Arts & Entertainment

ANTM: Reckoning with problematic nostalgia

Opinion: How to rewatch, criticize and appreciate America’s Next Top Model

BY: Mo Juenger, World News Editor

This winter brought on a double whammy of seasonal and pandemic blues to many, myself included. As I strove to minimize my sadness, I decided the only rational course was to binge-watch my favorite childhood television shows. 

The ensuing nostalgia did help to get me out of my cold-weather slump, but it also reminded me of the problematic early 2000s world. Rewatching shows that had once seemed playful and innocent, I foundmyself offended by nearly every other line in some of the entertainment. 

And so there it was: cancel culture in action. Perhaps not an entire culture, but my own brain responded to a 20-year-old show with modern vocabulary and actions. 

But was it really cancel culture to cancel something truly harmful? As I watched America’s Next Top Model (ANTM), a show that I spent my tweenage years religiously watching with my mom, I felt my stomach churn. 

Shock overwhelmed me as I listened to barely-twenty-somethings engage in harmful and unhealthy diets, abject bullying and discrimination of every type. Black women were called bossy and too loud; Asian women were mousy and silent. White girls were automatic frontrunners, with “cherry-pie” traditional, American looks. 

Bisexual or gay women were grilled with intimate questions about their sexualities. Fat women had to “work harder” (a theme connecting all plus-sized models in early seasons) to be at the same professional level as others. 

The overwhelming inappropriateness of ANTM struck me as maddening; I couldn’t believe I had been permitted to watch the show as a child, and I couldn’t believe I enjoyed it. 

Older seasons of the show, if not all seasons, are problematic. That much is clear. But as I rewatched, it forced me to consider how the show’s obvious discrimination influenced my adolescent brain. 

As a White person who grew up in a predominantly-White area, I know that I entered this world with implicit bias. But as I looked back at ANTM, I found myself noting that the show had wildly different effects on different biases I held. 

Rewatching season three (spoiler alerts ahead), I found myself rooting for Eva — the season’s eventual winner. An intelligent and confident Black woman, Eva spoke up for herself. Her self-confidence ultimately paid off, and her win countered the stereotype that Black women are too loud. Confidence defined Eva when I watched the show without a preconception of racial stereotyping. 

But as I watched plus-size models degraded and evaluated with far higher standards than non-plus size models, I considered how the show shaped my relationship with body size throughout the years. 

A very fit and active teenager, college weight gain was new and incredibly frustrating to me. I couldn’t stand the new shape of my body after I gained the freshman fifteen, and in some part, I think that ANTM shaped that part of my brain. The auto-fatphobia I experienced was linked to a wild unhealthy body image I held of constant low-carb diets, vigorous everyday exercise and self-punishment for weight gain. 

No show will ever be perfect, or will ever likely be flawless upon rewatching. Rarely will we, as Gen Zers, find a childhood show that doesn’t cause offense now. 

This doesn’t mean that we ought to evaluate old shows by the standards of their time or ours. All it means is that we can be more conscious; we can be conscious of how old shows affected us and of how they still affect us, both positively and negatively. 

We can nostalgically look at old role models while still condemning inappropriate or offensive behaviors they display. If ANTM, a show that has been publicly and privately condemned for years now, is any guide, there is beauty in nostalgia. Even if it is marred by modern perspectives and even if we disagree with content now, nostalgia can motivate us to make better choices in television and in life today. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr.com

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