Working for the Fairy Tale

Curator's Note

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.


I completely agree with you assessment and I beleive I echoed it in another response. A one word brand for a business is completely different for a one word brand for an individual. Also, how he defines the brands is questionable. For example, I wouldn't necessarily equate daring with breaking all the rules.

One of my concerns is that if we let others brand us to how they see us doesn't change anything. In fact, lables are one of the things that create and reinforce stereotypes.

This cycle of ANTM really raised a lot of concerns in my mind about the underlying mission of Tyra and this reality show is.

Great analysis, Dara.

I tried to watch this show once before and could not stomach it due to the way the judges talked to the contestants about their bodies. I was only drawn back in this time because of curiosity about the "viral video" episode. The whole thing was like some kind of identity train wreck from which I could not look away. From the first episode when they wrapped Kayla Ferrel in a gay pride flag, to the continued failings of the branding concept.

Do you think that to some extent the branding experiment might be a more explicit way of articulating the casting stereotypes that happen on most reality television? Not that the producers intended it that way, but can we read it that way? 


Great questions, Kim. I feel that the personal branding lesson was intended to reinforce messaging about ANTM as a platform for career success, perhaps to combat the "reality" that most viewers and contestants know (even Lindstrom says it to them in this episode): that previous contestants' post-ANTM careers stand in contrast to Tyra & Co's promises of fame. Reality shows that center on modeling, such as E!'s Scouted, offer the same fairy tale and show the casting process. An interesting project could compare/contrast ANTM and Scouted by looking at the ways in which they prepare women for career success and how the models respond via their labor practices.

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