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.

I feel terrible saying these things, by the way! [Laughs] I'm not usually one to judge women so harshly. But I had to, to write about this.

You mentioned that standards of beauty were observably different on the international versions of the show. What did you notice about other countries' standards for what constitutes a beautiful woman?

It varied cycle to cycle. In the American version, yes, they would cast some plus-size women. But generally, they wanted very thin women, and you couldn't be too short. They did finally do a petite cycle in Cycle 13—and as a very short person, I was like, well, it's about damn time!

But in the British and the Australian versions, their standards of beauty—at least as you'd learn about them from watching the show—were that they could be a little bit curvier. They still liked tall, thin, young women, but you could be curvier and still have an opportunity to succeed.

America's Next Top Model is broadcast in 170 countries around the world. So let's say you're someone who's never been to the U.S. What do you think you would learn—rightly or wrongly—about the United States from watching 10 years of America's Next Top Model?

Oh, boy.

I think if you watched 10 years of ANTM and had never been exposed to America before, you'd think that in the United States you absolutely need to be thin. And that you can't have a very big chest, because then it's scandalous. [Note: In her dissertation, Loverude mentions that contestants with large breasts "often hear (comments that) have to do with their appearance being more suitable to men's magazines, not high fashion."] And that you have to exercise all the time. There were a lot of clips—especially in Cycles Two and Four—of the women exercising. They had a trainer that came in who was always trying to kick their ass.

But as far as standards of beauty in the U.S., you'd learn that you've got to be thin, and you don't want to be short. You're better off if you have light skin and lighter-colored hair. They repeatedly, each time there's a makeover, bleach someone's hair crazy-blonde. You'd learn that it's better to be tall, and that curves are very rarely considered good—at least in the modeling world. If this is the only exposure you have to the United States and you're a curvy woman, you're going to think you're hideous. And that's not totally fair, because Tyra herself is curvy—she's busty for a model. But she's also very tall, and for the most part, she's very slim, as well.

I think you would think the norm in American society is that homosexuality is just very openly accepted in this country, too. On the show, over and over again, the gay men who help in every aspect of the show, Tyra repeatedly tells the contestants that "without the gay men, we wouldn't be able to do this." In the ANTM world, it's very accepted.

In your dissertation, you raise the question of how Britain's, Australia's, and America's Next Top Model "enforce or resist hegemony." That's a huge, heady topic, of course, but what are just a few of the ways ANTM addresses hegemony, like hegemonic masculinity or patriarchy?

Well, the open acceptance of gays and lesbians. Certainly what I noticed in the Australian and British versions was that being gay wasn't that big of a deal; it wasn't something the host would point out. Whereas Tyra pointed it out repeatedly. But in terms of hegemony in the American version, there was a hegemonic construct on America's Next Top Model that didn't necessarily match up with U.S. society as a whole: On the show, gay people were respected and revered.

Tall, skinny, sort of nerdy-looking girls were eagerly embraced, too, whereas they might otherwise be ignored in average U.S. society.

And in terms of patriarchy—well, America's Next Top Model, to me, always seemed like an example of a matriarchy. Tyra's in charge—Tyra edits the photos, she counsels the women, she's sort of the tough-love mom. The show was essentially Tyra's idea, so she was in charge of everything. You know: She would assign a new look to a contestant on Makeover Day, and if that look wasn't working, Mr. Jay [Manuel] and Miss J. [Alexander] would always call Tyra to get her—well, you could say her opinion, but I would say it's her permission—to do something differently from how she'd intended. But I think that's part of what I liked about the show; it did seem like a matriarchal society. The hegemonic construct she created was that women were in charge here. Women and gay men.

Flips the script a little, doesn't it?

Yeah, it does. In a good way.

Certain parts of the show have just become entrenched in pop culture—like "smize," for instance, which became pretty common jargon once Tyra said it on Top Model. What do you think made ANTM resonate with American viewers the way it did?

It's a Cinderella story. Someone who doesn't have any experience modeling, has maybe been considered sort of an ugly duckling for a long time, gets on the show and gets a makeover, gets to put on amazing clothes and makeup, and then gets to be in beautiful photographs.

I think another part of its appeal is seeing the behind-the-scenes of what it takes to be a model. It says to its audience, OK, now when you look at pictures in magazines, you'll understand what goes on and what goes into making the person look that good. You'll know that the person isn't going to look that good in real life, necessarily, because she hasn't been Photoshopped or isn't wearing professional makeup. You'll know when you see ads that it took a lot to make a [model] look like that—so ultimately it's OK if you don't.

That's counterintuitive, for a show about competitive modeling to make viewers feel better about themselves.

Absolutely. I mean, on the other hand, it encouraged some really obnoxious things, as well. But that's why I've liked it so much, and I think why other people like it too. It gives you a glimpse of someone succeeding in an industry they were never supposed to succeed in. It's nice to sometimes see women who have likely been considered nerdy-looking their whole lives be considered beautiful.