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.
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.
- 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
- The Racial Healing Handbook, Anneliese Sing
- From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
- Begin Again, Eddie S. Glaude
- Intesectionality, Anna Carasthathis
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.