October 10, 2008
By Alex Jung
I was an avid viewer of America’s Next Top Model from the very first season up until the ninth. The show was my weekly fix, as it offered up a crazed Petri dish filled with wannabe models and their leader, Tyra Banks. As the show lurched towards its tenth cycle, you could say it had lost its edge. The ever-increasing shrieks of the modeltestants seemed to be a calculated disguise of Tyra’s own mounting disinterest in the show, and the churning out of winners twice a year made each one more forgettable than the last.
Tyra has always had questionable politics. While she was clearly concerned with the paucity of models of color, she was also quite clearly of the opinion that individual talent and will are sufficient to overcome structural racism. Her odd, sometimes kooky, forays into multiculturalism (does anyone remember when she made her models change races?) were self-parodies of colorblindness, not to be taken seriously.
But then, while watching the premiere episode of the last season, it became too much.
A fight erupted between a Somali immigrant named Fatima and U.S.-born Black models Shalynda and Shaya. Fatima told them, “You look like the typical ghetto person,” contrasting herself as a “beautiful African person who has manners, education and class.” I could feel the cameramen eating this up, and, at that moment, I turned it off. Tyra had gone too far. As if to confirm this, I later read that Tyra had the hopeful models pose in couture next to homeless people for their first photo shoot. The reality show, while incredibly farcical, had brought in women of color with real backgrounds, concerns and hopes, and painted them up only to sling mud at them later. What was once a brainless indulgence had finally hit on too many of my nerves.
But I’m not alone here. I have a completely unscientific theory that young people in the social justice movement are all slightly obsessed with bad television and gossip rags; they provide temporary relief to the unrelenting difficulties of the work they do. Witnessing the hardships of Paris Hilton, on the other hand, requires little social analysis. There is no nuance when Britney Spears fails to wear undergarments.
Now I’ve turned my eye towards Gossip Girl, a show about the lives of white, blue-blooded high schoolers in all their scheming, weaseling, blackmailing and inebriated glory. It is gleefully preposterous, with a saucy, omniscient narrator whose blog (Gossip Girl, natch) is “the one and only source into the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite.” In one delightful episode (spoiler ahead, should you feel the desire to immediately watch this show), rookie social climber Jenny Humphrey lies about losing her virginity with the very rich and very gay Asher so she can throw her first Upper East Side soiree with him. When social matriarch Blair Waldorf takes her down, Gossip Girl intones, “Don’t worry, Little J, the sun will come out tomorrow. Even though your boyfriend did tonight.” Ha! Other gems have included the theft of a $15,000 Valentino gown, a father bribing his son and high schoolers drinking champagne in the quad. Its excessiveness foments the belief: That must be what it’s really like!
I notice, too, that I’m bored by the show’s nice charactersrepresented by flaxen-haired Serena Van der Woodsen and Nathaniel Archibaldbut I revel in the predatory gaze of Chuck Bass and wily tricks of Blair. They are lovable Iagos, damaged by privilege and slightly deranged as a result. (To wit, Blair’s mother tells her daughter at breakfast, “Before you tuck into that [dress], you may find a nonfat yogurt more to your liking.”)
Their lives are so entirely removed from my own (even in the fictional sense) that I can watch on without concern of how my people, or other marginalized communities, are being portrayed. This white-wonderland fantasy is not entirely complete. Gossip Girl occasionally falls victim to the disease of tokenism when it features throwaway characters of color.
I watch Gossip Girl and follow the Britney saga precisely because they are not like me. Celebrities occupy some bizarre alternate universe, where breakups and bad hair days are filtered through the prism of millions of dollars, suddenly making them different, if not trivial. If bad television is to be escapist, then it cannot bring in my daily exasperations. I will gladly swap my burdens for the trappings of white, upper-crust anxiety for 42 minutes a week. Bring on the gossip.
Alex Jung is busy watching television. Colorlines can be found on the web at: http://colorlines.com/