The word "model," in and of itself, speaks of perfection. Model student. Model citizen. You'd think a show featuring models who are also disabled would be interesting, but it really isn't. Shocker: You can be disabled and pretty.
Britain's Missing Top Model, which premiered in the UK in the summer of 2008, began airing on BBC America last night. All of the 8 contestants are white. All of the 8 contestants are thin. All of the 8 contestants are conventionally pretty. Each one of them says, at some point in the first episode, that they think they're attractive. These are not women with confidence issues. (Debbie, who lost most of her arm in a bus crash, has posed for Playboy.) The judges make some good points — one says, being disabled is part of the world, "Why shouldn't it be part of fashion?" But while watching these women — all pleasing to the human eye — I thought, well, it's not much of a stretch to find beautiful people beautiful. Wouldn't an eye-opening show feature women with cleft palates or port-wine stains — visible differences which tend to make people uncomfortable?
Then again, maybe the fact that they're all pretty is the point? These are not your "average" disabled people, just as models are not "average" people. The contestants want a shot in an industry in which aesthetics is everything, so, naturally, they're going to be aesthetically pleasing. Maybe the point is: "I'm pretty, I just happen to have one arm, but don't let that stop you from hiring me to model designer shoes." The problem is, that doesn't make for very dramatic television.
Take Debbie, for instance. when asked if she'd show off her disability, she was totally fine with it. So her photo shoot was pretty boring.
And Sophie, who survived a what she describes as a "violent" car accident and is paralyzed, also had a boring (gorgeous, but anti-climatic) photo shoot.
At the critique, the judges said one nice thing and one critical thing about every model's picture, which Jenny from Seattle found frustrating. "Don't patronize me," she spat.
The judges couldn't even agree on what the show is really about. Two deaf women are in the final 8, but the judges wondered: Shouldn't the winner be visibly disabled? Or isn't that part of the point: Not all disabilities are visible? In the argument, the disabled judged fought for a girl with a visible disability, but was outvoted by the other able-bodied judges, and the contestant the disabled judge liked was sent home, and the judges had to watch her limp out the door. Why not listen to the one disabled judge? Dumb.
Frankly, the show would be more successful, more interesting if it followed one disabled model and her trials and triumphs in trying to get work — as well as how she was encountered in the fashion industry. Because watching the judges niggle and nit-pick over eight beautiful women is tiresome.
In July 2008 a reader spotted a Nordstrom catalog featuring a model in a wheelchair. I'd much rather watch a series about how this came to be and follow as someone, Michael-Moore style, asks execs why we haven't seen other catalogs/ad campaigns do the same. Maybe the world is "missing" a "top" model to tell that story.