Friday 2 July 2010

Thoughts on Britain's Next Top Model

The new series of Britain's Next Top Model, which airs tomorrow after months of breathless publicity, is set to be the most screechingly obnoxious cycle yet of this long-running, extraordinarily popular global pageant of beauty fascism. The show, a high-fashion reality knockout which pits pretty young women against one another to compete for representation via a series of invasive and demeaning 'challenges', is a repulsive montage of contemporary culture's hateful attitude towards young people in general and young women in particular.

At the end of every episode, a weeping, underweight teenager is marched down the catwalk of shame and sent home to contemplate their deficiencies on the dole, after being informed that they do not 'have what it takes'. Public criticism of the series has focused on its supposed promotion of eating disorders, but Next Top Model is problematic for a whole host of reasons.

Last year, the UK version of the show faced press excoriation for allowing an anorexic contestant, Jade, through to the final round. Like every reiteration of the so-called "size-zero controversy" - which has now been thoroughly incorporated into the mythology of the fashion industry - this story simply cried out to be illustrated with ogle-worthy shots of stick-thin, half-naked teenagers. The show's promoters have clearly learned the value of such sensationalism, allowing new judge Julien MacDonald to confide in Wales On Sunday last week that the notion of the industry giving space to models larger than a size eight is "a joke."

Sick, cultish obsession with the bodies of emaciated girls is only part of what makes Britain's Next Top Model so obnoxious and so fascinating. This is not, at heart, a show about beauty, or even about fashion: it is a programme about social mobility. The reason that America's Next Top Model and its twenty local variants have been so wildly successful is that they formalise the rules of late capitalist femininity as experienced by young women in the West: life may be hard and jobs may be few, but if you are beautiful enough, if you are thin and pretty and perky and prepared to submit to any conceivable humiliation, you too might have a chance of ‘making it’.

The show takes ordinary teenagers, for a version of ‘ordinary’ whose baseline is remarkable slenderness and regularity of feature, plucks them out of regional obscurity and makes them fight like cats for a chance of a better future. These girls will do literally anything for that chance. They will strip naked, they will cry and wail on camera, they will clumsily betray one another and, of course, they will scream. The orchestrated screaming is an essential part of the Next Top Model experience, although the British contestants have yet to muster the enthusiasm of the American hopefuls, who dutifully erupt into hysterical shrieks whenever anything happens on the show at all.

The fairytale these girls are chasing was dreamed up in the neoliberal haze of the 1990s, when supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell overtook actresses as the iconic female role-models of the age, courted by rockstars and showered with money and attention merely for showing up and looking a certain way. This sustaining mythology no longer has any basis in reality. In today's world of faceless, interchangeable, airbrushed femininity, the modelling industry is glutted with identikit beauties who earn very little and exist to be chewed up and tossed away for younger, less traumatised models - but the dream persists. Indeed, the new host of Britain’s Next Top Model is 90s supermodel Elle MacPherson, known in her day as ‘the body’, who quite literally embodies this cruel fantasy, precisely resembling a woman who has been pickled in a tank of flattery for twenty years.

The show is soaked in the language of corporate self-fashioning, with endless motivational sermons from the judges and hosts about 'working it' 'believing in yourself' and 'being on top'. The atmosphere of naked desperation differs from that of talent contests like The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, which are all about showcasing the weird and wonderful: Britain's Next Top Model, by contrast, is about the art of ambitious self-effacement. For all the show’s platitudes about personality, individuality and the importance of ‘standing out’, the girls who do best are always the most blankly identikit, the meek, spiritless women who excel at taking orders and ‘representing the brand’. This quite possibly makes Next Top Model the ultimate capitalist psychodrama.

The servile posturing of Top Model hopefuls is nothing, however, compared to the submission required of young women in modelling when the cameras stop rolling. In 2007, Anand Jon Alexander, a top fashion photographer, was jailed for 59 years for several counts of rape and assault of young models. According to industry insiders, sexual and physical intimidation is standard practice in the world that the young contestants of Britain's Next Top Model compete to access. In 2009, former model Sara Ziff's gonzo documentary Picture Me courageously exposed the epidemic of misogynist bullying and sexual assault in the fashion industry, with teenage girls routinely required to sexually submit to male agents, photographers and designers, who hold every shred of power and cover for each other's indiscretions, if they wish to remain in work.

