Friday, October 30, 2009

WTF Fridays!?

I know that Fridays are supposed to be a cheerful day of positive news, but I don't think I can write one of those this week.

I was taking a few minutes out of my busy schedule (*cough*procrastinating*cough*) last night to watch America's Next Top Model. Although I know that the fashion industry is sizist, racist, sexist, classist and generally oblivious to all the social evils that it promotes, I always let myself have this one guilty pleasure because I indulge with a critical mind. As I watch, even though I am enjoying the ridiculous "pose-off" challenges or the girls' excitement about their new lavishly decorated house, I know WHY these things are bad. I deconstruct and criticize as I watch.

And DEAR GOD, was there ever a lot to be critical of on this Wednesday's ANTM.

The girls (Laura, Nicole, Erin, Brittany, Sundai and Jen) get shipped off to Hawaii (Maui, more specifically) to have fun in the sun and engage in more bizarre modelling challenges, such as getting fashion photos taken of them while surfing. Sure. Why not? It's silly, but that's fine.

And then they get loaded into a car, driven off to a sugar cane factory, and told to pose as biracial women hangin' out at the sugar cane factory. *headdesk*

There are so many problems with this that it's hard to know where to begin. I will number all of these points just so I don't lose track of all these problems in my rage.

1) the majority of these girls are white, with only Jen (who is Asian) and Sundai (who is African-American) giving the merest hint of the diversity that exists in the real world.

2) Tyra's little "history lesson" to give context to this photo shoot is sadly lacking. She talks about how people from all over the world came to Hawaii to work on sugar cane planations and that is why Hawaii is very ethnically diverse. Unfortunately, she forgot to mention that sugar cane harvesting is one of the most gruelling agricultural pursuits ever, that those who worked on these sugar cane plantations faced high rates of abuse, were pitted together based on ethnicity in order to prevent them from forming unions, and were generally subjected to racism, prejudice and abuse.

3) Tyra gets (minor, very minor) brownie points for letting everyone know that biracial people are not just white and Asian, white and African, white and ____, but that people of colour + people of colour also =biracial children. This sounds super obvious, but that is not usually the depiction of biracial people that you hear in the media. Some people seem to think that when, for example, an Ethiopian man and a Barbadian woman have a child together, this baby is not biracial (and they usually seem to think this because they have lumped people of colour together in one big box as the "Other").

4) HOWEVER, this totally does not excuse Tyra's totally infuriating essentialization of people of colour. Tyra (and creative director Mr. Jay) urges the girls to express emotions in their photo shoots by "imagining the suffering of the Egyptian people," getting in tune with the "Tibetan spirituality" and trying to feel the music because "music is everywhere in Botswana." EEEEERRRRRGH. And when at judging, one of the girls confesses to not knowing how to express this "Tibetan spirituality" because she doesn't know anything about Tibet, Tyra admonishes her, saying that she should have asked questions.

Tyra: "I could have told you about Tibet, told you about the spirituality and told you about the Dalai Lama, and...mumble mumble. But you should have asked me, I could have told you about the Dalai Lama."

Wow, Tyra, nuanced understanding of Tibetan culture.

5) Tyra refers constantly to these depictions of biracial people as being "exotic," and beautiful, and on and on and on. Racialicious has an excellent article about stereotypes of biracial people as being somehow more beautiful, exotic, "futuristic" and special. Even positive stereotypes (i.e. biracial people are exceptionally beautiful, Asians are good at math) are harmful because it restricts the definition of beauty, essentializes the people in question, and marginalizes you if you happen to be an Asian who hates math or a biracial person who is not considered attractive by the dominant culture.

6) We CANNOT, simply CANNOT, ignore the history of minstrel shows and blackface, and how this photoshoot echoes that.

7) Although I am speaking from a place of white privilege and therefore do not have an understanding of what it is like to live life as a person of colour, I know that this experience is different from mine and that people of colour face a multitude of forms of oppression every day. The mere implication that these (mostly white) wannabe-models can put on a different colour skin for a day, dress up in "Native American headresses," (yes, this happened) say "oh, this is nice, I look exotic," and then strip off the skin colour is profoundly insulting. It mocks the very real racism experienced by people of colour and women of colour everyday.

8) Tyra has done this shit before. In cycle 4 of America's Next Top Model, she dressed the girls up, colouring their skin, as ethnic or biracial women and urged them to "take on the persona of each race."

