The Tyra Banks Matriarchy: A Scholar's Take on America's Next Top Model

In honor of the beloved reality show's 10th birthday, a conversation with Rhonda Loverude, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on hegemonic heterosexuality in ANTM
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The cast of America's Next Top Model's first cycle, which premiered on UPN on May 20, 2003.

Ten years ago, on May 20, 2003, the first episode of America's Next Top Model aired on UPN.

Over the course of its run, the dramatic Tyra Banks-hosted modeling competition—in which contestants try to out-fierce one another on the runway and in photo shoots to win a contract at the end of the season—has hauled in some of UPN's (and later The CW's) biggest ratings, reimagined itself through some scheduling and format revamps, and hosted an ever-evolving lineup of celebrity judges.

And through it all, Rhonda Loverude has been there, faithfully tuning into every episode.

Many of us know someone who's seemingly obsessed with ANTM, but it's safe to say few people in the world have thought as deeply or as critically about the show as Loverude has. Loverude, who estimates that she's seen every installment of every nine- to 13-episode cycle of America's Next Top Model "no fewer than 15 to 25 times each," handed in a 352-page doctoral dissertation titled "America's Next Top Model Is... : Enforcing or Resisting Hegemonic Heterosexuality" to the faculty of the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2011.

Even after a grueling, nearly two-year process of researching and writing her ANTM opus, she's kept up with the show through what she calls the "dumb cycles" of recent years—and still watches Top Model marathons when they air, reciting lines along with the contestants. So in honor of ANTM's 10th birthday, I chatted with Loverude about the show's cultural legacy, its representations of gender, power, and sexuality in the United States, and how to do the ultimate liberal-arts reading of the series that taught America how to smize.

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

So when America's Next Top Model came on the air in 2003, why do you think it became such a phenomenon? What was it putting on TV that was so revolutionary?

It was something different at the time; there weren't a lot of modeling shows. There were plenty of makeover shows—weight-loss makeover shows, home makeover shows—but this was the first one where you got to see young women plucked out of obscurity. Like in Cycle Two, there was Shandi, who was a Walgreens clerk. And she was just... nerdy-looking! And I say that as a fellow nerd. But she ended up being gorgeous and a really good model.

In your dissertation, you identified Shandi as one of the archetypes that often shows up on the series—

Yes! The Odd, Seemingly Unattractive Woman.

Yeah! I love that. Your academic work discusses the sorts of packaged representations of women that America's Next Top Model often depicts. Can you talk a little more about putting together your inventory of the "archetypes" or "stock characters" that repeatedly show up on ANTM?

I watched all the cycles repeatedly and I was seeing certain types of people repeated—even if, say, the Odd, Seemingly Unattractive Woman types didn't always look similar to one another. Not everyone looked like Shandi. But I could see what the producers were doing: They were, in a way, pigeonholing all these different women into these archetypes. So that's what I came up with—I watched every cycle and it was like "OK, well, there's The Bitch."

They always had a Bitch, every cycle. And then there were always plenty of women with a Tragic Backstory. Or someone who's Hiding a Secret Illness. I always thought the Bitch lasted too long in most of the cycles. But, honestly, that makes sense—the Bitch creates drama. Like Camille, from Cycle Two, could have been eliminated a lot earlier than she was.

There's always a Young Naïve Girl, in every cycle. The Australian and British versions had the Young Naïve Girl, too. There was always an Extremely Religious Woman—that was one that carried over, too. And I didn't see it every cycle, but the Badass but Nice Woman—she was on a fair amount. The Odd, Seemingly Unattractive Woman was in every cycle, and so was the Barbie Doll Lookalike/Actalike. To me, anyway, it always seemed like they chose one person who was very commercial-looking.

You studied some other English-speaking countries' spinoff Next Top Model shows, too. Do those archetypes show up in the other, international versions?

Some do. Some of the British and Australian cycles had archetypes that were distinctly British or Australian. In the Australian version, there was the Joker—the woman who loved to prank others. She was always playing jokes on the other women in the house. Another archetype that came up in the Australian version was the Unstable Woman—the woman who cried seemingly constantly, who fell apart in an instant. And the Insecure Girl, the girl who really lacked confidence. Unfortunately, those two were often the same contestant. Australia also had the Boring Blonde Mannequin.

And then there's the Party Girl in Australia's Top Model. You didn't see her so much in the American version; drinking was pretty frowned-upon in the American version. But the Australian version and the British version, when they would move into their house, they had fully stocked liquor cabinets. Which you never saw on the American version! I guess you could argue that there were some party girls in the American version, but it wasn't as blatant; it wasn't celebrated. If that was the case, the judges were very upset. "You've been drinking; you don't look good." But it was much more acceptable in the other versions.

Presented by

Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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