When my daughter was in second grade, the girls in her class became fascinated by the television show America’s Next Top Model (ANTM). Play-dates, sleepovers and birthday parties were scheduled around the show. Hallways were converted into faux runways, and party bags contained lipstick and eye-liner.
ANTM was created by Tyra Banks, a wildly successful supermodel who hosts a competition for aspiring models. When my daughter first told me about the show, I watched Top Model on my own, to check it out. I expected to hate it with 100% fervor, certain that every feminist fiber in my body would break out in hives. But as the episodes unfolded, my reaction was mixed.
Top Model contestants live together for months, in close quarters. As the competition progressed, personalities revealed themselves. Some stepped forward as fine people, but not all. A significant number reverted to school-yard bullying, shamelessly ganging up on each other. Some dropped homophobic and transphobic remarks. Several tossed out snarky comments about their competitors’ weight and appearance.
But Tyra Banks took me by surprise. She defended interesting, off-the-beaten-path features, including larger sized models. She encouraged viewers to broaden their definitions of beauty. She treated all racial heritages as equally attractive. She was outspoken, supporting the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Tyra Banks was articulate, lightning-intelligent, and a stunningly effective teacher when she coached her contestants in technique.
Although I respected Tyra Banks’ talent, I found many values of the modeling industry outright harmful. I have three children – two sons, and one daughter. As a mother of both male and female kids, I’ve experienced the cultural values regarding gender that continuously smack my kids in the face. It begins on Day One. When my boys were infants, strangers looked at my slumbering, 8-pound puppies, and pronounced them “strong and smart”; with my daughter, strangers called her “pretty”. Gender stereotypes are alive and well.
My husband and I talked through our choices, figuring out how to handle our ANTM dilemma.
Option #1: Our daughter could watch the show, with no guidance — which was the choice of many other parents, and which we rejected immediately.
Option #2: We could outlaw the show — but with all the other girls entranced, we felt our daughter would become drawn to Top Model like forbidden fruit, sneaking behind our backs, and unable to turn to us for help with the values because she would have to blow her cover.
We decided on Option #3: Our daughter could watch ANTM, but one of us had to watch with her. As overt or covert messages emerged, we’d be there to offer alternative perspectives.
A few friends thought we were making a huge mistake, arguing that seven-years-old was too young, too impressionable. I agreed with the too-young-too-impressionable part, but not with the huge mistake part. Gender stereotypes crop up all over our culture. That’s the reality. Would I have preferred that my daughter didn’t encounter these values until much later (or not at all)? Of course. But that piece was out of my control. Her classroom was filled with ANTM acolytes, and we had to deal with it.
So we watched the show, as a family, with a running commentary. My sons and daughter learned to identify comments that reflected assumptions about females, about physical appearance, about bigotry. We talked about the pressure to be thin, a value already emerging in some second grade girls who worried about being “fat”. We discussed our culture’s hyper-emphasis on beauty. We also gave kudos to Tyra for her progressive approach to defining attractiveness, for her support of racial equality and LGBTQ rights, and for her “mad skills” (sic my oldest son) as a teacher.
Around her tenth birthday, my daughter lost interest in Top Model. But something had taken root in the course of watching that show: my daughter and her two older brothers — ages 10, 12 and 15 — all began calling themselves “feminists”. And they still do.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a novelist, blogger and mother of three grown children. Amy wrote her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a rookie psychology intern through her first year of training. Amy blogs on a variety of subjects including parenting, LGBTQ+ ally support, gender equality and a Rolling Stones concert. Amy also collaborates with educators who include her books in their curriculum.
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