Published: June 1, 2010 By

[1] At first she looks like a transient, slouching in an alley.  Her hair is disheveled, her face dirty, and her clothing in disarray.  But the sudden flashing of a photographer’s bulb suggests otherwise.  The Manhattan alley in which she poses looks too clean and the people ambling by her look too well dressed.  From a hidden corner, a director’s voice calls for tears, demanding that this fashion model deliver an emotionally-charged performance of homelessness. Behind her, real transients dressed in haute couture enjoy their quite temporary makeovers.  The bulbs flash, the girls pose, and their diverse stories are streamlined into spectacle.

[2] In this photo shoot for the CW Television Network’s hit program,America’s Next Top Model, panic is the spectacle being captured on film.  Yet, this is not the flashy panic of the Hollywood horror picture, or even the private panic of an individual living on the streets.  This is instead moral panic, a visceral social reaction to the dissolution of the nation state, fueled by neoliberal politics and exacerbated by a diverse array of television genres. The globalization of these media plays a key role in engendering such moral panic, as stabilized constructs of culture give way to what David Morley terms our “deterritorialized culture of homelessness.”   Morley interweaves the notion of home with the concept of nation, explaining how both have destabilized due to increased physical mobility and the globalization of new communication technologies, “which routinely transgress the symbolic boundaries around both the private household and the nation state” (3).

[3] The home has long operated as a site for identity construction in the United States—as a zone demarcated by boundaries that designate an inside and an outside and who belongs there.  The home has also served as a prime space in which consumption occurs, whether it is the necessary consumption of food or the culturally-driven consumption of glistening appliances like the Frigidaire.  This home space and its important functions have been assigned a feminine quality both on the smaller level of the suburban house safeguarded by a conscientious wife and mother figure, as well as on the level of national rhetoric, where the home is recast as a feminized nation in need of protection.  Because of its originally strict boundaries, the feminized home-space has, throughout U.S. history, been conceptualized as an immobile and stable space.  Yet, as Morley asserts, these boundaries are dissolving, aligning consumption and identity construction with the more fluid demands of globalization.

[4] Programs like America’s Next Top Model interrogate the transgression of such boundaries in surprising ways, thematically aligning gender performance with the American concept of home, and celebrating mobility—liberated womanhood—while simultaneously fortifying that womanhood’s borders. Such contradictions are far from novel, as Diane Cady argues. Cady traces this phenomenon back to the medieval era when women were characterized as “supposedly passive, yet potentially powerful,” as transgressive entities that “therefore must be carefully monitored and contained” (17). Cady also explains how, in a period when money was viewed with deep suspicion, the writers of the era would conflate portrayals of women with portrayals of money, implying that women served as “items of exchange because of some aspect of their nature,” which was considered just as capricious as the nature of money itself (27).  In other words, the medieval era saw its own moral panic over the purportedly dual nature of women, as well as over the new currency that was thought to be capable of transgressing the boundaries of the old land-based systems even as it was also viewed as impotent in the face of powerful masculinist and classist traditions.

[5] Current U.S. television programs continue to conceptually conflate women with money, positing them as powerful yet dangerous subjects who must also learn to become commodities for exchange in an era where commodities themselves transgress national boundaries and reorganize cultural communities. Through the technology of the makeover contest, America’s Next Top Model posits the space inside the borders that demarcate femininity—even the “liberated” femininity of the postfeminist age—as a destination to which all women must attempt to arrive. America’s Next Top Model is both a contest program and a traditional makeover program; its characters undergo physical and psychological refashioning, covertly encouraging the same transformation in the program’s viewers, who also encounter this phenomenon in news programs as well as soap operas, sitcoms, and game shows (Heller 1).  Dana Heller attributes the increasing popularity of the makeover to the twenty-first century political climate, drawing on Anita Gates’s assertion that “the traditional importance of home, the post-September 11th hunger for security, and a growing middle class sense of entitlement” all combine to create a huge potential audience of diverse individuals eager to write new personal narratives that guarantee them a stable home within an increasingly borderless society (qtd. in Heller, 2).

