Monday, January 02, 2006

If you haven't read it, it's new to you

In lieu of actual new content, I present to you an article rejected by Flow TV. Best read if you subsitute "teleology" with
"narrative closure."

Happily Never After: Teleological Narratives on America’s Next Top Model

Remember Denzel and Halle’s historic double Oscar victories that spelled the end of American racial inequity? Or when “Mission Accomplished” announced the end of the Iraq invasion? Both are examples of real-life events that were narrativized by the popular media, and as narratives, they inherently have some end-point where their issues are resolved and laid to rest. The punch line, of course, is that the issues don’t fit into tidy narratives and continue on lively and problematic as ever. Like the news stories mentioned above, reality television operates in much the same way, shoehorning real-life events that lack inherent narrative shape into stories that have beginnings, middles and ends.
Reality programs often choose as their primary narrative mode the narrative of self-improvement, which America’s Next Top Model often embraces. Of course, reality programs – especially the sort that offers a new career (e.g. a modeling contract) as its ultimate prize – rarely allow glimpses into how the lives of their winners pan out after their stints on television: do they prosper, or is it just another 15 minutes of ephemeral semi-notoriety awarded to the latest would-be ego-hound? In some ways, the answer to these questions doesn’t matter to viewers because it lies exterior to the season of the reality program narrative, which culminates with the dispensation of the prize and which therefore establishes the teleological nature of narrative. That is to say, narratives of all sorts are usually oriented towards a final point. But on occasion, a reality program will air a “where are they now” episode that stretches out the teleological machinery of narrative in reality programs. By stretching out the teleological machinery, these “where are they now” episodes reveal that teleological narratives in popular media (and specifically in reality programs) stand in for actual change, either on the individual or social level, while confining real reality to stasis.
The name of a competitive reality program almost always indicates the teleological drive of the narrative: one contestant will ultimately be transformed into whatever the title of the program refers to, whether it’s American Idol, The Apprentice or America’s Next Top Model. We the audience know where the show will end up, though we don’t know the who or the how of the show’s conclusion. With a predetermined end-goal in mind, Top Model often chooses as its teleological narrative mode the theme of self-improvement, a bildungsroman where the winner undergoes at the minimum a financial/professional coming-of-age, and if she’s lucky, personal growth and maturity. Top Model presented the narrative arc of its first winner, Adrianne Curry, according to teleological principles; her character evolved from a tomboyish, Midwestern waitress to America’s Next Top Model, sufficiently ladylike to escort Parisian aristocracy while wearing haute couture evening gowns. In fact, when Adrianne was crowned the inaugural winner, Tyra Banks told her that she was the “biggest transformation” on the show. A montage of clips from earlier in the season documented this transformation and underscored how the entire season was teleologically building up towards this moment.
But where would Adrianne go from this point? Her final words on the show – “I’m going to have a good life now. My family’s going to have a good life now. A lot is going to change” – suggest that she viewed her victory on the show as the glamorous modeling career itself rather than the means to that end (a notable distinction because she hasn’t achieved her dream of becoming a Top Model – more on this failure later). To reinforce this notion that the chance to become a model was equivalent to actually being a model, Tyra’s voiceover concludes season 1: “Adrianne is the now, and Adrianne is the future.” Just as Adrianne conflates the opportunity with the actual career, so Tyra conflates the now and the future, which, in the interests of her show, is necessary: the final episode ends with Adrianne’s coronation, but Top Model can’t and doesn’t follow her into the real world. Thus, to retain any lasting power, the show extends Adrianne’s elation and celebration out to the future where she is all but guaranteed a career as a Top Model. But of course, the promised Revlon contract that was part of the prize never materialized, and Adrianne has had to support herself either with unglamorous modeling jobs or by dipping back into reality programs (e.g. The Surreal Life, My Fair Brady). As a result, the show’s suggestion that she will go on to have a happy ending in the modeling industry becomes, in the consciousness of the viewers, her happy ending and displaces her real life fate.
A comparable displacement occurred in season 4 with two contestants who did not win in the end: Michelle and Kahlen. Much like Adrianne, both Michelle and Kahlen underwent their own personal transformations and likewise haven’t been able to capitalize on the opportunity Top Model created for them. What distinguishes Michelle and Kahlen from Adrianne, though, is that Top Model caught up with them in “Return to the Runway,” a “where are they now” episode that aired before the current fifth season, and seeing their professional futility exposes even more starkly how the teleological machine of narrativized reality strives to obscure and replace real reality. In the early parts of season 4, both Michelle and Kahlen were considered shy and/or lacking self-confidence, but the narrative arc of the show suggested that they both overcame their deficiencies. Michelle, in particular, was initially unable to socialize with others, and continued to feel alienated until she came out as a lesbian. The show posited this moment as a turning point where she became socially/psychologically rehabilitated, and she placed fourth in the competition. Kahlen, similarly, was a shy girl who never had a boyfriend and was out of touch with her sexuality, and yet she developed into one of the strongest – or, in Top Model parlance, fiercest – contenders on the show, becoming the runner-up on season 4. The prospects of Kahlen and Michelle thus seemed ascendant when they made their exits from the show.
However, “Return to the Runway” reveals that neither of them had landed modeling contracts. Lacking initiative that other past contestants exhibited, Michelle and Kahlen each say in this episode that, although nothing had turned up for them yet, they would move to New York (Kahlen, at the time her segment was shot, was already living there) and then “see what happens from there.” The (rather sad and pathetic) fatalism of “see what happens from there” suggests that neither Kahlen nor Michelle are likely to find success, but the show, in keeping with its narrative agenda of self-improvement, can’t end on such a dismal note for these two girls. So instead, “Return to the Runway” caps their narrative arcs with a thin (flimsy?) string of hope. Yet as far as our narrative perspectives are concerned, such hope remains deferred – their stories, if they end in failure, will never be revisited by Top Model, which leaves “I’ll see what happens from there” as their now-conclusive resolution. In the public consciousness, the probable reality of Kahlen and Michelle is replaced by a televised, forever-deferred and vaguely outlined hope. They have their ends to the story, immaterial and suspended in narrative stasis.
Reality conveyed to the public often takes on the form of narrative, whether it’s reality programming or the news, but where real life creeps along, the televised version of reality often takes on an arbitrary and false conclusion.

Indie rating: Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band - "Ring Them Bells (Freedom Has Come and Gone)"

1 comment:

Barry said...

I'm not sure if you're arguing that the "Return to the Runway" specials partially destroy the narrative arc that the main season develops, or if they're absolutely necessary to make viewers further buy into that narrative arc.

On one hand, Tyra doesn't want to advertise the fact that her proteges are failures because the success of her show is closely tied into the prestige associated with winning. OTOH, hopeful post-season portrayals of Michelle and Kahlen reflect positively on Tyra (look! everyone's a winner! even the girls who didn't actually win!) and one could argue the transformations of girls like Kahlen (or Shandi or ...) draw in viewers just as strongly as the race to see who wins that season.

The "fate of the losers are just as interesting, if not moreso, than that of the winners" maxim is more obvious on a show like American Idol.