This post was collaboratively produced by members of Fashioning Circuits, a research group led by Kim Knight in the Emerging Media and Communication program at the University of Texas, Dallas. In addition to Knight, the contributors are Brianni Nelson, Amy Pickup, Tameka Reeves, and Mattie Tanner.
Cycle 17 of America's Next Top Model tasks each contestant with using multiple media platforms to develop a brand centered on an assigned personal adjective. Descriptors range from persistence (Angelea Preston) to daring (Lisa D'Amato) to unique (Allison Harvard). However, the deployment of a consistent brand identity is less important than the contestants' ability to use media to reveal what is presumed to be their authentic personality, their "voice."
The concept of "voice" is revealed in multiple episodes. In "Game," contestants are asked to make a "viral" video and are provided music that aligns with their brand. The music constrains the subsequent lyrics and performance, though these allow some expression of identity. Tyra further detracts from the contestants' creativity by imposing her own lyrics and inserting segments in each video. Despite this, Harvard's video is most successful because it conveys a sense of authentic voice.
In "Tyson Beckford," contestants are challenged to write a blog post describing their personal perspective on Grecian fashion. Preston succeeds by focusing on fashion and utilizing a strong personal voice in her comparison of Greece to her hometown, Brooklyn. The judges repeatedly respond more positively to the expression of a model's voice than to a consistent brand message.
However, the judges' preference for individual voice does not coincide with the overall social media strategy of ANTM. The social media strategy focuses almost exclusively on the show, while ignoring the contestants' personal brands. For example, the Facebook stream consists of material touting upcoming episodes or brief judging recaps. The voices of the individual contestants are conspicuously absent.
Compare this to a fashion reality show that uses social media differently: Project Runway. Both programs extol personalized identity creation. Runway supports these claims by allowing contestants to flourish through individual blogs and video. The designer's identity, or "brand," emerges through these uses of media. Fans are able to engage in dialogue with their favorite designers, giving the show a more participatory feel. ANTM makes an attempt to promote authenticity on the show but lacks any veritable online presence by the contestants or fans.
This cycle's focus on multi-media literacy aligns with the performance of identity through multiple platforms in today's media ecology. We see an interesting tension between the contrived, pre-assigned brand and the contestants' ability to express something deemed "authentic." Ultimately, the show fails to take full advantage of social media to augment these performances.
Media scholars focusing of Reality TV have been particularly critical of how shows often construct women as "authentic" and "feminine" based on their willingness to cry or even become hysterical on camera. Considering this idea, what do you make of Harvard's "authenticity" in her music video? Do you think the scene of her crying about the making of the video combined with her big eyed, emo-sounding video about her family create the exact type of " authentic femininity" producers want?
Who really branded the contestants?
Cycle 17 advertised itself as the “All Star” cycle bringing back favorites from the past and helping them to create a brand for themselves. One of the major problems with this cycle is that someone else identified the contestants’ brand and the judges essentially defined the meaning of the brand.
Unfortunately, as the authors alluded to, the branding was frequently impeded by the challenges of the show itself. For example, the models had no say in what their video would look like, no say in their makeovers, and were even assigned to portray other branded individuals such as Snooki and Nene Leaks. In addition, the contestants were penalized on occasion when trying to portray their brand.
One of the best examples of this was the focus on contestant Angelea Preston. During their first photo shoot they were given personalities that corresponded with their original appearance on the show. Angelea was to embody “girl from the hood.” During their second episode they were given their branding word, for Angelea this was “persistence.” However, it seemed that throughout the duration of the show, the judges and editors focused more on the idea of girl from the hood, instead of persistence.
In one segment, Angelea was to serve as an interviewer. She came across very professional and articulate, yet she was told by the judges she didn’t show her true personality. During her video she was told she didn’t come across as angry enough to convey the message in her song. In contrast, she seemed to be rewarded when she performed the “girl from the hood.” Her angry outbursts, her angry and mean commentary about the other contestants, and her breakdowns were extensively focused on during each episode. She was also rewarded for her blog referring back to her hood in comparisons to what she was seeing in Greece.
This leads to the question, what brand did the show intentionally or unintenionally ascribe to the contestants and what impact does this brand have on the viewers?
Adding on to the discussion
I tease out the meanings of personal branding in Top Model in my post, which is live tomorrow. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!
In regards to the discussion about authenticity, I think it's important to acknowledge Tyra's role in shaping the show as its producer and creator. In interviews, she's asserted that she's hands-on in the production of the text (editing it and so forth). Her own desires for Top Model's meanings of authenticity (as relates to gender, race, sexuality, class), then, are carefully constructed for audience consumption to benefit her brand attachment.
Excellent point, Dara. I find myself really intrigued by Tyra Banks as one who both produces and is produced by the show. This is literally embodied in the opening sequence of the entire cycle, in which Tyra portrays multiple contestants in her dream sequence.
Julie, I think we must have been writing at the same time. I agree that the show's treatment of Preston sends a very clear message about the ways in which race and class are constructed on the show. From the very first episode in which Angelea is labeled "Girl from the Hood," Bre is labeled "Ghetto Fabulous," and Sheena is told she is "Harlem but not Hoochie," there is a definite pattern of framing women of color. (and we haven't started on Kayla as the "proud lesbian" who is assigned the brand identity "free")
And as we mention above, the show really does not let the women speak for themselves. Most of the creative decisions in the music video are made for them and we don't ever see the blog posts they wrote for episode 12. We discussed this in contrast to social media use on Project Runway. It is as though the model contestants are treated as blank slates, waiting for someone to assign identity to them (as Julie alludes to above) vs. the Runway contestants whose use of social media plays into the cult of the designer.
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