What if we gave up the “top-model” paradigm rather than expanding it?

This summer has seen the inauguration of two new “top-model” type of reality shows that expand the concept of beauty in both positive and negative ways. On the plus side, Britain’s Missing Top Model and TVLand’s She’s Got the Look each expand the definition of who counts as beautiful by going against ableist and ageist beauty standards.

However, the better option, if you ask me, would be to do away with the beauty competition paradigm altogether. Expanding the definition of beauty does nothing to question or destabilize the beauty imperative wherein (mainly women) are constructed as chess(t) pieces competing for dubious hotness prizes.

Feminism has critiqued this beauty imperative from way back. For example, Mary Wollestonecraft weighed in against beauty in A Vindication of the Rights of Women back in 1792 while Sojourner Truth rallied against white supremacist, classist definitions of beauty in the 1850s. More recently, in one of my favorites, Sandra Lee Bartky riles against disciplinarian beauty norms and practices in “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.”

Yet, the reality shows that trade in women (from bartering them off to Joe Millionairres or cutting them up Swan style) have no truck with feminism. They pander to keeping the ‘woman as object’ archetype firmly in place. As a case in point, check out the great analysis over at The Feminist Underground of yet another recent reality show offender on FOX, The Battle of the Bods.

Missing Top Model and She’s Got the Look endeavor to get more women to join in the ‘fun’ of defining themselves via their looks. The title of Missing… in and of itself is offensive. It constructs disabled women as not fully human with its use of the word ‘missing.’ (For a good analysis of this shows many wrongs, see this post at WIMN’s Voices.)

As for She’s Got the Look, it trades in the oh-so-maddening MILF narrative-a trend that suggests women of all ages can be subjected to a controlling, penetrating male gaze-how empowering! As Jessica at Feministing quips in regards to “She’s Got the Look,” “why should young women have all that objectification fun!” Yes indeed, why should we limit kowtowing to beauty norms to a select few-let’s expand the playing field so all women can chain themselves to beauty mandates and be defined solely as eye candy!

The problem is that expanding the definition of beauty is an assimilationist move. It does nothing to topple the panopticon of beauty wherein (mainly women) are prompted to police themselves and others while (mainly men) are given the warden keys of control. Similar to gay assimilationist moves that attempt to gain access to problematic institutions rather than to overthrow them (such as marriage and its accompanying 1000plus legal privileges), beauty assimilation merely expands who gets to take part in the oppressive beauty matrix.

This is not to say that beauty can’t be fun, that enjoying the body and its appearance is always oppressive. Rather, it is the current ways that beauty is defined, institutionalized, and capitalized that is problematic. We need to queer beauty, to politicize it, to redefine it, not merely expand the existing limiting definitions of beauty that are capitalist, white supremacist, and heteronormative (among other things).

No, this does not mean enjoying wearing make up or fashion or body ornamentation makes you a ‘bad feminist’ (I disagree with Bartky here). What it means is that as feminists we need to be conscious of our beauty practices and analyze our motives. (This is an old debate, one that has been re-hashed over and over, yet the “if you wear make up you are not a true feminist” stereotype refuses to die). Beautifying and appreciating others beauty should be a fun, pleasureful practice-much like sex. It should not be a stick to beat ourselves or others with. It should also involve consent rather than coercion.* And it should not involve competitions – reality TV based or otherwise. Like the collective voices of a number of feminists in 1968 who penned the classic essay “No More Miss America,” let’s protest the “The Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol” these shows perpetuate, let’s say no to “Racism with Roses,” and let’s say NO to “The Consumer Con-Game” of the beauty/pageant/top model paradigm.

*For an interesting post and follow-up discussion about appreciating the beauty/phycisality of others in non-oprressive ways, see “I Objectify Men” over at Feministe.


9 thoughts on “What if we gave up the “top-model” paradigm rather than expanding it?”

  1. Here via Feministe.

    I admit, I’m really taken with the poorly-named ‘missing top model’ show because I like the idea of disability being shown on t.v. in something other than the “pity the poor cripple” mode that seems to be the norm.

    On the other hand, I haven’t seen the show.

    I don’t like the beauty aspect of it, but at the same time so many people with disabilities are told that they’re disgusting and should be hidden away so as to not disturb the ‘normal’ folks.

    Arg. I want it to be easy, but it isn’t, because the criticisms are very strong, while at the same time I can see some good coming out of it.

  2. Welcome to the blog Anna. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    I agree with you that the name is indeed very problematic. I too like the idea of a positive representation of disability. However, this show makes me question whether it is better to not be represented at all than to be represented in such a damaging way…

    From the stills I have seen of the show, the contestants are all ‘traditionally beautiful’ as well as thin and white! Yet, as you point out, the implicit message that people with disabilities are beautiful has merit.

  3. “Beautifying and appreciating others beauty should be a fun, pleasureful practice-much like sex. It should not be a stick to beat ourselves or others with. It should also involve consent rather than coercion.”

    Hear, hear! And thanks for including Le loup’s post in your insightful article!

  4. Thank you for writing this. I just got into a huge fight with my brother regarding this very issue and it is nice to hear a thinking person validate my thoughts. Beauty in and of itself is a problematic concept. When we look at them and judge them attractive we are bringing in a whole host of social conditioning that we rarely even consciously acknowledge. These means that some groups will necessarily be constructed as anti woman because socially they have been constructed as less than. Whether it is is dark skinned black women as ugly or fat women as invisible and therefore unlovable we need to consciously think about what we associate with beauty and why. Thanks for your eloquent post.

  5. Renee,

    So glad you liked the post!

    Thank you for pointing out that “Whether it is is dark skinned black women as ugly or fat women as invisible and therefore unlovable we need to consciously think about what we associate with beauty and why.” As you elucidate, when beauty is constructed as a competition, some people (usually women) are always going to be codified as the ‘not beautiful’ losers.

    I find it disheartening that we humans (and especially those of us that are female) fall into the trap of fighting for beauty prizes in all their forms. Sadly, ‘beauty validation’ seems as addictive as a drug–and far too many women become lifelong addicts.

  6. Hi,

    I’m writing an article on beauty pageants in modern society, looking at the controversy that surrounds them and whether they have any value or place in the 21st century. I’m also looking at attempts to offer ‘alternative’, more open-minded beauty contests such as Britain’s Missing Top Model and others, and asking whether they are successful in their ‘feminist’ aims or whether they fail. I’d love to hear your thoughts/comments if you’d be willing to talk to me, or to let me quote this essay in my article. I can be contacted at jostimpson(at)gmail(dot)com, before Monday December 8th. Thanks very much!

  7. Jo,
    Thanks for contacting me. I don’t think “alternative pageants” are very successful, at least not thus far. In my feminist theory class, we read a piece about the protests against the Miss America Pageant and I ask students to work in groups to come up with a “feminist pageant” or a “social justice pageant” — most either decide such a pageant is impossible or else create something so different from the pageant format that they wonder whether it can really be called a pageant…

    Anyhow, I wrote a paper on The Swan in which I discussed beauty pageants at length — it was published in volume 30 of Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. You are also welcome to quote from this post or the blog in general.

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