In hyping an industry that has long gotten rich promulgating "sexy torture," America's Next Top Model is a perfect case study of how violent imagery plays out in the reality TV landscape. Sadism has been a recurring theme.
The series has pioneered a whole new standard of placing women in danger, sometimes imaginary and sometimes all too real. Right from the get-go, ANTM's producers began manufacturing moments that would inevitably result in pain or injury to the girls. In May 2003, the very first episode of Top Model featured an extended scene in which ten uncomfortable young women were forced to get Brazilian bikini waxes. Cameras flitted back and forth from their pained facial expressions to their nearly nude legs spread wide in the air, while the audio lingered at length on the models' blood-curdling screams as hot wax was spread over their genitals and their pubic hair was ripped off.
As the series progressed, pain became not only a by-product but a basis upon which the girls were judged, in contests requiring the women to repeatedly fall from platforms and crash onto barely padded surfaces, recline in bikinis on ice sculptures in frigid rooms, and so on. In one particularly nasty sixth-cycle challenge, models were made to strut around in impossibly difficult ten-inch heels, while the judges mocked them as they twisted their ankles, grimaced in pain, and fell down. Their biggest belly laugh was reserved for a model named Danielle Evans, whose shoes sent her tumbling to the floor and literally crawling off set, gasping, "Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!" She ended up with a sprained toe and had to finish the episode on crutches.
If fourteen seasons' worth of footage of models being treated by medics or rushed to hospitals in ambulances tells us anything, it's that luck is all these girls can count on to protect their safety on a show that plays fast and loose with women's health and well-being. By cycle 7, four seriously skinny finalists were made to pose for an extended amount of time in a pool filled with freezing water. With the models having next to zero body fat for insulation, viewers got to voyeuristically peer at close-ups of their shivering lips, shaking limbs, and chattering teeth as they winced through the photo shoot.
When one shuddering contestant complained, Tyra Banks taunted her: "CariDee, you're from Fargo! Come on! This is real, real modeling, guys, being cold as heck!" We watched her beg for a short break as the cameras zoomed in on the moment her body began to shut down, convulsing from the cold, the color draining out of her face despite all the CoverGirl products slathered on her cheeks and mouth.
Next thing we knew, the Fargo native was huddled under a blanket and judge Jay Manuel was assuring the cameras that she, not the show, had irresponsibly endangered her own health: "As a model, you need to tell people when you're past your limit. It wasn't just that she was cold; it wasn't just that her teeth were chattering. She had reached the moment of hypothermia," he groused. Tyra reproached her with faux concern: "You have to listen to your body, and you have to tell us, okay? Because all we know is go-go-go-go-go, go-go-go-go-go, but you have to tell us no."
Yet come evaluation time, CariDee's hypothermia was framed as self-indulgence, rather than as a natural biological response to extreme physical conditions unnecessarily imposed on her by drama-seeking producers. (The pool couldn't have been heated? Set dressers or show techs couldn't have found a few heat lamps? Come on.) She was "high maintenance" and "needs a lot of attention," judge Nigel Barker griped, while fellow judge J. Alexander sniped, "With CariDee it's all about me, me, me, me, me, me, me." The model narrowly escaped elimination; viewers couldn't escape the message that women in pain bring it on themselves.
Top Model producers also concoct photo shoot challenges in which pain is supposed to be the models' motivation, terror and violence the backstory, and the image of a woman in jeopardy an advertiser's ultimate "money shot."
In an episode titled "House of Pain," Tyra offered cycle 10 contenders this bit of wisdom: "The biggest modeling secret trick/tip that you can get," she told the girls, is to "pose with pain . . . when you're stuck and you don't know what to do and [a photographer] is yelling at you . . . think pain, but beauty."
Then came a pain-themed "pose-off," with Tyra instructing each model to embody a different variety of physical anguish: menstrual cramps, migraine, chest pain, sprained ankle, fingers slammed in a door, and even, for a contestant named Claire, an ache that came with this helpful backstory: "You did a movie and you had to do a scene with a man who strangled you, and your neck hurts."
But pain isn't women's only route to beauty: According to Top Model, fear is fierce, too. "You're scared! Something's chasing you! Something's coming to get you!" judge Jay Manuel coaches the models in cycle 5, who had to play "fashion victims" fleeing from some threatening force that would later be digitally inserted into their pictures. "You can't believe this is happening to you! . . . You're running for your life!" Echoing every creepy cultural equation of female beauty with helplessness and danger, Manuel repeatedly reminded the girls of their primary goal: to look "scared and pretty . . . pretty, but still scared." Tyra offered that same phrase—"You're scared but still pretty. That's hard to do!"—to model Jayla Rubinelli as her highest mark of praise during that week's judging. On another episode, Tyra told cycle 11 winner Brittany "McKey" Sullivan that her "signature pose" should be to look like "the girl that's getting punched."
The above is an excerpt from Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, by Jennifer L. Pozner. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) 2010.
Jennifer L. Pozner is founder and Executive Director of Women In Media & News (www.wimnonline.org) and editor of the group blog WIMNs Voices. She also blogs about reality TV at RealityBitesBackBook.com
Bonus: The trailer from Pozner's "Reality Rehab" web series.