"And I Talk Pretty Too": Race, Dialect and the Beauty Myth.

Curator's Note

“Yes Angelea, there is a discriminatory Standard English language ideology” 

The UPN network’s hit show America’s Next Top Model (ANTM) personifies Naomi Wolf’s beauty myth: thirteen tall, young and frighteningly thin female contestants undergo drastic physical transformations and grueling tests of mental endurance for the chance to win a $100,000 contract to hock Covergirl cosmetics, fabulous prizes and most importantly the unquestionable recognition of their beauty. In its fourteenth season the show, headed by black supermodel Tyra Banks, prides itself on providing a platform for an on-going dialogue about beauty and the opportunity to break the barriers of race, weight and age that define the fashion industry.  

Perhaps by more by accident than intention, this show has become a platform for exploring the stereotypes that govern the American perceptions of race, class, femininity and beauty. The winner of the coveted Covergirl contract must represent all young women and must be able to relate to the customer base across race, age and class lines. In this episode, Angelea, the bi-racial beauty from the wrong side of the tracks, finds herself at odds with the universal standard of beauty needed to be a Covergirl. Despite her European features (made even more so by the addition of a straight blond wig to cover her naturally kinky locks), her stick thin figure and “fierce” (Tyra’s favorite word) posing, the East Buffalo native still finds herself outside of the narrow confines of beauty. Unlike her middle class and wealthy fellow contestants, Angelea doesn’t “talk pretty,” a feature that apparently is required to be beautiful. Like other past black contestants who didn’t talk pretty, Angelea finds herself unable to cross the threshold to beautiful—her voice is too ethnic for an American brand.

By some estimates African-American women spend $7.5 billion annually on beauty products, many who undoubtedly don’t “talk pretty” like Angelea. As Angelea so eloquently points out, she doesn’t have to talk like her middle class, mostly white counterparts to be intelligent, but she does have to talk like them to sell Covergirl makeup. For Angelea who slept in on a bench in Grand Central Station prior to landing the gig on ANTM, the choice between her dialect and beauty are comparable to life and death—she either learns to “talk pretty” or return to the ghettos of Buffalo, NY.  

So all this brings me back to the seemingly forgotten debate on language education and inner city black youths. Trapped between total domination of linguistic hegemony and the reality of language discrimination, I ask how we can best serve the future of black youths. At the risk of sounding like Bill Cosby, I wonder if the legitimacy of this black dialect operates at the detriment of its speakers who strive to succeed against Standard English ideology. As educators how do we balance cultural diversity in language with the realities of language discrimination?




Thank you for this post, Carnelia.  Your insightful framing of the episode altered me to the way in which contest-centered reality shows often make a big deal about giving viewers a look not only at “reality," in the sense of real people in real situations, but also "reality" in the more colloquial sense, as in "This is the hard-knocks reality of professional modeling.  Can you take it?  Can you make it? Etc.”  (Tyra can be particularly “fierce” in this mode.)  So in this more limited sense, "reality" stands in as opaque shorthand for all the compromises, negotiations, reinventions, humiliations, and accommodations that a contestant has to undergo if he or she wants to conform to and succeed in a very particular circumstance, one that’s ultra-commercial and ideologically loaded.  In this episode, “personality” seems to work in a similar manner.  The word serves as a cloak, allowing the show’s industry gurus to voice the qualities that models should possess without saying, “Among other character traits, your spoken English should be like a prom queen’s from Portland who’s read Vogue all her life.”  The show, that is, has found its own response to the reality of language discrimination, which is to use an Orwellian fiction of “personality” so it can continue under another name, even when one of its contestants names it.

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