America’s Next Top Model wrapped its finale Friday after 12 years and 22 seasons (or “cycles,” as the series preferred), and Entertainment Weekly wants us to “pay our respects” to a show that gave us some of the “most iconic” moments in reality TV history. Number one on EW’s list: ANTM’s judge/star/executive producer Tyra Banks ripping into a young, black single mom named Tiffany. In my 2010 book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, I deconstructed that unfortunate episode, along with other ugly, misogynist and racist tropes the series codified in the name of beauty—and more hypocritically, under the guise of Banks empowering girls to achieve their dreams. That section of the book is excerpted below.
Race, Beauty and the Tyranny of Tyra Banks
Debuting in 2003, America’s Next Top Model set many templates for racial typecasting on network reality TV.
Only six of the first 170 contestants were East or South Asian. The first, April Wilkner, half-Japanese and half-white, said that before she decided to model, “I never really thought about my ethnicity.” ANTM made sure viewers could think of little else. They framed her as uncomfortable with her cultural identity, while confusing that identity by adorning her with symbols from a country unconnected to her heritage (for example, Chinese lanterns placed on her head, a dragon painted on her chest).
Cut to the cycle-six audition of Gina Choe, who told us, “I’m not into Asian guys.” From then until her elimination five weeks later, Gina was edited as if she was struggling with “an identity crisis,” and stereotyped as an “exotic” fading flower who couldn’t stand up for herself when attacked by her competitors. She was vilified on the show, on fan sites, and by culture critics as being a poor representative of her race for making statements such as the following: “As a Korean person and as an American person, I’m just a little bit of both, and I don’t know which one I am more of.” What went unexplored was why Top Model thought it appropriate to make Gina feel she had to choose whether she was “more” tied to her ethnicity or her nationality—the subtext of which implies that a Korean American is not a “real” American, just as Indian American contestant Anchal was asked about attitudes in her “own country” during cycle seven.
Top Model mixed and matched from various long-held stereotypes about Asian women in American movies, described in The Asian Mystique as including the cold and calculating “Dragon Lady” (traits assigned to ambivalent April) and the submissive “China Doll” (docile Gina). When we were first introduced to cycle 11’s Sheena Sakai, a half-Japanese, half-Korean go-go dancer with a large rack and an even bigger swagger, she announced, “I’m gonna show you, America. You ain’t ready for this yellow fever. One time for the Asians!”
Sheena was recruited by a casting director who saw her working as a stuntwoman for the movie Tropic Thunder. But as is often the case on reality television, producers revealed only those details that reinforced the frame they’d chosen for her character—the clichéd “Vixen/Sex Nymph.” Her stunt work wasn’t discussed on the show or mentioned on her CW bio. Instead, she was criticized as too sexy in every episode—by a show that intentionally hyper-sexualized her. Early on a judge sneered, “You look like Victoria’s Secretions.” Later, during a challenge in Amsterdam’s red light district, where prostitutes pose in storefronts to entice customers, she was told she looked like she should be selling herself in that window, rather than modeling clothes.