Reality TV Lessons Week: What America’s Next Top Model Can Teach Us About Evaluation by Michael Arnold

Hi, my name is Michael Arnold, and I am a co-director with Informing Change. We are a strategic learning firm with a focus on racial and intersectional equity and systems change efforts.

Although I don’t watch much reality TV, I did indulge in America’s Next Top Model. Hosted by Tyra Banks, ANTM was a competition show that placed physical beauty at its heart. Young women, and later men, would compete for the chance to become a “top model”. Alas ANTM is a master class in the ‘don’t-do-what-Donnie-does’ school of learning.

Beauty Is

With almost every episode of ANTM I would shake my head and mumble at the never-ending parade of avoidable and unnecessary conflicts, the antagonism and mistreatment between contestants, and at Tyra’s iconic inhabitance of the reality TV villain role. This was, of course, a ratings mechanism. But also detracted from the ‘beauty’ ANTM was hoping to showcase and inspire.

Which brings me to reflect: what kind of beauty are we creating and inspiring as evaluators?

The Master’s Tools

As a show founded on the primacy of beauty, ANTM took some effort—particularly in middle and later seasons—to expand the perceptions of what constitutes beauty. At the same time, Tyra and the other judges used traditional standards of beauty when rating contestants. In one particularly hard to stomach episode, Tyra forces a young model to close the gap in her front teeth on the grounds that it’s not accepted in the industry.

We also often hold our assessments of programs, organizations, and actions to similar status quo assumptions. But is this what we mean when we are talking about equity, inclusion, and diversity? Or do we need to seek out and prioritize other standards of value and valuing in our work? Should we find new tools to do this work?

It’s a Thin Line

Looking back at the series as whole, I can’t help but see the ‘inclusion’ it touted as merely exploiting difference for profit and ratings.

As evaluators, and particularly those of us professing our commitments to racial and intersectional equity, we need to consider how our actions, attitudes, and approaches border the fine line between inclusion and exploitation. We must be open to shifting and responding to critiques of exploitation, while holding out the possibility for redemption and reconciliation for our past mistakes. We are stronger as a field together, and we are stronger as a collective when we learn from our past.

One final note of reflection: I will probably watch an episode or two of ANTM again someday. Guilty pleasures can be addictive.  

Hot Tips:

  • Use your critical thinking and read a range of opinions and thinkers
  • Draw on your sense of decency and compassion
  • Embrace your love for humanity and a more perfect society

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This week, AEA365 is hosting Reality TV Lessons Week where contributing authors share lessons learned from their guilty pleasure favorite TV shows. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

7 thoughts on “Reality TV Lessons Week: What America’s Next Top Model Can Teach Us About Evaluation by Michael Arnold”

  1. Although I have only seen a few episodes of ANTM I can say I was entertained and a bit surprised. I do believe that the avoidable negative interactions could have been avoided, but the show chooses contestants with strong personalities and a huge desire to win ANTM. With almost any competition, such as ANTM, Rupauls drag race, project runway, and Masterchef, it is believed that if you cause a commotion then it will get your competition nervous and anxious and likely to make mistakes that could cost them the competition.

  2. I agree with the main premise of your lessons that evaluators need to be aware of the line between inclusion and exploitation especially when dealing with members of minority communities and individuals who may have faced difficulties due to their sexual orientation, religious beliefs out of the mainstream, etc. In my view American Top Model contestants know going in that it’s a show designed to exploit, so I’m not sure I would have used it as an example, but to each his own. There is some value in ensuring that standards are inclusive to a certain degree, we just need to make sure that the standards are not diluted to the point where they are not effective in our quest to be inclusive. There is a balance that must be maintained.

    1. “we just need to make sure that the standards are not diluted to the point where they are not effective in our quest to be inclusive”. Love that. And yes, I agree many contestants knew exactly what they were signing up for. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Jesseca Thomas

    Hello, I was a huge fan of America’s Next Top Model growing up. I always felt like I was different because I was always taller and slimmer than anyone else in my class. In my opinion, I was awkward. ANTM made me feel like there are other people who are just like me and it help build my confidence. As I have grown older, I do see some of the negative aspects of the show. As you pointed out when Tyra suggested one of the young ladies to close their gap. I feel like that suggest that she is not beautiful enough. You made many valid points about the difference between inclusion and exploitation. There can be a thin line between them. This was a great read!

    1. Jessica, thanks for reminding all of us that shows like ANTM aren’t just about the negative. I feel like the confidence and re-seeing of ourselves was what ANTM initially set out to do. It was probably the thing that kept me coming back to it season after season too.

  4. Hello Mr. Arnold,

    I am enjoying the reality tv lessons week that AEA365 is hosting. As some have personally enjoyed a few seasons of America’s Next Top Model I can completely see where you are coming from when pointing out the more negative sides of the show. I believe you did a great job compare and contrasting them into your work field. I thoroughly enjoy that you realize that sometimes we make mistakes and we must learn from those in order to grow as a whole. The line between inclusion and exploitation can be difficult to navigate but can be done, and this is extremely important!

    Kayla McCloud

    1. Important it is!

      And thanks for taking this fun ride with us. Would be great to write a blog with all the commenters here on the upsides of ANTM. I certainly got my fair share of joy from the program–and routed for several contestants who inspired me. Appreciate your comment and insights.

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