonPost, where comments veer from intense disgust at Top Model (”These pictures border on necrophiliac… This is sick, degrading, misogynist. Must be time for “consciousness raising” groups again.”) to trivialization, dismissive and back-handed attack (”Anyone who expects realism in fashion photography isn’t very bright. Anyone who equates this with misogyny only trivializes real misogyny. Anyone who sees this as bigotry has never faced real bigotry. Picking a fight over this is, of course, a perfect way to convince those who don’t know better that there is no real bigotry against women in our society.”)
Of course, comments that pshaw-away the whole concept of media criticism as “whining” (as did another HuffPo commenter who wrote, “women we need to stop whining about these minor issues… It’s not for you or I to judge”) are intellectually hollow, in that the crux of such argument is that analysis is meaningless, because media content is meaningless. We all know better.
Top Model’s beautiful corpses were the epitome of the media silencing of women — and I’m glad to report how loudly you all raised your voices in response. Keep posting, keep commenting, keep those letters to the editors and to CW flowing, and keep demanding accountability from media producers, outlets and advertisers. Because yes, indeed, media content does matter… and you have the right to demand better.
[PS: as always, if you’re interested in bringing WIMN to your campus or community group for a multi-media discussion about representations of women in reality TV, contact WIMN using this form, or let us know at info[at]wimnonline[dot]org ]