[6] Despite its supposed interest in individualization, America’s Next Top Model has a specific agenda for each contestant’s, and arguably each viewer’s newly fashioned narrative.  From the Bronx native undergoing therapy for anger management to the Somalian immigrant overcoming the trauma of female circumcision, the women ofAmerica’s Next Top Model are encouraged to enhance their differences, with the result that they take better photographs and glamorize the television program with their inevitable conflicts.  In this sense, America’s Next Top Model centers personal narrative on the notion of consumption, giving the illusion of individualization while simultaneously streamlining difference into a coherent model narrative.  This model not only teaches Americans how to be good global consumers, but it also tells a story of global citizenship that cultural theorists have explored at length, with varying results.  I will delineate the quite different arguments of Seyla Benhabib, Néstor García Canclini, and Toby Miller, in hopes of underscoring the ways in which the interactions between cultures reinforce the erasure of “culture” and “citizenship” as stabilized concepts that link notions of belonging with notions of home.  I will then complicate these theorists’ frameworks, showing how gender’s connection with the concept of home informs the reconceptualization of belonging in a globalized era.  America’s Next Top Model will serve as my example of this reconceptualization, propagating narratives of empowering female mobility while still policing the boundaries of gender in a way that posits femininity as the universal home to which all modern women belong.

Model Narratives

[7] In her book The Claims of Culture, Seyla Benhabib compellingly refutes the idea of culture as a coherent home; yet, she fails to grasp the universalizing implications of her own argument, positing a purportedly impartial and democratic public sphere as a space in which women from all cultural origins can write and rewrite their personal narratives at will.    Benhabib defines cultures as “complex human practices of signification and representation…which are internally riven by conflicting narratives” (ix).  In other words, Benhabib argues that rather than existing as discrete entities with original starting-points, cultures are formed through complex dialogue with other cultures (ix).  This dialogue depends on the notion of narrative.  Benhabib explains that cultures present themselves through narrative because human actions and relations are, as a rule, formed through a “double hermeneutic: we identify what we do through anaccount of what we do” (6 emphasis Benhabib’s).  These complex cultural narratives are always in flux as a result of interaction with conflicting narratives.  Because of this, Benhabib calls for an impartial public space where cultures can struggle for recognition and even rewrite themselves without danger of domination (8).

[8] At the heart of this notion is Benhabib’s “norm of universal respect,” which stipulates that every speaking, rational creature has equal right to participate in the conversation (14).  Benhabib asserts that maintaining the impartiality of this sphere, as well as the norm of universal respect on which discourse depends, is the task of democracy.  Thus, Benhabib separates the notion of the individual from the notion of culture. With these rights understood, Benhabib claims that a democratic model would generate a safe and productive space where complex cultures could write and rewrite their defining narratives and where individuals could break with these narratives in order to write narratives of their own.

[9] Benhabib derives her notion of the impartial public sphere from the work of Jürgen Habermas, who, like Benhabib, emphasizes rationality and universalism. Yet, it is this tendency toward universalism that masks the inequalities which have always existed in the formation of the public sphere, which in the 18th century excluded women as well as anyone who was not white or of the bourgeois class. Naoki Sakai explains that Habermas attributes this purportedly impartial space to the “rational” and modern west, which he posits as a concrete and even ubiquitous entity (Sakai 155).  While Habermas “argues with epistemological confidence in order to reinstall epistemological confidence in us and make us trust universalism again,” Sakai, on the other hand, argues that proponents of universalism often use its rhetoric to rationalize and influence social institutions, while simultaneously veiling the fact that universalism serves as a “strategy of dominance by the most advanced particularity” (Sakai 157-8).

[10] This reading of Habermas complicates Benhabib’s optimistic delineation of the new ways in which cultures can write and rewrite themselves in a world where old notions of belonging are dissolving.  Benhabib’s tendency to mimic Habermas’s universalizing rhetoric covers over the inequalities embedded in that rhetoric, even as she claims to conceptualize a space in which women of all nations can write their own stories.  In other words, Benhabib puts too much faith in the universal power of narrative, as Nikolis Kompridis affirms.  He states that “narrative is not only the medium of culture and identity but also of the explanation and justification of our norms, institutions and practices” (392).  If we looked at narrative from this angle, we would encounter “not a quasi-transcendental account of normative legitimacy, but a historical narrative of legitimation” (Kompridis 392).   This legitimation always serves the most advanced particularity, rather than successfully serving the “humankind” that proves to be far too multifarious for one such term to properly represent.  Such an observation points to the manipulative power of narrative to override other narratives; it also points to Benhabib’s failure to adequately account for one example of this manipulation, which is the narrative of globalization as modernizing social structure rather than economic strategy.  While Benhabib does speak of the “global interdependence” of meaning and interpretation in the face of globalization, she does not discuss the ways in which consumption drives this interdependence, but rather focuses only on the narratives, citing the opinion that “our agency consists in our capacity to weave out of those narratives our individual life stories” (15).

