Over the 19 cycles of “America’s Next Top Model,” the reality modeling competition show has been subject to much-deserved critiques for its depiction of race, gender, and dominant standards of beauty. The best of these critiques have come from Jennifer L. Pozner in her book Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About About Guilty Pleasure TV. I’m not disputing that “ANTM” is not guilty as charged for reality TV staples of catfights and mixed messages about body image. But it occurred to me while watching episode two of cycle 19 (in which the women pose as taxidermied animals with their heads mounted on walls — never accuse Banks of not knowing how to be provocative!) that for all its faults, “ANTM” would pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.
The Bechdel test, named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel and designed to assess how a piece of pop culture depicts women, has three parts: 1) it has at least two women, 2) who have a conversation with each other, 3) about something other than men. “ANTM” are a cast of almost exclusively women who have conversations with each other constantly about anything but men: their families, their pasts, their modeling careers, each other.
True, the women are not having the deepest conversations on TV. But the point is that men — whether they are male judges, boyfriends back home, or fathers — are only passingly referenced. You can’t say the same for other reality TV shows like “Jersey Shore,” or even “Mob Wives,” which are ostensibly about other topics but devote episodes upon episodes to catching a man. In Tyra’s little corner of the television landscape, sex/flirtation/fighting for the affections of a guy are nonexistent.
To be sure, mens’ fingerprints are all over the show: “ANTM” is predicated on standards of beauty that have been perpetuated by the patriarchy. But give it this much: unlike other reality TV shows the competition has nothing to do with leaving the show with a ring on your finger — or even just a boyfriend.