Can one be a feminist and a top model?

Judging by last night’s episode of America’s Top Model (yes, this is one of my guilty pleasures!), the answer is no.  The latest contestant to get the boot, Sara, (left), spent much of the episode talking about how she is a feminist and how that hindered her ability to get into character for a retro, Mad Men inspired, coffee commercial.  Under non-modeling activities on her profile,  Sara writes,  “I’m really involved with Planned Parenthood activities on our campus.”

Now, I have no idea if that’s why the panel eliminated her — and in the interest of objectivity, I agreed with the judges that her performance in the commercial was one of the weakest.   I also don’t think whoever edited the episode intended to give the impression that saying you’re a feminist immediately gets you black-balled (although I can imagine that some might see it that way).  A few years ago, The Economist wrote an article about Tyra’s “unusual” brand of  feminism:

“Tyra doesn’t use the word “feminist” on the show, but her woman-specific shtick is indeed a feminist manifesto: one that finds empowerment in looking extraordinarily beautiful in photographs (or in becoming the star of a hit reality show), and in achieving this by any means necessary.”

In this sense, Tyra represents the brand of individualist feminism described by Susan Ware in Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism.  Ware’s latest book, Game Set Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports, provides a completely different model of feminism:

“When Billie Jean King trounced Bobby Riggs in tennis’s “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973, she placed sports squarely at the center of a national debate about gender equity. Combining biography and history, this book argues that Billie Jean King’s spirited challenges to sexism on and off the court, the supportive climate of second-wave feminism, and the legislative clout of Title IX sparked a women’s sports revolution in the 1970s that fundamentally reshaped American society. King’s place in tennis history is secure, but now she can take her rightful place as a key player in the history of feminism as well.”

All this leads to the question, why would a feminist want to be a top model.  Well, let’s look at Sara’s financial situation — she works two jobs so she can go to college.  Modeling is one of the few occupations where women make more than men (and if you’re a supermodel like Tyra, way more).  So, one can understand why she entered the contest.  Unfortunately, her interest in continuing studies and ambivalence about the sexism of the modeling profession got framed as a “lack of commitment.”  Too bad.  It would have been great to see a tom-boyish, articulate, unabashed feminist as top model!

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2 Comments

  1. Great post. I’ve thought about this a lot. I think what it comes down to, is you might end up winning “top model” (as a PR move) but the industry is really looking for women who are more subservient. It might be difficult to book jobs if you’re known as “that girl”. The modeling industry is based on so many of the values that feminism is against…and no one wants someone to rock the boat.

    Now, I have this debate with my friends…can you still be a feminist and watch (and like) shows like Jersey Shore?

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