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Ambiguous Negligible Thematic Manipulative
Every Wednesday night millions of people are tuned in to watch America’s next top model, a reality show where ten young and beautiful women battle to win a modelling contract. Why is the show so popular? It is enchanting and unlike anything seen in the ‘real world.’ Although with fantasy, comes a version of reality. The competitors are playing roles: a key part of generating entertainment. They mirror versions of their true character on set, in confessions, and during photo-shoots. By performing these roles, the competitors lose a sense of themselves. In the process, viewers are faced with false representations of beauty. Viewers internalize these messages and subsequently re-evaluate themselves. While the producers manipulate the contestants to play roles, audiences are left to believe these behaviours as truthful. Cultural, linguistic, and gender theorists help to prove that America’s Next Top Model is not a real-life competition, but rather a ‘reality show’ driven by role-play and the naturalization of false truth(s). It is important to understand that America’s Next Top Model is not only a modelling competition but also a reality show. The producers seek television personalities first and then look into modelling potential. Given that the producers are profit driven, they are more concerned with attaining a group of young women who can entertain and target a wide audience. On the surface, they are perceived as real-life competitors with honest emotions and behaviours, though connotative levels of meaning exist. Ferdinand de Saussure’s notion of the signifier and the signified can be used to explain the many levels of these competitors. Beyond their material/physical character, these competitors are role players (actors). Since the producers seek blood, sweat, and tears, to produce ‘good’ TV, the young women end up playing roles to enact these behaviours. The show is currently in its seventh season with thirteen finalists who are given contrasting roles to play. There is the sweet and innocent one, the rebel, the egonostic, the insecure one, and most essentially the ‘diva.’ Most viewers are blinded by these roles, as the
‘reality’ part of the show attempts to naturalize them. According to literary critic Roland Barthes, by constructing the natural, the ‘mythological’ is shaped. Thus, in the context of the show, the qualities and roles of each contestant are mythological constructions. However, the viewers are unaware of these myths. Barthes (1957) says quote: “…all the materials of myth (whether pictorial or written) presuppose a signifying consciousness, that one can reason about them while discounting their substance.” Thus, in the context of the show, viewers consciously reason with competitors role-playing and overlook hidden meanings. While the contestants play roles to fulfill the producer’s demands, they also push roleplaying on themselves. As cameras watch their every move, they inevitably monitor and control their behaviours. When the girls talk directly to the camera in the ‘confessions room,’ it seems as though they have each built up a wall to repress their true emotions. Since they are aware that masses of people are watching, they try to convey themselves as ‘likable’ characters. The setting of the show also causes them to mask their true behaviour. The fairy-tale like model mansion was purposely chosen by producers to draw out their unconscious emotions and to intensify their natural behaviours. The producers consider Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud’s theory on the state of unconsciousness. Freud theorizes that power can be maintained by control over the unconscious mind. On this show, the producers are the controllers who take power over the competitor’s unconscious state to heighten their behaviours. As they seek intensified behaviours to increase the entertainment value of the program, the true character of each competitor is overshadowed. The competitors are always playing roles. Not only do they take on these roles to fulfil the ‘reality TV’ part of the show, but they also take on roles as model contestants. In each episode there is a photo-shoot based on a thematic fantasy, and the girls have to carry out the parts. The photo-shoot on the first episode of this season’s America’s next top model well exemplifies the mythical themes and roles the girls have to enact. The theme was ‘the myths of the modelling world,’ and each girl was given a different modelling stereotype to play. One of the young women named Christian struggled to play her role as a ‘model turned actress.’ She
