When white, blue-collar, middle American workers overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in November, the narrow victories in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania he scored as a result came as a shock to almost everyone. What was even more shocking, at least to some observers, was the amount of support he received from white women. But, as someone who spent the past several months re-watching America’s Next Top Model, I can tell you that we really should have seen this coming.
The reality competition series, which debuted in 2003, is often a shining example of the divide between conservatives and liberals. The network may have changed over the years from UPN to the CW and, most recently, to VH1, but the messaging was always the same. If we had been paying better attention, we would have seen white contestants from all over the map making their prejudices loudly known. These weren’t the uneducated hillbillies screaming about their guns—that tends to be our caricature of Trump voters. Instead, these were beautiful, young and typically upper-middle-class white women who brought racism, homophobia, transphobia and a penchant for saying “That’s just how I was raised” into the house.
Of course, this came as no shock to the millions of Americans who are victims of such prejudices daily. But for liberals stuck in a bubble fueled by the echo chamber of their Twitter feed, the show should have been a red flag that America was not as progressive as we like to believe.
Each season (or ‘cycle’ in the world of ANTM), host and executive producer Tyra Banks made her best effort to break beauty molds, embrace diversity and change the way people thought about models and the modeling industry itself. She tried to achieve those goals by regularly casting plus-size models, LGBTQ contestants and girls of every ethnicity. They were always beautiful and, most importantly, they were fierce.
But Banks’ desire for inclusion was not shared by all of the contestants. Each cycle gave viewers endless confessionals and private conversations that put their bigotry on full display. This occurred within the first few episodes of Cycle One, when Robin Manning, a devout Christian from Tennessee, took it upon herself to harshly criticize the lifestyle of Ebony Haith, an openly gay contestant from New York. Manning even refused to leave her room when Haith’s girlfriend came to visit the house, adamant that she remain far removed from any homosexual activity in the house. Other LGBTQ competitors, like Cycle Five’s Kim Stolz and Cycle Eleven’s Isis King, had similar conflicts with fellow contestants.
As the first transgender ANTM contestant, King was constantly defined by her gender during the show. Even in the casting episodes, girls huddled together to discuss how uncomfortable it made them, how “masculine” she looked, and even suggested that she be disqualified. One rival, Clark Gilmer, repeatedly called her a “he” or “he-she” or “it.” Meanwhile, Hannah White had problems with King and the other women of color in the house: Identifying herself as a “stereotypical white person,” she said she didn’t like how loud black people were, didn’t listen to “that” music, and would normally never want to be around someone like King. White eventually cried after being called out as intolerant, probably because she never had been before.
Race was an issue in almost every season of ANTM. “Ghetto,” for instance, was a common term for white contestants to use when they just couldn’t put a finger on why they didn’t quite like a black woman in the house. Banks herself often reminded black contestants not to fall into the “black bitch” stereotype of seasons past, yet seemed, perhaps intentionally, to continue editing those characters into the show. Much has been made about Banks’ attempts to downplay the contestants’ blackness by forcing them to work on their diction, encouraging them to lose their accents, and rarely allowing them to keep their natural hairstyles.
Tiffany Richardson, of Cycles Three and Four, was Banks’s biggest project. Richardson expressed her frustration after a confrontational night out with the girls, making it clear that she was frustrated with herself, but also with what she knew America’s perception of her would be. She tearfully told her peers that she didn’t want to fight anymore, but that violence was all she knew. And, while she spoke specifically about her position as the “angry black woman” in the ANTM house, her words were also a succinct statement of her position as a black woman in America. Her fight got her removed from the competition; when she returned the following year, she eventually found herself on the receiving end of Banks’ wrath, in one of the most GIF-worthy moments in the series’ history. Feeling like Richardson wasn’t living up to her potential, and personally insulted that Richardson was “wasting” another opportunity, Banks launched into a tirade for the record books. A decade later, Richardson finally gave her thoughts on the argument, saying, “It was beautiful for TV. They love to see black girls struggling and somebody coming to save her… and that just didn’t work out that way this time.”
Another issue, aside from the backwards views of some of the girls, was their portrayal on the show. Their intolerances were either not addressed or addressed briefly, at best. Take Cycle Six’s Dani, an 18-year-old from Texas who excused her hatred of gay people and affirmative action as a refusal to “sugarcoat” things—a preview of the “tell it like it is” platform of Donald Trump. Even though she didn’t make it into the house, we were never led to believe that her prejudices were the reason. In fact, Banks and the other judges discussed how her views were something they could easily work with, implying that she could be molded into something other than a racist. If they’ve figured that out, I seriously hope they’re working on a patent as we speak.
Some of this can be said about any reality show, of course. The idea of putting a bunch of strangers in a room together to see sparks fly is nothing new, nor is the fact that it leads to conflicts. After all, the hallmark of reality TV is how quickly you can get people fighting or hooking up, and in a house with predominantly heterosexual women, fighting is often the best you can do. But the difference between what happened in the ANTM house and O.G. reality villains like The Real World’s Puck lies in the subtlety and unexpectedness of ANTM’s bigotry. To start, the intolerance never came from attention-grabbing characters, old white men or uneducated “deplorables.” These were young, well-off women from across the country, with little other than their hatred in common.
What Banks meant to do was give us a glimpse of what modeling could be with a diverse range of girls, proving that beauty isn’t a static idea of blonde hair, thin body and brainless opinions. Instead, what she gave us was a glimpse into a quietly racist America, a world that would soon be pushing itself onto all of us. She blew the doors off secret conversations about how “ghetto” that girl is or how “weird” it is that she’s “really” a he, or how “gross” it is that she likes to kiss other girls. The world of discrimination and closed-mindedness found on ANTM is much the same world that Donald Trump exploited in his campaign.
We have this idea that young people are always liberal and that each generation grows up in a more progressive world than their parents. They’re exposed to more cultures, and that exposure has to lead to a respect for them, right? We’re apparently very wrong on both counts. Through pop culture as through their families and communities, they’re still exposed—as the aforementioned ANTM contestants apparently were—to the same straight, white narratives as ever, forming retrograde ideas about race, gender and sexuality that need not be couched in extreme forms of bigotry to trouble us.
ANTM is returning to TV later this year, with Banks back at the helm after a yearlong break. I, for one, will wait to see what kind of contestants are chosen for the first post-election season. Banks will most likely capitalize on our divisions again, because it makes for good ratings. But in 2017, with police brutality a daily occurrence and hate crimes increasing, watching two women fight about whether or not racism exists five minutes before walking into a circus-themed photo shoot isn’t entertaining anymore. If the series does hew to this dispiriting tradition, I at least hope that Banks finds a way to encourage open dialogue about these issues, instead of showing a fight with no follow-up. If she wants ANTM to have a legacy that doesn’t relegate it to the annals of “trashy” reality TV, this is her opportunity to do something meaningful.
I’m rooting for you, Tyra. We’re all rooting for you.
Stephanie Ashe is a freelance pop culture writer who didn’t watch Mad Men, OK? Just give her a break. Follow her on Twitter_ for her thoughts on TV and music, and which scratching posts her cats like best.