Britain’s Missing Top Model

Britain's Missing Top Model castLast night, BBC America began airing Britain’s Missing Top Model, prompting a wave of media attention on this side of the pond. Focusing on eight women with disabilities who aspire to be models, and seemingly based on the international hit America’s Next Top Model format, the series originally aired in the summer of 2008 on BBC 3.

A lot of press on this show, in 2008 and today, has focused on the potentially inspiring element of the competition. Presenting disabled women as sexually desirable is still a rarity in most television and mass media, and thus the self-confidence, beauty, and audacity of the contestants has been applauded. Yet, no coverage seems untroubled by the premise of the show. Questions of exploitation, ongoing discrimination, and possible offensive content have been raised both in 2008 and again this week.

In TIME’s 2008 coverage, for instance, the author points out that the guaranteed modelling contract associated with Top Model programs is notably absent, as the winner merely got the chance to be considered by an agency. And Liz Carr, of BBC’s Ouch! radio program, adds

I’m not sure that seeing disabled women prance around in lingerie and having their bodies objectified is the best way to change representation.

In the transition to American cable television, The New York Times, online newsmagazine Salon and Gawker blog Jezebel have taken up the contradictions and mixed messages in the program. NYT gets off on the wrong foot entirely, claiming modeling as the “last bastion of prejudice” in which people are discriminated against because of their looks. Of course, many people including those with disabilities do face discrimination and/or harassment because of their appearance in many walks of life. Of course, modeling is an industry based on upholding standards of beauty, but even the Grey Lady recognizes that the contestants of BMTM are more conventional than not. Young, thin, white and confident, these women very nearly meet conventional standards of beauty, as Kate Harding snarks in Salon – “Now it’s just about the 100 or so demerits the show deserves for sexism, exploitation, cluelessness, condescension, etc. — and I feel perfectly confident docking those points without having seen the show.” Jezebel‘s pre-show coverage and later review have the same takeaway – thin is still in!

Concerns about exploitation of the models run high in the NYT, as the show “makes a spectacle of their hunger for acceptance.” Reality TV is villianized, of course, for its reliance on highlighting the insecurities of participants, and a paternalistic thread runs through the article. Harding, as well, insinuates that the show designs challenges to demoralize each contestant in turn – a tactic that traditional Top Model has always used, as well.

A final controversy centers on the inclusion of women with invisible disabilities, including two deaf women. The judges, and media coverage of the show, can’t decide whether a disability that is not noticeable in a photograph “counts” toward their stated mission of finding a model with a disability to celebrate. In such concerns, it’s hard not to think of Heather Kuzmich, a contestant on cycle 9 of America’s Next Top Model who was open about her Asperger’s.

I haven’t seen Britain’s Missing Top Model yet – it’s on the DVR! and I love shows about models! – but I’m curious about how these intersections of disability, gender, beauty, and fashion will play out. And, I’d add, the intersection of British television and culture with American audiences looks to be another possible site of controversy. Though none of the above sources mention it, the cultural environment around BMTM is quite different from the American media landscape. Produced by a public service broadcaster (BBC 3) with a mandate regarding inclusion, it seems unlikely that exploitation or fetishism is the primary motivation behind the show. Furthermore, from its online presence on the BBC site, BMTM prominently links to Ouch!, “the BBC’s disability website.” Ouch! has forums, a blog and podcasts – it’s an integrated part of the media landscape in a way that disability certainly isn’t by American networks. The UK has its own vibrant history of disability theory and activism, as well, and I can’t help but be interested in the cultural differences that may shape reception of this show in the US, under a different set of discourses and expectations around disability.

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