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Am I About to Discuss Feminism With America’s Next Top Model as the Frame? Why Yes, Yes I Am.

March 18, 2011

I have a confession to make.

I still watch America’s Next Top Model. I stopped watching other much more acceptable competition shows that are more focused on actual talent (like Project Runway and So You Think You Can Dance?) seasons ago, but even though I know ANTM is totally ridiculous and trashy and cheesy, I just cannot stop. As soon as I hear there’s a new season coming on I get so excited. I couldn’t explain it to you.

I understand if I just lost all of my credibility.

Anyway, this season (I can’t even keep track of which number it is) has actually been pretty good. It has a similar feel to earlier seasons when it was in its prime, there’s an interesting array of beauty and the girls mostly actually look like potential models, the challenges are fun and even when they’re on the outrageous side I can actually see them being used in real photo shoots and runways, the drama is juicy, Tyra’s still crazy, and André Freaking Leon Talley has been a judge for the past few seasons.

If you’re at all familiar with the show, you should know that nearly every season there’s one quirky, kind of weird looking girl. (These are different from the ones that look ugly and then they get a makeover and are suddenly stunning, which they sadly haven’t had in a while. They just always look weird but the judges love them and usually they look incredible in photos even though they pretend they don’t know what they’re doing.) This season, that girl is Sarah.

She came on the show with this gross braided rat tail and short curly hair and was immediately branded as the weird, awkward girl. Then, of course, Tyra cleaned up her pixie and whenever she gets put in makeup she looks gorgeous.

She hasn’t really taken a decent photo yet, and her runway walk is atrocious, but she seemed poised to be the quirky breakout star and was growing on me more with each episode. But then, I watched last night’s episode and she made me do this face : / This week’s challenge was their first commercial, and it was this cool Mad Men-inspired commercial for “Fierce Roast Coffee,” where two girls would play the secretaries of an ad man who couldn’t think of a good tag line for his product. Because of the social restrictions of the time, the secretaries couldn’t overtly give him any ideas or tell him what to do, so they subtly drop hints that are hidden by questions and flirty little lines with a dash of sexual innuendo. In the end, the man comes up with an idea, thinking its his, but really it was the women all along who had the smart ideas. I thought it was pretty fun and kind of smart, and even though the lines were awful at least the styling was great. Sarah, however, had a problem with it.

When they got the scripts in the apartment and were reading them over, they cut to one of Sarah’s interviews, and she said:

I was glancing at the script with Molly, and I felt really uncomfortable reading it. Being a feminist, my whole life I’ve just been trying to get away from the whole stereotypical quiet, subservient, docile woman. Now to put myself back in that situation and to actually work to fill in that role is a little bit of a worried issue for me.

At first, I was thrilled. I was so excited that someone actually self-identified as a feminist on TV, and on a silly reality show no less! I hate how rare that is, and how the norm tends to be a woman assuring her interviewer or audience that she’s not a feminist, indirectly equating it to this ugly, dirty, undesirable trait. But, once I got past the initial joy of hearing the word “feminist” in a positive light on TV, I stepped back to actually think about where she was coming from, and I changed my mind about rooting for Sarah, at least completely.

Sure, it may be difficult to see past the cheeky sexuality of the commercial, but the underlying theme is actually a feminist one, portraying a classic feminist assumption that there’s really a woman behind many of the accomplishments of that era when they had access to the work world, but little to no power in it. In the commercial, as in the reality of that time, women usually had to use their sexuality to have some say.  See, when Sarah was talking about the scene with the other model, Molly, what she was most uncomfortable with was having to be sexy and the overall sexual vibe of the commercial and claiming that, as a feminist, she was opposed to this because being a feminist and being sexy are mutually exclusive.

I have a big problem with this. Now, I know that there are many, many feminists who feel the same way as Sarah. For those of you not up on your Feminism 101, there is actually a huge rift in modern feminism between pro-sex feminists and those with more second-wave beliefs concerning sexuality and its place in a woman’s life and role. I, for one, am a pro-sex feminist, at least in the sense that I believe that feminism means that women have the freedom to do whatever the hell they want with their lives, and if that means that they wear sexy clothes or do porn or strip because they enjoy it then by all means, be sexy. I know that I personally had a huge revelation my Freshman year of college where I discovered that I could like fashion and boys and still be considered a feminist, and I haven’t looked back since.

I respect Sarah’s opinion, but I’m upset at how it was presented. Feminism has such a bad rep as only being for man-hating, unsexy, unshaven harpies and many people don’t even realize that there is room within the movement for girls who don’t agree with this point of view. This misconception is the main reason why I hear so many powerful women (and everyday ladies) say something along the lines of “Well, I would be a feminist but I love men,” or “I’m not a feminist because I like to dress up.” So, while I still find it exciting that there was a girl saying she was a feminist on prime-time TV, I do find it disappointing that she ended up being an example of the negative stereotype people equate feminism. Of course, I’m realistic about this. I’m aware that it was neither Sarah’s nor the show’s responsibility to make the disclaimer that this is only one type of feminist, but I know that a lot of girls watching the show saw that and used it to confirm that feminism automatically equals disagreeing with being sexy and continued to discount it as an option for them. It’s just a shame, is all I’m saying.

So, if any of those girls happened to Google “America’s Next Top Model + Sarah + feminist” and wound up on my blog: You can be a sexy feminist. I promise.

(Funnily enough, this isn’t the first time I’ve used reality television to discuss feminism. If interested, I wrote about it on So You Think You Can Dance? too. Be sure to read the comments also because they’re awesome, at least before it’s spam.)

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