expressed how she found it difficult to pose because she felt out of character. This struggle is verified by Psychiatrist Jacques Lacan’s theory that self-qualities are lost in the attempt to be like another. In this case, involving role-playing, Christian feels as though she is losing qualities of her own character in order to enact another. The contestants experience a life of luxury, but in turn, this new world causes them to change themselves. On the second episode of this season’s America’s next top model, the girls are persuaded to get dramatic makeovers. As versions of hairstyles are used in society to signify one’s gender or character, many of the young women feared the final product would misrepresent them. Gender theorist, Judith Butler, reasons with this fear. She argues that gender is culturally categorized by physical and behavioural qualities, and when these qualities are not performed, one will lose their mark of identity. Most of the girls were pleased about their new styles as they continued to illustrate femininity and their personalities. However one of the contestants named Jaeda got a dramatic cut that caused her to lose her mark of femininity. Her long locks were cut, leaving her with a short style. Jaeda inevitably labels her new hairstyle as masculine because it does not resemble a ‘typical’ characteristic of a woman. Here, Butler’s theory of the gender binary is supported: Jaeda categorizes her style as masculine because it is not feminine. By taking away her hair, she believed it changed her identity. As a short style traditionally signifies the appearance of a man, having long hair becomes her new desire to regain her sense of femininity. Since the show is about turning girls into fashion models, the girl’s characters are transformed. Not only do they experience a changed appearance but also a changed outlook on themselves. While Jaeda struggled with her new appearance, another contestant named Anchel began to re-evaluate her body image. She begins to lose a sense of herself by comparing herself to the thinner models around her. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan supports this occurrence. Lacan states that when our consciousness is fully formed, we can’t help but think about ourselves in relation to others. Anchel inevitably returns to Lacan’s second stage of development, the ‘Mirror
Phase.’ She re-evaluates her reflection by comparing what she ‘lacks’ in relation to the ideal model type. The judge’s debate about whether Anchel has the body to be a top model further triggers her to re-evaluate her image and feel like an outsider. She is left ‘outside of the system:’ a system of rules and conventions created and maintained by the modelling industry. The problem with this show is that it follows the high fashion category of modelling. It’s the type of modelling that has the narrowest and the unhealthiest criterion: one must be over 5’9 in height, have a very thin build, proportional features, and a good bone structure. As this version of a model is true for high fashion, this type does not stand for the whole modelling industry. Other categories of modelling promote the ‘healthy’ and ‘real’ individual. Tyra’s choice to promote high fashion modelling unfortunately re-enforces the stereotypical version of a model’s appearance. As a consequence, Viewers are bombarded with these unrealistic and unhealthy model images. Judith Butler explains how everyday women have a difficult time recognizing themselves in the ideal. The show causes women viewers to re-evaluate their own bodies by comparing themselves to the model ideal. To further manipulate viewers, the program is driven by hidden messages that endorse beauty products. While viewers identify with what they ‘lack’ in comparison to the ideal, product tie-ins are used to advance solutions to the problem. Subliminal advertising is used to trigger the unconscious: “If you buy this stuff we can fix you up, and make you look like a model.” Even if a viewer is aware of these idealistic representations and tries to repress them, they will still be affected. Freud explains that beneath the surface of one’s thought process lays a brew/area of all of the impulses one has repressed in their lives. These negative representations viewers try to repress are merely contained in an unconscious area. This proves that all viewers are affected, whether they internalize these messages on a conscious or unconscious level. Theorists have helped to confirm that America’s Next Top Model is a reality show more than a competition, which leads contestants to question their character and viewers to re-evaluate their appearance. Barthes notion of constructing false realities is well exemplified. The show
manipulates the many by ‘naturalizing’ false truths. The producers take control over the contestant’s behaviour by drawing on Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind. In the process of role-playing the contestants lose a sense of themselves. Jaeda’s struggle with her identity exemplifies Judith Butler’s idea of societies ability to construct gender roles. Lacan’s analogy that people will compare themselves to these constructed ideals is supported by Anchel’s reevaluation of herself. As these competitors become self-conscious, the audience is also manipulated to feel insecure. The show causes ‘sadism’ more than it entertains. Viewers are tuned in to an Ambiguous, negligible, thematic, and manipulative program, rather than a competition to find America’s Next Top Model.
Tuesday, November 21st/2006 By: Kelly Foss (250328894)
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