For nearly a decade, I have been baffled by Tyra Banks’ pronouncements -- on America's Next Top Model (ANTM), her talk show, and in interviews -- that her entrepreneurial efforts are vehicles of female empowerment.
My difficulty with her position comes from an awareness of ANTM’s judgmental core. Contestants are criticized on all aspects of their body shape, size, and positioning, and on their attitudes toward Banks, the judging panel, and each other. We see them (posing at photo shoots, on runways) and hear them (talking about their physical and emotional struggles) work to attain “fierce.” ANTM viewers would likely acknowledge this to be Banks’ (to me, ironic) catchphrase denoting female empowerment.
ANTM’s latest installment had an "All Stars" premise, promising the fairy tale of another 15 minutes of fame to previous contestants. It also offered a heightened level of judgment for the women. This sentiment was particularly evident in the training session led by branding guru Martin Lindstrom on personal branding. While presenting the poll results of audience views about each woman’s image, he asserted that how the women perceived themselves did not jive with how audiences perceived them. Lindstrom then provided each woman with a one-word descriptor intended to convey a persona encapsulating her personal brand value.
Lindstrom’s lesson, endorsed by Banks, makes it clear to the contestants (and to the audience) that women need to replace their own perceptions with a descriptor provided by others – a simplistic label for their identity – to achieve career success. These labels drive them to redefine and work on themselves from perspectives that are not their own. To be clear: These women are persuaded to accept characterizations of their identity in lieu of relying on their own self-perceptions and are presented as if doing so is positive (see the clip for contestants' reactions).
Part of ANTM’s complexity is its neoliberal messaging proclaiming that these women choose to do this work and, by virtue of this, they are empowered and will be rewarded. Yet, as demonstrated in the clip, the women are taught to accept a label that tells them who they should be, rather than endorsing who they feel they are. This sort of labor by the contestants and its validation by Banks raises significant issues regarding gender, sexuality, race, and class for women in the text as well as for audiences.