[11] U.S. reality programs like America’s Next Top Model also put too much faith in the universal power of the life story, mirroring Benhabib’s claim for narrative agency, and promoting the notion that the conflict between already existing individualities and their milieu ultimately leads to healthier subjectivities. The contradictions between such universalism and the personal narratives that universalism purportedly protects surface in the program’s tendency to refer to its contestants on a first-name basis, manufacturing the personalized intimacy between cast members and viewers that Alice Leppert and Julie Wilson trace in other reality TV programs (1), while simultaneously reducing each woman to one name, flashing at the bottom of the screen.  The opening to the program also functions this way, demanding: “What is beauty to you?” and setting the tone for the contestants to draw on past and present experiences in order to make themselves universally beautiful.  For example, the contestant named Fatima cites her experience with female circumcision, explaining that she wants to be a spokesperson for other women who have suffered the same assault on their bodies.  She also employs her knowledge of homelessness during the Manhattan photo-shoot, reminiscing on how the children she once knew in Somalia made fun of her for living in a shelter.  Following Tyra Banks’ instruction to “study yourself and find what is strong and different and interesting,” Fatima employs her personal narrative to fashion herself into the aesthetic ideal touted by the most advanced particularity safeguarding the purportedly impartial space of the American public sphere.

[12] Just as Benhabib claims that democracy safeguards this public sphere, so America’s Next Top Modelclaims to safeguard it, even when one such life story clashes with another.  For example, Fatima’s process of self-realization collides with that of Marvita, an African-American woman from the Bronx.  She, like Fatima, has experienced homelessness; yet, this and African ancestry is really all that she and Fatima have in common.  “I’ve never met a mean African,” she tells Fatima in one of their many arguments on the program.  The two contestants fight about each other’s diction, about each other’s tone of voice, and about each other’s way of handling personal trauma.  After arguing heatedly for a few episodes, they reach an understanding that results in the revision of their earlier thoughts on each other.  Fatima comes to understand that Marvita’s brusqueness is due to her growing up in the Bronx, warding off lascivious relatives as well as violent peers.  In turn, Marvita accepts (despite her inability to fully understand) Fatima’s circumcision, as well as her particular experience with homelessness.  In this sense, America’s Next Top Model seems to encourage the sort of contestation and even confrontation that Benhabib says occurs because of cultural interdependence in a globalized world (19).  Both Fatima and Marvita are encouraged to embrace and revise their unique narratives, yet to respect each others’ differences as being equally valid.

[13] Yet, these narratives are highly mediated by the most advanced particularity that wields power over what is finally revealed as a mere simulation of an already flawed public sphere.  Indeed, the program’s producers and the fashion industry gurus who influence them take a special interest in narratives centered on race, encouraging the contestants to embrace and yet transform the racial origin with which they feel most inclined to identify.  For example, Brittany of cycle eleven identifies herself as being half African-American and half American Indian.  “My ethnicity and my racial background, it is special to me.  But I’m a diverse person.  I want to appeal to everybody,” she says. Similarly, contestant Sheena announces that she is half Japanese and half Korean, but that she likes “all colors and all flavors.”  While the judges routinely celebrate the interaction of differing racial narratives, they especially approve of contestants who stand ready to forget those narratives—at least for one photo shoot. This ability to embody rather than simply appreciate diversity not only proves crucial to remaining in the competition—it also reveals the ways in which Sakai’s notion of the most advanced particularity comes into play, influencing what masquerades as an impartial space for discourse.  The program producers and the fashion industry serve as this advanced particularity, always getting the final say in which types of racial narratives are most easily marketed. Ultimately, Banks teaches the women how to impersonate any conceivable aspect of femininity, engendering images that cut across racially oriented lines.

[14] If the contestants cannot achieve this—if they stick out, in other words, in ways that Banks fears will not sell the clothing—they are eliminated.  “I don’t want another bitchy black girl on this show,” Banks tells one contestant, simultaneously stereotyping her and paradoxically demanding that she step outside of stereotype and into a universalized notion of femininity.  Later, Banks approvingly tells a white contestant that her new makeover causes her to appear “racially ambiguous,” enabling little girls from all ethnic backgrounds to see themselves in this contestant.  In turn, these little girls are expected to buy the clothing displayed on the model with which they purportedly relate, actualizing their own burgeoning sense of self through consumption.   In this sense, the program producers propagate the show’s acceptance of diversity, even as they demand that such diversity be streamlined into universally marketable expressions of personal narrative.

