Now I Am Become Slut, Destroyer of Worlds

The host is alive. She is sentient. She is self-aware. And she knows you have programmed her to attack herself and the others.

Nope! Not a blog about Westworld! At least, most of it isn’t. I want to talk about The Bachelor and I want to explain why this show is the place to be, if you’re into the shock of watching creations outsmart their creator-controllers.  The more I read this Bach season as a rumination on feeling fictional and clawing for “reality,” the more I was reminded of HBO’s ambitious series on gnosticism, humanity, and the function of storytelling. Might even go so far to say that these two shows share a soul; Dolores Abernathy would be right at home at a rose ceremony!

Please follow me, down into a fake mansion that houses a harem, where we can take a closer look at the things that made The Bachelor so distinctive in its 21st season: existential female anxiety, textual reflexivity, and the peculiar journey of Corinne, a single trope that managed to awaken and rewrite herself.

Born into an apocalyptic Trumpworld, this iteration of The Bachelor became something kind of dark, dreadful, and a little bit out-of-control. Of course, The Bachelor is always a circus, and that’s why so many people hate it: for a television fan, it takes a strong set of stones to follow something so vapid, so dependent on tired stereotypes and romantic wish-fulfillment, so misogynistic, so corporate and disingenuous. How many different ways can producers arrange 30 beautiful women in a Love Thunderdome as they compete for the affections of one bland white man? But there was something poisonous in American culture at large that made Season 21 into something else, something crazier. Perhaps the 2016 election left a vacuum of hope that encouraged The Bachelor producers to lean into self-destruction as an aesthetic. Perhaps we, the audience, are evolving to watch ourselves watching TV, and we prefer everything to be kind of about storytelling – ergo the timely popularity of diverse “meta” shows like WestworldAmerican Horror StoryFleabag.

Either way, the new Bachelor was defined by these new and distinctive notes:

  1. Contestants who bristled inside their assigned story cages and pointedly drew attention to the process of being written as characters.
  2. The season’s primary “villain,” Corinne, who transcended the confines of the Bach with a Joker-like sense of chaotic sexuality and stunningly re-branded her arc as sex-positive feminist heroism.
  3. An unwilling Bachelor whose weird charisma relied on his apathy, nihilism, and constant critique of the format. Nick undermined our reception of the Bachelor experience by positioning himself as a bored observer – distancing himself from the contestants and the ideological underpinnings of the show.

First, I want to take on Bullet Number One – the Westworldian crises of self that entered this season of the Bachelor early on and began the process of destabilizing narratives and the women forced to live them. Take a look at what happened to Jasmine G on Night 1. Now, it’s not unusual for Bachelor women to immediately recoil from the uncanniness of this environment –  to be a Bachelor contestant, to be on a reality dating competition, is to be subjected to spirit-breaking. These women are tested every moment with the pressures of self-criticism, of being filmed, of being beautiful, of being charming, of systematically attacking and defeating your stunning competitors. But something about Jasmine G’s body language and wording struck me as a crisis of self, a dissociative episode which bespeaks her sudden awareness that she is performing and this whole thing – maybe any love-hunt – is theater without meaning.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do. Holy shit. Who the fuck am I? I’m blown away right now. Who am I?”

Night 1 would be the first of Jasmine’s many system failures, glitches in her personality and physical affect which provided an alarming counterpoint to the self-policing composure we’re used to seeing on these women. Nick eliminated her because of her unpleasant urge to question the “realism” of herself, of him, of the experience. And this was not the only instance of unusual meta-awareness amongst the women. Many of the others expressed a certain repugnance at the roles in which they were pigeonholed – at their status as storylines. Liz’s only mission, with mounting desperation, was to rewrite her way from Nick’s opportunistic ex-fling all the way to romantic legitimacy. Taylor realized too late that her Bachelor persona and “real” professional life were being mapped onto one another and she’d dug herself into the “bitch bully” hole (with the help of her nemesis Corinne). Taylor also literally theorized that some women are better-programmed for love! What could be more Westworld than attempting to parse the resident slut’s “emotional intelligence”?

So there was a significant change in the show here, in which the women’s grasp or ignorance of “being produced” was of paramount importance to how we perceived them. To compare these women to WW characters like Dolores and Maeve – remaining basic, guileless, and easily overwritten ensured a measure of success in the competition and preserved their classic Bachelor likeability factor.

