By Grace Jin
I have a confession to make: I only watch reality competition television. When I’m asked why, there’s a few answers I rotate between—reality competitions are easy TV, I don’t need to think or pay attention when I watch, and there’s no story line to turn weekly episodes into obligations. Some of my current arsenal of reality competitions include Storage Wars, Ink Master, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Masterchef Junior, and, of course, America’s Next Top Model.
That’s what reality TV has always been: easy entertainment. According to Statista, only 6.8% of reality television viewers watch because they’re invested in the show; most others see the programs as “mindless”, “good background noise”, or even, ironically enough, an escape from reality. Sure, it’s commonly criticized as trashy and meaningless, with loud reality personas such as Kim Kardashian and Snooki portrayed as terrible role models undeserving of their fame. Yet, the popularity of reality television is undeniable—almost 20% of television viewership consists of some sort of reality program, an astounding number given the popularity and cult viewership of hit series such as Game of Thrones and Rick and Morty.
However, it seems that reality television strays far from its name. Shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians have never been realistic, and reality competition shows only stretch the definition of reality further. In daily life, it’s beyond improbable that you would have to complete challenges to determine what you ate that week (Big Brother), vote couples into a Truth Booth to determine if they’re a “Perfect Match” (Are You the One?), or lipsync for your LIFE (RuPaul’s Drag Race).
But as of late, it appears reality competitions have begun to change. Reality shows are no longer willing to resort to pure drama and pointless fights for their material, making leaps and bounds in recent seasons to bring themselves back to reality and into the world of social justice. Take, for example, the most recent season of Celebrity Big Brother UK. The winner, Courtney Act, is a gay drag queen who competed as both his boy-self, Shane, and his drag persona, Courtney, simultaneously. Project Runway Season 16 saw similar steps forward in progress, being the first season to feature models from sizes (women’s) 0-22, even awarding plus size model Liris Crosse with a full spread in Marie Claire for her performance on the show.
At the forefront of reality competition shows embracing progressive issues is America’s Next Top Model. The show, which is typically filled with petty drama and backstabbing insults peppered between outlandish modeling challenges, has been on television for 24 cycles now, yet this cycle seems refreshingly different.
Let’s begin with the contestants. For the first time, Tyra Banks, the producer and host of the show, removed the age cap for auditions, allowing Erin, a 42-year old African-American mother, to join the final cast. Then there’s Jeana, a 5’7” mixed race model with alopecia areata, a hair loss condition which has left her bald ever since she was little. Sandra, a devout Muslim balancing her faith and the industry, Rio, a brain tumor survivor, and Kyla, a social justice activist with a learning disability add further personality to the cast. My favorite contestant, Khrystyana, is a curvy, body positive sexual violence survivor. Even contestants like Liberty, a Trump supporter from a small, mostly white town, were impacted by this season’s social progressivism. After being thrown into a challenge for which she had to pose with drag queens, Liberty made a few steps forward towards embracing diversity.
The seemingly untouchable judging panel has been humanized for Cycle 24, as well. Tyra Banks not only talks about her ‘5-head’, but also consistently waxes poetic about redefining standards, rewriting expectations, doing good with your platform. Ashley Graham, notable plus size model and body positivity advocate is a judge this season, too. Even the returning judges Law Roach and Drew Elliot embraced makeunders to show off their baldness and vitiligo (a skin condition leading to multi toned skin spots), respectively.
What makes this season so undoubtedly unique isn’t the contestants, or even the judges. It’s that we were able to learn their stories by just watching the reality competition. For the first time ever, America’s Next Top Model is devoting screen time to authenticity. The challenges are equally socially aware. "The Bare It All" challenge focused on raw, organic modeling, sans makeup. The "Perfect Imperfections" challenge highlighted how even the models had flaws, according to society’s specifications, and awarded contestants who fought past that expectation and made their ‘flaw’ beautiful. And perhaps, most importantly, the anti-bullying challenge featured contestants shooting commercials for a national campaign against bullying, powerfully narrating moments of strife they had overcome. This season of America’s Next Top Model is determined to make a difference through its new direction, and the audience is loving it.
In a world where social media takes up more and more of our time and attention, and traditional knowledge sources are on the decline, why shouldn’t reality television embrace social change? After all, the most likely audience for a reality show may not watch the nightly news or keep up on think tank research regarding topical issues. America’s Next Top Model has been at the forefront of intersecting social justice and entertainment, effectively bringing the show back to reality and simultaneously introducing social issues to a younger audience.
(Title Image via VH1)