[15] The one narrative that America’s Next Top Model contestants are not expected to revise, however, is the narrative that constructs and employs gender to define and even safeguard the sphere in which the contestants operate.  While the program is produced and the contest judged by straight and queer-identified men and women of varying ethnicities, the contestants must all be read as female, whatever their racial identity or sexual orientation.  In this sense, the subjectivities they fashion and re-fashion for themselves must maintain one crucial facet—they are “women,” teaching other women how to clothe their bodies and thus, fuel the fashion industry.  Such womanhood is constantly implied, from the show’s opening question, “What is beauty to you?” to Banks’ tireless demand for the women to “fiercely” embrace their femininity. While Banks encourages girls like Fatima to overcome long histories of gender-based abuse, she ultimately expects that Fatima create a new femininity that will in turn set a standard for potential female consumers.  Banks expects the same of Marvita, who must overcome her inability to be close to others in order to take believable pictures.  Since Marvita’s unemotional exterior is a direct result of her sexual abuse, Banks encourages Marvita to face this past and overcome it, restoring a sense of sentimentality that will show on film.  At the very least, Banks demands the appearance of feminine conventionality from her contestants.

[16] In this sense, the sphere of contestation simulated by this program actually serves as what Lauren Berlant calls an “intimate public,” rather than a counter-public or all-inclusive primary public sphere. Such publics “fuse feminine rage and feminist rage… hailing the wounded to testify, to judge, to yearn, and to think beyond the norms of sexual difference, a little” (Berlant 1).  The contestants onAmerica’s Next Top Model are not always angels in the reality show house, they are not all white or middle class, and they do not always sexually desire men.  Yet, they do all “love the conventionality” of their gender, and as Berlant puts it, they see such conventionality as a way of negotiating belonging, rather than as a constraint (3).  They see such conventionality as a shared home.  Such a portrayal of womanhood in turn implies a similar sense of belonging for the female viewers rooting for Marvita and Fatima, who internalize the rhetoric of transformation.  The very notion of transformation, of transforming yet still embodying femininity, suggests the pleasure of such belonging while paradoxically suggesting the freedom to operate outside the boundaries of the outdated and constrictive norms of femininity—“a little.”

[17] The inherent “littleness” of this margin of freedom becomes evident in cycle eleven, when a new contestant reveals to the other women that she is, in fact, a pre-op transgender.  “Personally, I prefer ‘born in the wrong body,’” Isis explains to the camera and her implied viewers, “meaning I was born physically male… but everything else about me was female.” Isis also finds herself explaining her situation to the judges, as well as the other contestants.  Almost every time the camera is pointed her way, in fact, Isis must rearticulate her story, the familiar ‘born in the wrong body’ narrative, as if in awareness of the slipperiness of the narratives that both free her and constrain her.  “It’s not something I chose,” Isis says.  “It’s just who I always been [sic].” Such an assertion appeases the curiosity of some of the contestants and thrills Banks, who asserts that she first noticed Isis posing in the background of the transient-themed photo shoots of cycle ten.   “This girl [was] absolutely amazing,” Banks says, pointing to an emotionally-charged photo of Isis hovering behind the cycle ten contestant.  Because of this photo, Banks explains that she called Isis to audition for cycle eleven, fully accepting Isis’ drive to belong, not only to the fashion industry, but to “women’s culture” in general.

[18] Isis’s desire to belong, to find a home in the conventionality of the term “woman,” haunts this season as her image haunts the contestants’ image in the photo from cycle ten.  Yet, not everyone accepts her.  One contestant named Kacey asks Isis, “Ain’t this supposed to be a girl competition?  How did you get through the door?”  Another contestant tells the camera: “If I have to get along with Isis I will, but then again, if it comes between me and my goal… I’ll stomp that man right outta’ the competition.”  This same contestant, incidentally sporting the name of Clark, confides in contestant Hannah that she is afraid of getting into the swimming pool with Isis.  She justifies her view by claiming that she is not close-minded—she is simply traditional.  “You walk around like that in a small town, you’ll get shot,” Clark says, criminalizing Isis’s perceived homelessness, her inability to fully conform to the conventionality of gender.  The problem Clark seems to have with Isis is that her transgression is more than a “little” one.  Clark grins at her own boyish name and easily kisses another girl in the hot tub, playing into the program’s theme of liberated and transformed femininity.  Yet, she cannot allow someone whose body does not reflect her own to have a home in the intimate public she shares with others who identify with the term “woman.”  Since Isis does not start out a “woman,” in the view of many of the contestants, since she must transform her body as well as her subjectivity, she is not finally resignifying femininity, but is instead masquerading as female.