Check out this link to see the photoshoot itself. And good luck not staring at the computer screen with your mouth open, gaping at the offensiveness.

Any thoughts? Given the history of fashion of doing blackface photo shoots--when black models are often systematically discriminated against--is this not infuriating?



  1. But I don't know, this and the other blackface shoot on Vogue are obviously not degrading black people and/or other races neither are they shown negatively. Seeing as Tyra meant nothing about this and this just sprung from her naive and simple mind, should anyone really take offence on this? Feel free to enlighten me. These shoots are obviously quite sketchy though.

    I do find, as a European reading a lot of American media, that Americans are extremely hung up on their race and heritage. And it's really fucking weird to me because over here your just an individual, that is not defined by your heritage or looks. I once read an article about Zap Mama, a Belgian music group, who went to record with Erykah Badu. She found out in America she was expected to feel different from her white peers and often proclaim that she's black and proud while her experience in Belgium is that's she's just a PERSON, not a Black Person, and she hangs out with whomever she wants, white, black, Moroccan, Iranian, whatever, and it's you know.... completely NORMAL? While in American that was sort of seen as "betraying your people."

    Of course I'm thinking and seeing this from a white privileged point of view so I don't know.

    Excuse my lack of intelligent use of words, I'm lazy but most of all confused.

  2. Hi Eline,

    Thanks for your comment! :)

    First of all, I thought it was interesting what you said about the differences between Belgium and America. You're indisputably right in saying that people of colour are first and foremost PEOPLE, and should not be equated with their skin colour. However, I think it would be a huge mistake, not very realist, and a very privileged attitude to pretend that we don't see skin colour at all or that we don't have certian ingrained prejudices about skin colour.

    If white people/the dominant society pretend that we are "colour-blind," "race blind," whatever you want to call it, than we run the risk of exercising our privilege without feeling the need to critically examine it...because, you know, we're "colour blind."

    Example: "I see people, not skin colour! So that makes it okay for me to systematically exclude the voices of black people from this conversation. I'm not doing it because they're black, I'm doing it because I think I am more qualified to speak on this topic. Just because I am a white male loudly talking over a black woman does not mean I am being racist...because I don't see race, this isn't indicative of privilege, it's just the way we interact."

    I hope what I mean comes across there and makes sense!

    Also, you say that you don't necessarily see why this is offensive because it was not a negative depiction. I think what we need to realize is that you don't have to explictly say "I hate people of colour" or whatver in order to do something racist. As I mention in the post, "positive stereotypes" are still hurtful.

    But this new fashion/blackface trend is definitely not positive in any case. It is a racist and harmful thing to do because first of all, it equates the culture of diverse peoples of colour with a costume that you can take off and put on at will. ("Oh, I think I'll be Botswanan today!") You can't do that. You cannot decide that someone's culture equals a pretty dress and then promptly discard it. That's BS.

    Also, it is downright offensive that blackface shoots are becoming more popular while black models are still being systematically discriminated against. If you're looking for the aesthetic of black skin against white clothes, then why not hire a black model?

    And I don't think that Tyra's naivety is a valid excuse, especially since she is a black model herself, and should know plenty about discrimination in the fashion industry. Some might argue that because she is black herself, her promotion of blackface isn't racist. Again, I say BS. People of colour can still do stuff that is racist or discriminatory against people of colour, just as women can do things that are anti-woman (*coughAnnCoultercough*) and the list goes on.

    I hope that clarifies a little bit more what I was trying to say

    :) Steph

  3. Great post, Steph.

    And Eline, that whole slavery --> Jim Crow --> civil rights thing has a whole lot to do with how Americans view race. The aftermath of all of those is fully ingrained in American history, present, and people, so it's not as easy for us to be "colorblind." People of color here have been and are routinely discriminated on the basis of looks and heritage. Many in earlier times were murdered for it. To dismiss how we view race as a "hang up" is ignoring a huge part of the history of this country.

    And for the record, all Americans don't think one is "betraying [their] people" when different ethnicities/backgrounds come together. We aren't a monolith, and some do believe as you do. =)

  4. Side note: if I'm not mistaken, there are several countries in Europe that are not immune from racial bias and outright racism in general.

  5. We know that Tyra is ridiculous. She's an obvious hypocrite. And I agree with you that ANTM is a guilty pleasure, but it needs to be watched with a critical mind as you say.