Britain’s Next Top Model is a rags-to-riches fairytale updated for the 21st century. Like all fairytales, it has a moral: if you're a girl, your success in life depends on your ability to brutalise your body into a stereotype of faceless corporate femininity, your capacity to coldly compete with other women for physical attention, and your willingness to tamely submit to industrial exploitation and sexual abuse. This is what the dream of modelling means for young women today, and it's this contemporary parable about the rewards of self-discipline and submission that makes young women want to starve themselves. The cruel misogynist realism of Britain's Next Top Model is a cultural car-crash in slow motion - and this, of course, is precisely what makes it such shockingly good television.


  1. Hello Laurie,
    I really appreciate your comments and the intelligence of all your articles. You have a fantastic ability to slice through to the heart of the issue every time. For a future posting I would like to know your thoughts on overtly 'sexy' females in music ...Lady Gaga/Beyonce, Katy Perry on the front of the latest Esquire...semi-naked capitalism? or self-expression?

  2. Another excellent post, Laurie. I felt almost physically sick reading it - how depressing that those two sentences are not mutually contradictory!

    Shows like this have always made me uneasy, but as so often, you crystallise exactly why this is and exactly what the underlying messages are - your value lies only in the way you look and your willingness to be humiliated. And people say we're jealous of these women! God! (or other imaginary person)

    The only issue I have is with the last line - do you think something so vile can really be good television? I think that at least needs qualifying - I get that it is probably fascinating and compulsively watchable (although I can't watch this kind of thing at all), but IMO the word 'good' applies to, well, things that are good. Not completely fucking evil.

    Minor quibble aside, thanks again for such an incisive analysis.

  3. This is the same Julien McDonald who uses a lot of fur. Cannot say I am surprised.

    @Anon. I for one have no objection per se to skinny female singers who look as if they've forgotten to put something on over their underwear per se, but I would find it a refreshing change to see a young female singer who was overweight or not wearing make-up or hair extensions or who was properly dressed.

    I believe that this top model thing is on Living TV. I only have freeview. Which means I don't get Living TV, but I got "Glee" on E4 and Channel 4. Mercedes is overweight and keeps her clothes on. I like "Glee". I mentioned it on my blog.

  4. Platypus Dundee7 July 2010 at 08:26

    Come on, Red.

    Elle Macpherson is an incrediably sexy, mature, antipodean hottie, who, for her age (47), looks happy, glowingly healthy and successful. She's tall, statuesque, curvy, isn't stick-thin, and has managed to carve out a career for herself post-modelling without turning herself into a freak show like Katie Price. I reckon Elle isn't a bad role model for girls of all ages!

    Give an Aussie bird a break won't you, Sheila?

  5. Hello Laurie,
    this is the first post of yours I've read, will definitely keep reading! I remember an old ANTM in which the girl who escaped being chucked in the last 2 told Tyra she didn't want to carry on in the competition, that she was unhappy and later told the camera that modeling was not for her, she just wanted to go home, be happy and be with her family. Tyra was incensed; the contestant could not have insulted her more, how could anyone not want this dream? She told her that she just didn't like criticism and that the most unattractive thing in the world was a quitter.
    Mishka - I was thinking about this issue whilst reading the post. I used to watch this show and shows like it, used to think the British version was not as 'good' as the American, really because it wasn't as bitchy. I don't watch these shows now because I don't want to engage with this kind of stuff or celeb culture in general anymore, and yet by the standards of the format ANTM is miles 'better' than BNTM for the reasons you and Laurie have identified. I agree with you though, and wish this wasn't the case.

  6. There's a very sweet interview where Grace Park admits she went from modelling to acting because actors get bought lunch, but models are lucky if someone fetches them a glass of water.

    Being an attractive girl isn't that rare, and except for an anointed few, it doesn't seem to get you much.

    (Ironically, if you look further up the newsagents shelves from Cosmopolitan, healthy BMIs re-appear. Men, we're bastards, but at least we don't want you to starve :D )

    Anon of Not Searched

  7. I think you make a valid point about the modelling industry overall, but you are being a little disingenuous when you say that 'the rules of late capitalist femininity.. [state that]..if you are beautiful enough, if you are thin and pretty and perky and prepared to submit to any conceivable humiliation, you too might have a chance of ‘making it’.' This is a show about modelling, and what they are taught is that you have to be beautiful to be a model, and prepared to undergo quite a difficult lifestyle. That much we already knew, no? They do feature 'plus sized' models on occasion, and yes, it is ludicrous that even those girls are usually only a size 12-14 at most. But as another poster has pointed out, Elle McPherson is hardly a stick insect and the show never pretends to appeal to those not interested in modelling.

  8. This article gives the light in which we can observe the reality. this is very nice one and gives in depth information. thanks for this nice article


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