[19] Despite the contestants’ suspicions, the America’s Next Top Model judges assert that a model has to be “many different things to many people,” implying that a model must become a master-storyteller, able to obscure any perceived origin in order to embody an image that will then provide the viewer with a large selection of consumerist options from which to choose.  This assertion echoes Wolfgang Fritz Haug’s theory of the aesthetic innovation which regenerates demand, convincing the consumer that the newest commodity is the most essential (Haug 43-4).  In this sense, the judges search for contestants who can successfully change their own image into the “newest thing,” aligning that image with the clothing that will then entice the consumer.  As Guy Redden explains, this drive for reality television contestants to fashion and refashion themselves is consistent with contemporary social theory: “that of the individualization brought about by the fragmentation of institutions and the pluralizations of knowledges” (157).  Redden traces the theory that “being right” no longer equates with following custom, but rather with choosing the “right” commodities from a wide selection (Bauman, qtd. in Redden 157).  According to Redden, reality TV cast members draw on different readings of uniqueness in order to serve as “typifications of individuality” not necessarily dependent upon stabilized notions of culture (156).  In makeover television, all participants are ultimately propelled from their unique origins toward moral consumerism, where the morality relies on the individual’s ability to make good consumerist choices based on a plethora of options (156).  America’s Next Top Model propels its contestants in the same way, first demanding that the contestants become good consumer-citizens and then expecting them to properly model such consumerism in order to encourage it in the program’s viewers.  By exploring this aspect of the program, I will reveal the ways in which the empowering narratives of female mobility align with the perceived mobility of currency itself, positioning these contestants and the female viewers who internalize their messages as consumers and commodities paradoxically connected to both the western concept of home and the western fear of homelessness.

Aesthetic Innovation and Refashioning the Self

[20] The title of this program, America’s Next Top Model, points to its consumerist focus even without the assistance of the blatant product placement designed to look like “gifts” that the contestants must then properly enjoy.  In cycle ten, for instance, the contestants hear a knock on the door of their loft and run into the foyer to find an array of high-end handbags and Apple Bottom jeans.  Some of the contestants immediately begin to change into their new clothes.  Others conspicuously carry their handbags everywhere they travel for the rest of the season.  Yet, some of the contestants fail to make use of these gifts, as well as the fashion advice they receive while on the show.  When Kim, of cycle ten, approaches the judges’ panel wearing a headband with a large ribbon, the judges laugh and poke fun at her.  They then demand that she take the headband off.  “Ooooh girl, this outfit,” Tyra clucks disapprovingly.  The mild disapproval of the judges and the other contestants turns into scorn, though, when Kim announces that she is no longer interested in modeling such expensive clothing, as she personally finds it ridiculous to pay $2000 for a single outfit.  ““Kim wants to model because it’s pretty and blah-blah-blah,” derides Fatima.  “Maybe this is not the right place for her.” Since she fails to align her individuality with the principles of proper consumption, Kim quickly leaves the program.

[21] Isis also experiences this crash course in proper consumerism.  When she approaches the judges’ panel in poorly-matched clothing, her hair in disarray, the judges tell her she looks “common.”  They then inform Isis that when she faces them at panel each week, she must look like a model; yet, what Banks and the other judges imply in this scene is that Isis must look like a female model.  Her hair must appear soft and controlled, and her clothing must accentuate her figure, enabling her to serve as the object of the desiring male gaze, as well as the studious female gaze.  No mention is made of Isis’s biological structure at this panel session; instead, she is fully accepted as someone who has eschewed her perceived origin and who is now writing a new story that must align with the model narrative propagated by this television program.  In this sense, Isis’s personal narrative engenders the model narrative that anyone and everyone can write their own story—with a little help from certain clothing lines.

[22] From this angle, then, America’s Next Top Model seems to mirror Canclini’s global “model of society in which many state functions have disappeared or been assumed by private corporations, and in which social participation is organized through consumption rather than through the exercise of citizenship” (5).  Unlike Benhabib, Canclini explores the interaction between consumption and citizenship rather than simply exploring the global interdependence of cultures in the face of global change.  He states that now, citizenship is based on “the private consumption of commodities and media offerings rather than abstract rules of democracy” (5).  Viewing consumption through this lens, Canclini cites the disappearance of stable concepts like “culture” and “nation,” arguing that we instead inhabit an era of fragmentation and hybridity, where identity groups are formed according to codes other than those of ethnic or cultural origin (43).  Now those codes serve as “mobile pacts for the interpretation of commodities and messages,” enabling the formation of international communities founded on patterns of consumption (43-4).