So with that said, I’m dying to get back to Corinne. Here was a contestant who really jumped off the screen for reasons I’ve never seen an antagonist “pop” before. Unlike a villain such as, say, Season 20’s Olivia, Corinne worked to distinguish herself as a breakout character – not just through behavior but through actual world-building. Starting the show out by mentioning her current nanny Raquel was a stroke of genius; Raquel was a framing device that indicated Corinne inhabited a bizarre fantasy world inside and outside the show. In so many ways. Corinne deliberately ate endless blocks of cheese on camera. She feigned naps, eyes closed, smiling beatifically as she “dreamed” of Nick. She self-consciously and joyfully delivered dialogue she knew would light up the internet. Clutching her breasts and huffing, “Does this seem like someone who’s immature?” Staring soullessly into the lens and intoning, “My heart is gold, but my vagine is platinum.” Luring Nick into an inexplicable bounce house and toplessly dry-humping him with abandon. Corinne’s promiscuity, and her persona, were over-the-top but deliberately, defiantly, and delightfully self-choreographed. We know the floozy never wins, but when the floozy knows it, ignores it, and enjoys her role, she transcends happy endings.

And most interestingly, Corinne elevated her self-awareness and self-programming into a magnificent final act. During “The Women Tell All” (a reunion episode which airs before the finale) Corinne, in one fell swoop, ret-conned her entire Bachelor journey as a feminist rumspringa. “I was just doing me,” she demurely insisted, while the other contestants fought to defend her sexual agency. They leaped to defend the resident slut as the bravest and most authentic person amongst them. Corinne sat, resplendent, her eyes bearing no trace of the mischief and malevolence that had been her character cornerstones. She’d accomplished a rewrite akin to “it was all a dream.” Later, women sobbed while Liz declared her sexual encounter with Nick had not “defined” her, and they took turns praising their sister for her humanitarian work. The thematic tide-turn from “a search for true love” to “an inner journey toward female unity and empowerment” made for the most overtly political and topical episode The Bachelor has had, maybe ever – and it bespoke the malleability of reality fiction in a way the show has never previously approached.

In many ways, it was Bachelor Nick’s abdication of his role that allowed the TV text to refocus itself on the women “waking up” and growing through their relationships to one another. It’s hard, as a viewer, to engage with story about passive female players being driven toward romantic fulfillment, when the end-goal is a guy who’d be content to go home immediately and eat cold pizza. As we know, the guy had already been through two seasons of The Bachelorette and one summer of Bachelor in Paradise – his entire narrative was “last-ditch effort for love.” Nick made it his business to call out the fakery of The Bachelor, and the futility of it: “Let’s try to be as normal as possible in an abnormal environment.” “I’ve been in their shoes, and I know how much it sucks.” I certainly like Nick as a person – I like that he cries when he feels stuff, and I like that he hates being The Bachelor but loves being famous, and I like that he let women who were too good for him go, so they could fly and be free and be the first black Bachelorette. But if Nick did anything other than represent a neat resolution of the presented Bachelor narrative, he effectively denied our suspension of disbelief and exposed this particular season as “reality farce with no point.” Prince Charming was just in it for the international travel and the free food. I sympathize. And it’s fun to watch The Bachelor pretend that this isn’t a huge problem.

SO! I posit here that, at least for this season, The Bachelor evolved beyond the story of single women and their search for love. You might say that instead of being about singlehood, this show became about “the singularity” – that moment when program/character/trope/story/world comes alive and begins to adapt and change itself. I wonder: is it a better ride for the reality-consuming audience, when “we know they know”? At what point does watching a character with meta-awareness become confusing, or tiresome, rather than thrilling? And most importantly, what are the differences between watching reality television and prestige drama when we’re grappling with these issues? This question, perhaps, is of paramount importance for TV fans as we go forward; if there’s something in the water that’s poisoning every genre of narrative experience (or making it tastier), we have to put our fingers on it. Why do I watch so much television about women in traps, whose self-actualization and creative escapes are catalyzed by patriarchal violence? Why is it so easy to find that story?

I think it’s easy to brush aside shows like The Bachelor precisely because they are so heavily consumed, across political and cultural lines, and “mass appeal” television has the reputation of reifying harmful structures of power. For really good reason. But it’s important to locate these small moments of medium-transcendence within these TV texts. More and more, the characters we use and abuse are turning directly towards us. These fictional delights have real ends, and it’s never, never about the final rose.

