DISGRASIAN OF THE WEAK! America’s Next Top Model And “Portraying” Race

October 30th, 2009 | 7 comments | Posted by Jen

Tyra Banks is the Mistress of Babble. She’s usurped the word “fierce” from drag queens and publicly abused it to the point that it’s been emptied of all meaning and packs the same linguistic punch as clearing one’s throat. Her biggest contribution to the English language, “smizing,” or “smiling with your eyes,” is a made-up modeling term that’s also a paradox, something she’s defined in the past as “squinting with your eyes open” (and something that I happen to really suck at).


Her crazy talk extends beyond modeling to the “social” ideas she explores on both her talk show and America’s Next Top Model. Remember when she put on a fat suit for a day to understand what it was like to be the victim of what she called the “last form of open discrimination that’s okay”? Or when she had the Cycle 10 ANTM contestants “do” homeless, posing with real-life homeless youth, and told the models she understood what it was like to live on the streets because she (again) did it for a day on her talk show?

Well, crazy reared its smizing head again Wednesday, when Tyra moved the Cycle 13 contestants to Hawaii and put them into racial drag to model what it means to be hapa.  Tyra explained to the girls that “hapa” means “half” and then creamed her pants over President Obama being the most famous hapa in the universe.

Here’s a clip of her and Mr. Jay outlining the assignment:

My favorite line?

Jay: For today’s photo shoot, you girls are gonna undergo a transformation and actually have to portray two very different, distinct races.

“Portray” a race?  How exactly do you “portray” a race?

Fortunately, Tyra, Mr. Jay, and even a few of the contestants had very explicit instructions.

The first contestant to be photographed was Erin, a white girl with a Fargo accent, who was “portraying” Tibetan and Egyptian and didn’t seem to grasp what that meant (silly rabbit). To encourage her, Mr. Jay and Tyra, who was “portraying” a photographer on the shoot, said:

Jay: Erin, feel that spirituality. The Tibetan culture, it’s all about ritual.

Tyra: Think about Egypt. The people, what they’ve been through.

Yes, Erin, remember the people!

A little later, redheaded Nicole, who was “portraying” Japanese and Malagasy, told the cameras:

Nicole: The transformation is frightening. My skin’s really dark and I’ve always wondered what I’d look like as a different race. In the end, it all came together and I feel like I really looked exotic.

Jennifer, who’s Korean, “portrayed” Botswanan and Polynesian, but like Erin, she was pretty stiff at first. She only loosened up when Mr. Jay and Tyra gave her the following advice:

Jay: You know in Botswana, music is heard everywhere you go. Just bringing in a little bit of that beat, it will register on your face.

Tyra: Botswana! Polynesia!…Hear the music!

Hear it, wear it, work it!

Brittany and Sundai were the last two contestants to be photographed.

Brittany, a white mathematician, had decided that “portraying” Native American and Indian–based on what she’d learned in school, meant being “poised.” Her interpretation of these two races was met with Mr. Jay’s approval (even though, alas, she was later eliminated for being too poised):

Jay: I think that you perfectly embody Native American and Indian. Now pick up the energy, make it really high fashion.

Finally, Sundai, who is black, was supposed to “portray” Moroccan and Russian. During her shoot, Tyra explained why Sundai was given this particular assignment:

Tyra: Sundai was given the Russian nationality because of that strong bone structure.

A lot has been made about the fact that all of the girls were put in brown- or blackface for the shoot except for the one black contestant. But the crazy talk surrounding what it means to be hapa, or what it means to be of a certain race, ethnicity, or nationality, and how to “portray” that–Spirituality! Exoticism! Music In Your Face! Poise! Strong Bone Structure!–seemed way more wrong.

How do you “feel” spiritual, and how does that make you Tibetan? How do you “register” music on your face like Botswanans supposedly do? How much poise is too much poise when you’re “portraying” Native American and Indian? Do Moroccans not have strong bone structure?

Kinda makes the paradox of “smizing” seem almost rational, doesn’t it?

[Huffington Post: 'America's Next Top Model' Puts Models In Blackface]


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7 Responses to “DISGRASIAN OF THE WEAK! America’s Next Top Model And “Portraying” Race”

  1. mellowyel says:

    hot. ass. mess. Tyra should know better. that whole shoot was wrong from the beginning. I wonder how Tyra plans on defending herself.

  2. dalianmoon says:

    Maybe in a future episode, contestants will be asked to portray Tyra Bank’s brain and “feel the crazy.”

  3. leebo0901 says:

    Just hearing the word exotic makes me cringe. I don’t get how Asian Americans can find that term as an endearing compliment.

    I wonder if there has been any backlash for that episode. What are people thinking calling her the next Oprah?

  4. BlasianBytch says:

    As a person of mixed race, I don’t like the term hapa, I’m not half anything. I’m a full person that is Black and Asian. The term to me forces one race to be default and the other to be like some add on bonus or detraction from the first.

    I try not to be too upset when silliness like blackface gets the green light in the name of fashion – they are in their own little wierdo world.

    At least all the elasticities were being portrayed as beautiful.

  5. Jen says:

    BB–did you see this excellent Racialicious post on describing mixed people?


  6. namanyonma says:

    Do you guys remember a few seasons back? This isn’t the first racial drag one they did, althoguh this one is distinctly more offensive. But they did a got milk ad, or set of adds, and everyone was in racial drag.

  7. cherryteresa says:

    Why would a model ever have to do racial drag? Couldn’t they just get someone of that actual ethnicity to model? Sheesh.

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