Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tyra Banks, Modelland and the Aspirational Top Model

Tyra, Tyra, Tyra. Tyra Banks, former Angel, media maven, TV Host, actress, singer, author. Tyra Banks is a force to be reckoned with in the Girls' Media world and those who do not recognize it do so at their peril. Tyra is the ideal to which millions of young girls hold themselves, an insanely beautiful woman, plucked off the sidewalk at 15 to super stardom on the world's runways, who loves to eat and whose curves both launched Victoria's Secret lines and her desire to reveal the extremely exacting world of Modelling and its realities to new generations of aspiring girls.

This led to America's Next Top Model, a TV show where girls go through casting, rigorous challenges that mirror some of modelling's realities and ultimately, all but one has to stand in front of an impeccably lit and styled Tyra Banks as she tells them why they just aren't good enough to make the cut... Harsh. 
I hold two pictures in my hands... and by your age I was already a multimillionaire supermodel.
But let's be clear, this is AMAZING TV, and it's no surprise that the show is going into its 18th Season. It's also a not-unrealistic interpretation of the modelling industry, which let's be clear, the mostly 17 and 18 year old contestants of ANTM have mostly already aged-out of by the time they reach Tyra's critical gaze.

You can read more of my thoughts at my Beauty: Semantics I use on this Blog entry. Rather than dive into why all this "Beauty" and material pursuit is a dangerous or bad thing, for the sake of this article, let's talk about it in these terms:
  • "Beauty" is a goal of aesthetic presentation that is pleasing to the eye of the beholder and those around them. 
  • "Style" is personally identified and executed that represents the aesthetic choices of an individual. 
  • "Fashion" is an externally dictated, aspect of potential style that is agreed upon by mutual consensus of a group. 
  • "Costume" is dressing as something that you are not, in a recognizable (i.e. not subtle) way, to mimic or represent an exaggerated "otherness"
Generally, for the garment and fashion industry, especially the costume and fashion worlds only meet on the runway, you aren't going to sell millions of Lady Gaga's Favorite McQueen Alien Bug Queen Shoes.
I'll take 10, one in every color, and then a full leg cast... make it 2.
And chances are, no one will want to show their clothes on someone who doesn't quite fit their specific measurements (designed to showcase clothes, not women themselves) or the industry standards (Tall, young, usually white) because that will affect the buyers opinions of the clothes and their yearly sales.

These, among many other sad realities are ones that the judges and coaches of America's Next Top Model impart on the young ladies. There are things they need to be able to do, they are competing against one another for jobs, as well as thinner, younger, more established models.  And not being able to take a good picture, or walk, or interview well, frankly no, you won't be hired again.
America's Next Top Model's Plus Sized Winner
This is not to say that the show fully condones all of the industry's problematic stances on race, age, and body type, they are often spoken of loudly, but they are giving some insight into the industry to girls who otherwise wouldn't know, both on screen and sitting at home.

But I haven't yet talked about Modelland? What about that picture up top you might be thinking!  Modelland, Ms. Bank's first literary attempt is very much about exactly this same thing from a different perspective. Instead of taking girls through the paces of reality, Tyra is taking her reader on a symbolic journey in a sci-fi setting that asks the same questions: What is Beautiful? Is inner beauty most important? What is more important, relationships or success? And all of the industry's big issues: race, size, elitism, xenophobia, etc... are touched on and addressed.

The reviews of this Young Adult novel are mixed, but it debuted at #2 on the New York Times Bestseller list and while it is extremely campy it is a pleasurable read if you can go into it prepared for a sci-fi fashion world novel. It has some "first novel by an author" issues, but no more than most and passes the "I would hand this to a tween girl looking for this kind book" test in my mind. Thematically, it fits with Tyra's greater themes and messages and it's fun and entertaining.

On the most recent season of America's Next Top Model (the all star season) Tyra had the finalists "act/model" in a Motion Editorial (I will trust them that that is a thing) about Modelland, which is sensible from a transmedia standpoint. Although I wish they'd spent as much time on the props as on the dresses.

The second half of which revealed who the America's Next Top Model: All Stars winner was - Spoiler, it's this one.

This whole thing was quite savvy. In fact, the whole season was extremely smartly done when you consider that they were culling the fan favorites of past seasons and creating as much content for online distribution as they could fit into the schedule of the show.  Commercials, Music Videos, Copious references to each model's fanbase. At the end of the season, when a mysterious and as yet unexplained disqualification occurred in the finale, it only served to fan the fan flames higher after the show's season ended.

America's Next Top Model has always been a juggernaut of tie-ins, licenses and promotion, this year it came in as number 9 in number of product placement references.  Make of it what you will, it is completely honest and fairly reasoned about how it does these things.

ANTM and Tyra Banks, know their audience, young girls and women (and some men) who love the glamour of fame and fashion, and who dream of a life as a supermodel, but who would very rarely get to experience that life for themselves. This is illustrated in her expansive franchise empire of transmedia storytelling, leading with the factual foot and now expanding into fiction.

While not everyone will enjoy it, and plenty will argue that it's still very superficial, all of these pieces, America's Next Top Model, Modelland and the other books that have been produced by Ms. Banks, attempt at least to discuss Superficiality in some depth beyond the easy response of "superficiality is bad." These narratives recognize that superficiality exists, that it is an integral part of one of the most influential industries on the planet, and tries to demystify some of its workings to young girls in a way they will enjoy and understand.

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