A casual glance around the Internet might indicate that the recent controversy over an episode of America's Next Top Model may already be dying down. But here in Canada, a group called CFAN, a feminist student group at the University of Regina, has started up a letter-writing campaign over the issue. The episode in question involved having the models posed as crime scene victims; the resulting photos, removed from the context of the show, arguably fetishize and glamourize violence against women.
I saw the episode in question when it aired on CityTV, and I've seen the photos from the shoot that are now posted on the Internet. Obviously, as a feminist, I am disturbed by images that appear to make murdering women sexy. But I've got to come down on the other side of my sisters on this one. To me, this is one of those instances where the meaning of the image is directly influenced by the context in which it is delivered. In other words, those crime scene photos on their own are disturbing and disgusting, but in the context of a show like ANTM, their potent charge is reduced.
As dedicated ANTM watchers know, the show is, at its heart, pure camp. From Jay Manuel's blinding white teeth and bad dye job to Nigel Barker's English accent, ANTM frequently serves as a send-up of itself. The way the contestants imitate — or even borderline mock — Tyra and her breathless proclamation of "You're still in the running towards becoming America's next top model," shows that. You don't need Janice Dickinson on the show to add the element of over-the-top absurdity. Tyra's wigs do that job (not to mention the fact that none of the winners has actually gone on to become, well, a top model, thereby undermining the very point of the show itself). And of course, who doesn't adore Miss J, the gender-bending court jester, probably one of the most quietly subversive "characters" on television today? This near-carnivalesque atmosphere of exaggerated femininity, self-mockery, and ridiculousness permeates the show.
In the context of Twiggy, Nigel, Tyra, and Miss J poring over the crime scene photos and saying things like, "Oooh, I love how her hand looks in this shot," the shock of the image becomes another banal facet of the modeling world. The photos become absorbed as simply another ingredient in the comedy that is ANTM. That a shoot like that happened in the first place demonstrates the attitude of the modeling world — not ANTM specifically — towards women.
I would argue, then, that the montage over at YouTube is more repulsive than the way the images were presented on the original airing of the show. Spliced together, the photos become a pornographic assemblage of horror; perhaps this is the point. Interspersed with very disturbing facts about violence against women, the effect of the photos is intensified. This does serve an important ideological effect: to provoke viewers into grasping the staggering rates at which women abused.
But it is, somehow, dishonest, too. The montage sensitizes us to violence against women, but it also takes away the camp context served by ANTM. Posting the montage on the web seems to defeat the purpose of the protest itself and actually goes beyond the original sin made by ANTM producers.
The other reason why I won't be picking up my pen to engage in this campaign is because I'm not crazy about going after horses that have already left the barn. On a show that already objectifies women to the nth degree, the crime scene photo shoot seemed completely consistent. It was one more occasion when human women were being asked to crystallize themselves into objects in order to sell more objects. Fashion — designing clothes — is about art, creation and fantasy; modeling, it seems, is about conformity, which is the opposite of creativity. That episode of ANTM was only telling us what we already know about modeling: it turns women into the dead commodities that they are wearing.
I'm not convinced, then, that Tyra Banks should be on the hook for this one. ANTM is associated with an industry that demonstrates very little responsibility to women whatsoever (viz. the modeling industry). Criticizing Tyra for allowing this photo shoot on her show, then, is somewhat akin to putting the entire burden of patriarchy on her shoulders. Of course, we should be able to hold producers of culture accountable for their ethics (or lack thereof), but it just seems foolish to do so without examining the wider context in which they're operating.