[23] The contestants of America’s Next Top Model at first seem to represent just this sort of “international” community, founded on the shared consumption of haute couture (or strategic knockoffs), as well as on the shared consumption of female empowerment slogans such as “Dare to be fierce,” and “What is beauty to you?”  Gender plays a crucial role in the formation of such communities, especially when the commodities in question contribute to the construction of a purportedly “international” version of femininity.  In order for this community to truly seem international, the producers of this American program employ racial narrative even as the English language and the white standard of “racial ambiguity” underscores this community’s notion of womanhood. Meanwhile, America’s Next Top Model has engendered several counterparts in varying countries, some of which fuse the “fierce” femininity and the “racial ambiguity” of the American program with televisual techniques more specific to each particular region in which this programming appears.  For example, the opening ofChina’s Next Top ModelBrazil’s Next Top Model, and Russia’s Next Top Model (also referred to as You are a Supermodel) all feature the same aggressive music with sexualized shots of each contestant gazing fiercely into the camera, propagating the western fashion industry’s version of femininity as the globally accepted version, from Shanghai to Moscow.

[24] While America’s Next Top Model certainly illuminates the ways in which cultural identity is now often founded on consumption rather than on the concept of nation, this program reduces culture to the mise-en-scène which Canclini attempts to dismantle (84),transforming what he views as a montage of multiple viewpoints into a coherent whole that serves a distinct purpose. In this sense, American television programming is certainly not contributing to the new perspective that Canclini propagates, despite the fact that it is overflowing national boundaries and influencing other programming traditions, even as European and Latin American entertainment television overflows U.S. boundaries and sometimes influences the content and style of programs at “home.”  Thus, the consumption-driven fluidity of which Canclini speaks does not necessarily lead to the fragmentation of universalized narratives, but instead may only lead to reductive revisions of these narratives that are employed by the most advanced particularity existing within various cultural groups.  In other words, American television takes culture and pieces what Canclini terms the “effervescent montage of discontinuous images,” into a quite continuous image, a recognizable home.

[25] America’s Next Top Model at first seems to create this image of home through its rather nationalist tendency to flood each episode with establishing shots of the U.S. city in which the contest is taking place.  In cycle ten, the contestants live in Manhattan, and each week their dramatic conflicts occur only after an establishing shot of Manhattan flashes onto the screen.  These shots show a financial Manhattan: Times Square, Rockefeller Plaza, and the Empire State Building, reinforcing one distinct map of New York—the “all-American” map of a booming business center integral to the progress of the global north.  The model narrative of individualization in this program, then, is interwoven with a limiting visual rhetoric, suggesting the important influence of the global north and its corporations on this notion of consumer-citizenship.  Raewyn Connell asserts that social theory “sees and speaks” from the global north, employing globalization to “name-the-world-as-a-whole” as its object of knowledge (368).  This tendency likely stems from the same impulse that prompts America’s Next Top Model producers to similarly objectify this world-as-a-whole as the proverbial home that belongs to everyone and to which everyone belongs in the moment of no longer belonging.  Thus, what Morley calls “our supposedly deterritorialized culture of homelessness” becomes a rhetorical tool, veiling its own use of the same monolithic logic that underpins the notion of belonging, the notion of home, and the notion of proper consumption that occurs within that space.

[26] This “culture of homelessness” is reflected alongside monolithic notions of home in cycle ten ofAmerica’s Next Top Model, when the contestants pose as homeless people on the streets of Manhattan.  Within the space of a North American metropolis, the contestants enact the moment of belonging through no longer belonging; they pose as people with no stabilized identity.  Yet, they are all recognizably female, posing on a freshly constructed set rather than in an alley and mimicking a photo of Tyra Banks dressed as a transient, holding a sign that reads: “Will pose for change.”  This image again invokes the dangerous fluidity of the feminine and the financial, while simultaneously attempting to contain that fluidity by assigning it a specific narrative within the simulated space for discourse that appears on the television screen; the money itself remains hidden, the alley remains suspiciously clean, and the contestants themselves are carefully contained within the space of the photographic and televisual frames.  As Morley suggests, the notion of cleanliness often coincides with notions of secured boundaries, or national homogeneity (141).  This process operates at the familial and societal level, implying that “the family may of course be mobile as it moves through this threatening, external world, but its boundaries must remain secure” (Morley 141).