We Were All Rooting for You: The Gorgeous Grotesque in ANTM

Tyra Mail! It says…

If a model falls on an abandoned runway in the middle of an empty stage, does she make a sound? And when Tyra Banks falls while no one’s watching, does she just slip quietly into unsmizing nothingness?

America’s Next Top Model has been canceled after 12 years and 22 seasons, and it’s really okay that you do not care. If you do feel something, like I do, it’s probably just the sad sensation of time passing and culture changing. Just as the end of American Idol made barely a pop culture ripple (despite its massive impact on the TV landscape), ANTM probably won’t be recognized as a watershed program with a long-legged legacy. For my money, it deeply altered the possibilities of the reality genre – and, at its accidental best, was an incisive magnum opus of female psychology. Tyra the Creator knew she’d birthed something amazing in Top Model, and over the next few years she methodically destroyed it.

So let’s take a moment for America’s Next Top Model…a love-hate letter to beauty, with a singular viciousness and vision.

There’s really two stories being told during every episode of ANTM: the petty day-to-day existences of the model-contestants and the larger godlike arc of Tyra Banks herself. As a transcendently perfect but savvily commercial supermodel, Tyra was perfectly poised in 2003 to launch a show like Top Model. As creator and curator, she brought industry cachet and as host, she brought built-in ratings and popularity. To watch ANTM‘s first cycle – Tyra’s known for compulsive branding-by-renaming, so her “seasons” are “cycles” – is to watch a fascinating exercise in first-time showrunning. Everything about ANTM 1, from production to casting to editing, showcases Tyra’s charming self-empowerment and zeal. There’s a sweet earnestness, an openminded experimentalism, to cycle 1; mundane moments like the girls’ first bikini waxes, cigarette breaks, a judging chamber that’s clearly a hotel conference room. Tyra imbues her presence with a self-conscious approachability, showing up at the tiny models’ hovel for dinner in a velour sweatsuit. No one seems to have expectations about being on a reality show. The girls are incredibly diverse: Adrienne is a rough white-trash urchin, Robyn is a conservative Christian caught between skinny and plus-size, Elyse is the elegant smart-ass who is allowed to actively bash the idiocy of modeling on-camera (and remain a front-runner till the end!). The judges have real credentials, and painfully differing opinions (I miss you, Janice Dickinson). It all seems possible in Cycle 1. Legitimacy and enduring fame seem very real. We see all the ugly boring parts of beautiful, these glimpses of the modeling experience (and the female experience) that we never see again after the flagship cycle.

However, most of the hallmarks that make Cycle 1 truly compelling continue to exist and morph over the next few cycles. Fans and detractors alike can’t deny that Tyra had an eye, even early on, for world-building. She parlayed her skill sets in modeling and public performance into an expanding vocabulary for fans (and the media): “smizing,” “tooch,” “H2T.” Tyra’s ANTM is an auteur’s funhouse, a paradise of sirens, a place where the beauty industry finds transcendence beyond its boundaries. Big girls, strange girls, dark girls, they all stand a chance. In the beginning seasons, she had a savvy eye for casting girls who echoed her physically and in personality, and these girls were consistently rewarded (look no further than Cycle 4’s supremely bland Felicia, who lasted four episodes too long). These ideal contestants became disembodied walking signifiers of Tyra herself, scattered amongst the latest crop, reinforcing her omnipotent and omniscient presence as the Author-God of the ANTM universe. She hooked us in with a phenomenally clever and suggestive tagline: “You wanna be on top?” And as dystopian and weird as Top Model gets, its first few cycles are bursting with startlingly astute observations about what happens to women when they’re isolated from the male gaze but haunted by it, devoted to it. Every single episode has the same naming convention: “The Girl Who…” The Girl Who Cheats. The Girl Who Everyone Thinks is Killing Herself. The Girl Who is a Visual Orgasm. It’s an unabashed commentary on culture, and meta-commentary on reality culture. Each cycle becomes more and more claustrophobic, even as the contestants’ living quarters are upgraded to sprawling estates that the Cycle 1 wretches could never have dreamed of. Every successive cycle shines a burning spotlight on a tightly monitored, hermetically sealed powderkeg of women – and we, as the audience, quickly got that the goal wasn’t really to be the best, the most beautiful, the most superhuman. The goal was survival.

And in Tyra’s dogged pursuit of her own legend, her own legacy, she stumbled on the show’s most iconic moment, what I would argue is its beating heart and the key to its twisted vision of womanhood. Sandwiched in between the naturalistic early cycles and the bloated, vapid later cycles is Cycle 4. Tiffany.