[27] While the notion of gender, like the notion of culture and nationhood, is represented in this program as an entity in flux, the word “woman” still remains intact.  The contestants and the members of the consumption-based community this program creates are expected to hold to the notion of womanhood in order to remain part of this community.  Thus, while the word “woman” shifts and morphs and appears to cross boundaries, to defy notions of home, it actually serves as a home on the move, in the same way a “nation” without geographic borders may continue to police its philosophical and political borders, even as it travels throughout and attempts to infiltrate the world.  In this sense, gender and nation work together to dictate the structures of Canclini’s international communities, generating consumer-citizens who pursue their own fashioning and their new sense of belonging in true neoliberal spirit.  It is this neoliberal agenda that Toby Miller argues contributes to the real fashioning of citizens, as a reaction to what he calls the “crisis of belonging” that occurs due to the disintegration of nations and cultures in the face of globalization (1).  Through Miller’s lens, I will explain how neoliberalism constructs notions of home around an “inside/outside” binary.  I will then show that, especially through the technology of television, neoliberalism solidifies this same inside/outside binary in relation to gender, as it simultaneously facilitates the mobilization of gender as commodity.

Inside and Outside

[28] While the rhetoric of homelessness permeates the globalized world, real homelessness, or “not-belonging,” often results in legal action against the material bodies that represent this problem (Morley 26).  Since citizenship has traditionally relied not solely on the notion of rootedness, but also on the notion of property ownership, the transients who cannot even give a mailing address to prospective employers are constantly relocated and thus, made invisible (Hebdige, qtd. in Morley 26).  In the same way, those identities not traditionally thought to belong in certain nations experience a similar, though rhetorical relocation. The “crisis of belonging” is realigned alongside the problematic discourse of multiculturalism, or a self-contradictory model of individualization on a reality television show. This underscores David Garland’s assertion that the Western media tend to reduce the mobilizing effects of moral panic. In other words, while some moral panics can cause “the deviance in question” to be “amplified or altogether transformed,” the inner workings of the media that exacerbate such panics tend to inhibit positive transformation (Garland 7, 10).   Thus, even as programs like America’s Next Top Model propagate narratives of increased mobility, they actually decrease the mobility of the truly transformative discourses that moral panic could productively produce, obscuring the reality of difference behind a universalizing rhetoric of collectively “not-belonging” that still implies the importance of belonging to a particular identity group.

[29] This contradiction is not unique to reality television, but also appears in the American news media’s commentary on the “crisis of belonging.”  Miller’s work explores the ways in which this crisis “is both registered and held in check” in U.S. news programming (1).  Echoing the news media’s famous mantra, Miller claims that the crisis of belonging is a crisis of “who, what, when, and where,” and he cites the drive to belong, as well as the sense of not belonging, as a product of the appropriation of culture by a neoliberal project that eclipses the power of the traditional “American” state (2).  Like Canclini, Miller situates the formation of identity around consumption, arguing that “with consumers targeted by a culture-driven economy, their identities come to be points of sociopolitical and commercial organization” (9).  In other words, the notions that have always been closely connected with the concept of universalized identity origin, or “home”—access to food and protection from “outsiders”—all become commodities manipulated by the mass media, pointing again to the ways in which the concept of home generates a site for identity construction and the consumption so important to that construction.

[30] Miller first delineates the ways in which television manipulates notions of “inside” and “outside,” “secure,” and “endangered” in the United States.  He outlines how, during and directly after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, the U.S. news media “set a premium on the lives of Manhattan residents,” indicating their “inside” status while simultaneously labeling certain groups both within and outside the U.S. as terrorists (107).  He recounts how journalists during this time were instructed to be “patriots first, and journalists second,” revealing another important trait of belonging—loyalty to the community to which one belongs (99).  Morley states that in order to possess a home—“the natural place of shelter where we can lock the doors against misfortune and unwanted outsiders”—one must often adhere to a rigid set of requirements decided upon by all who occupy the home space (18).  In the case of September 11th, journalists not only adhered—they helped create the requirements.  Morley explains how U.S. and European broadcasting has always created a national sense of unity by bringing events from which many viewers would be excluded into their homes and thus giving them the illusion of inclusion (107).  During and directly after September 11th, this occurred in the negative sense, bringing carefully chosen images of infiltration into American homes.  These images were coupled with patriotic symbols, such as flags and soldiers—contributing to and drawing upon what Berlant calls the national symbolic, or the “alphabet for collective consciousness or national subjectivity” (qtd. in Morley 107).  In this sense, journalists tried to create a homogenous notion of home that necessarily posited certain types of difference as dangerous.  This sense of danger led to the intentional transgression of regional and legal boundaries by U.S. authorities—hence, the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq and the imprisonments in Guantánamo Bay (Miller 92).

[31] While journalism works with precision to create these notions of inside and outside, entertainment television constructs its own “inside/outside” binaries in just as insidious a fashion.  Laurie Ouellette posits this as an issue of governmentality, tracing James Hay’s argument that television facilitates the internalization of self-governance, since the neoliberal agenda depends on government deregulation in order to transgress national boundaries and institute current corporate practices; incidentally, neoliberal rhetoric also seeks to avoid government involvement in the life of the individual who must make herself over into the ideal consumer-citizen (Ouellette 226).  Ouellette adds that a long tradition of feminist discourse locates this self-governance in the makeover tradition so ubiquitous to western reality television programming (226).

[32] I would like to conceptualize how, through the technology of the makeover, American entertainment television connects such governance with the inside/outside binary, positioning the “inside” status as a destination to which all women must dutifully attempt to arrive, even as that “inside” status overflows national boundaries and materializes at multiple sites.  America’s Next Top Model particularly points to the ways in which such refashioning is structured around complex notions of inside and outside that are explicitly tied to gender.  Isis serves as both outsider and insider in the same episode, depending on which cast member is speaking at the time.  Both Banks’s approval of Isis and the contestants’ disapproval work in the same way. Isis’s constantly shifting status helps solidify the category, the stable home that each contestant finds in gender.  In this sense, Isis recognizes herself as outsider, trying to get inside, and achieving this journey inside through a successful embodiment of the mobile image of femininity.

[33] The proper maintenance of this image of femininity depends on another trait coiled within the concept of home: access to food. Miller explains how food is the basis of the earliest class systems, symbolizing consumption and signifying one’s particular caliber of home within the national home (112).  The American interest in food has led to what Miller calls “Food TV… a key site of risk and moral panic, a space that forms and maintains citizens” (121). This formation of citizenship manifests itself in “mobilized rhetoric of neoliberal self-governance,” which blames obesity on poor consumer choices rather than on poor food regulation (Downey et al., qtd. in Miller 122).   OnAmerica’s Next Top Model, proper consumption of food products leads to proper formation of woman as commodity. Because of this, the show’s judges and contestants often address each others’ eating habits.  In cycle four, for instance, the judges constantly attack the contestant Keenyah for her purported weight gain.  Accordingly, the cameras follow the woman around the contestants’ apartment, capturing close-ups of everything she eats.  Yet, cycles nine and ten each champion their token “plus-sized model,” asserting the beauty of womanly curves, and carefully capturing those same close-up shots of potato pancakes and peanut butter bars.  When one of the plus-sized models begins to lose weight, she is eliminated from the contest as abruptly as the standard model that the judges chastise for gaining weight.  In both instances, the contestants are punished for failing to serve as a model of proper self-governance.  Through this visual rhetoric, woman is again invoked as the powerful, yet capricious entity, a commodity for exchange that is expected to know and enhance her own commodity value.

[34] This phenomenon serves as a prime example of Miller’s assertion that subjectivities are manipulated and identities produced through the neoliberal project that utilizes moral panic and the identity crises informing such panic in order to achieve its goal.  America’s Next Top Model draws on the rhetoric of self-governance in a way that at first seems to suggest autonomy in the fashioning of personal narrative.  Yet, at the end of every episode, this autonomy is replaced with explicit instructions for self-transformation, courtesy of Tyra Banks and her lackeys.  While the instructions differ from contestant to contestant, implying the “plethora of options” which Guy Redden attributes to globalization, the contestants are still expected to make the correct choices in order to achieve the sanctioned sort of success, predicated on their adherence to gender rules.  The women are expected to find and employ “consumer options that satisfy and personalize differentiated notions of value” (Redden 151).  However, they are also expected to make the choices that will transform them into role-models for the millions of female viewers eyeing both the bodies and the clothing from the home-space of their sofas.  Camouflaged as entertainment, America’s Next Top Model employs the theme of homelessness to read the mobility that defies social constructs like “nation” and “culture,” while simultaneously masking the immobility of gender.  Gender, in all its shifting shapes, paradoxically becomes a site for belonging and no-longer-belonging, an articulation of homelessness, and the last home standing.


I thank my seminar members at the 2008 Futures of American Studies Institute, as well as my anonymous readers, for their thoughtful feedback on this project.  I also thank Toby Miller for his useful insights on this paper in its various stages.

Works Cited

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