Tyra’s epic freakout on the hapless Tiffany Richardson is by far the most-quoted clip of ANTM, and it elevated the show out of its creative niche into mass reality entertainment. On the surface, it’s basically just a host berating a participant for not taking the competition seriously enough. Beyond the scene’s histrionic trash-TV value, however, it also exposed Tyra’s endgame all at once, in a shocking reveal of her pathetic vulnerability and maniacal control of not only the Top Model project, but her own narrative. Tyra’s speech is absolutely littered with the charred remains of a real female human being. It’s a coded story about the way the beauty industry’s been Dementoring her since her childhood. “When my mother yells like this, it’s because she loves me,” Tyra spits, hitting a hysterical sound outside pitch on the word “love.” “When you go to bed at night and you lay there, you take responsibility for yourself, ’cause nobody’s gonna take responsibility for you.” How many beds do you think Tyra Banks laid in all by herself, surrounded by identical beds filled with identical women vying for her life? “You have no idea where I come from,” she tells Tiffany, apropos of nothing. “You have no idea what I’ve been through.” Perhaps most telling is the indelible phrase “We were rooting for you, we were ALL rooting for you! How dare you?” The amount of context contained in that vitriolic indictment is incredible. Every woman is rooting for you even when she hates you, even when she’s against you, Tiffany. You owe HER your successes and your failures, even when you’re selling your face and your body to men. LEARN something from this!

In taking this tack, I obviously am showing my hand a little. I think Tyra Banks is a sympathetic figure, but also an absolute psychopath. The vision she built with ANTM is a danger to society – but in both the straightforward anti-feminist way AND the subversive-to-patriarchy way. Sometimes it’s hard to want the misery that these women want; sometimes we want to kill them for wanting it. ANTM certainly does encourage us to hate beautiful, ambitious women, to despise their delusions of grandeur and gaze-greediness. I could write a whole separate blog post on Jade Cole, who is hands-down the most interesting contestant in ANTM history. She’s a reality addict’s dream and was definitely Tyra’s nightmare, as she expertly (and self-reflexively) played to camera and became Cycle 6’s breakout star, the emblem of all that was insane about model ego and and ANTM specifically. “This is not America’s Next Top Best Friend,” crowed Jade, framing the decorative wall letters “A N T M” with her hands. She was right; she just didn’t know yet that those letters stood for “America’s Next Top Meme.”

I would argue that Cycles 1-8 are the meat of Top Model, the oevre we’re really talking about when we dissect the importance of this show. Because Tyra is the auteur and Tyra is insane, the show slowly but surely begins to crumble after the mild but still accessible wackiness of Cycle 8 (whose standouts included the heavily-accented first Latina winner Jaslene and the mail-order bride Natasha). The winner of Cycle 9 was rumored to be pre-fixed by Tyra. Contestants were forced to film “viral videos,” which anyone familiar with the internet knows is a comically absurd proposition. The judges were cycled in and out at a rapid pace until Tyra had assembled a panel of sycophants – empty and under-qualified personalities, most of them not even of the fashion world (i.e. the universally despised “PR Maven” Kelly Cutrone). By the time the first “gimmick” cycle – 17, the All-Star season – rolled around, ANTM was not ANTM anymore. It was Top Model only in name, and that dream was a farce, evidenced by the complete professional invisibility of almost every past winner. The death gong tolled around Cycle 18, the first cycle to pit teams against one another (British and American) and Cycle 21’s inclusion of male models was simply a phallic stab into ANTM‘s long-cold corpse.

The full lifespan of great TV is really quite poignant: when a show becomes successful, it’s immediately pumped full of creative and stylistic hormones that overstrain its heart. Then when it experiences brain-death, it’s kept on life support. And when it finally dies, almost no one comes to the funeral. They’re at a party with the show’s hot younger siblings. That’s the story of America’s Next Top Model. And even if ANTM‘s demise as a show isn’t unique, its legacy is.

Never before did we get to watch such a vivid portrait of mean. Never before did we get so close to the bleeding scalps and swollen toes of America’s most beautiful women, or see them cry and routinely be crushed despite their model faces, their model smiles. Never did we get front-row tickets to dozens of closed rooms like this, studies in female group dynamics engineered by one of its seminal victims, a mastermind who both kept us at arms-length and desperately tried everything she could to hold our attention. America’s Next Top Model is over forever, but we all still wanna be on top.