I first heard of supermodel Tyra Banks’s new, young adult, fiction novel Modelland on this past All-Star season of America’s Next Top Model. I’m a dedicated fan of the show, so when the contestants had to film a “motion editorial” depicting different scenes from the book I was excited my Tyra studies could be extended past ANTM’s season finale. Little did I know, reading Modelland would be quite the commitment: a 546-page commitment to be exact. Yes, 546 pages. No one can accuse Tyra of not jumping into her literary pursuit with full force. Despite the length, Tyra is no J.K. Rowling, though she certainly tries.
Now stick with me here, this book has more made up words and terms than a Klingon translation of a Dr. Seuss book.
The story follows 15-year-old “Metopia” resident Tookie de la Crème on her journey from being a Forgetta-girl (an unremarkable girl who is easily forgettable and ignored) to becoming an Intoxibella (a supermodel with superpowers to make consumers buy, buy, buy). We meet Tookie just a couple days before The Day of Discovery, on which every girl in her region of Metopia catwalks on the main street for the rare chance at being chosen by a Scout to attend Modelland, the mysterious modeling boarding school on the hill that produces the world’s best, most beautiful and convincing models. Tookie knows she has no chance of being chosen because she looks unusual, or so everyone thinks:
The girl whose face not even the meanest person you know would describe as yuck but who you’d never in a million—no, a trillion years describe as alluring either. The girl whose eyes are three centimeters too far apart and whose mouth is four centimeters too wide… She’s the girl whose hair… can’t decide if it’s supposed to be quasi-curly, silky-straight, frantic-frizzy, or wet-and-wavy—or maybe a “Power to the People” ‘fro. The girl whose body is a contradiction of itself: a slightly hunched back (from years of poor posture, one must presume), feet the size of snowshoes, and stick-figure arms and legs so fragile, you think you can hear them screaming ‘Feed me an entire grilled cow, now!’ The girl with the humongous, punch-bowl-sized head, with a forehead that goes on and on and on, making her look like the weight of her cranium will topple her over and break her into a thousand pieces. And not only is her clothing painfully mismatched, so are her eyes, dahling. You heard me right. She has one green eye and one brown one.
Scary right? Nope, Tookie has no chance at Modelland. Instead, she and her abusive parents turn out to support her beautiful, yet bratty, little sister “The Myrracle.” When The Day of Discovery finally comes Tookie plans on running away with her self-mutilating best friend Lizzy when SURPRISE! she is remarkably chosen over her sister to attend Modelland. She—along with three other “misfits”—arrives at the school where all the other “pretty” students BitterBall (look down on) them. A pale girl, a short girl, a girl with a big butt, and big-foreheaded Tookie—how could any of them be models? Is there possibly some sort of redemption in store for them in the next 500 pages of the book?
I won’t ruin the surprise for you. Anyway, at the horrifically trippy Modelland the girls learn all that a great model should know to be successful: don’t share cosmetics, don’t buy counterfeit handbags, don’t show your true emotions, and of course, practice healthy eating habits! All the things that turn a mere Forgetta-girl into a dazzling Intoxibella. Magical model hijinks ensue, many people die, and Tookie finds a boy that actually likes her and thinks she’s pretty! Imagine that.
The overall message of this book is pretty heavy-handed: As long as you’re beautiful on the inside, you’re beautiful on the outside, which is great except I don’t recall the nicest contestants always being the winners of ANTM. But despite the book’s semi-maybe-not really-uplifting message, there’s much here to contradict Tyra’s good intentions. I know you’re shocked.
First off, though this book promotes self-esteem and confidence in girls, it is less than empowering since it is all to a depressing consumerist end, especially when one remembers that if Tookie doesn’t want to be a model all that’s left for her is working in a Metopia accessory factory as a slave, oh I mean, “Factory Dependent.” Secondly, men are explicitly objectified. The Belladonna (headmistress) of Modelland makes sure the girls know their brothers at Bestosterone are beneath them:
“And anyway, girls, males are accessories at Modelland. Don’t ever forget: we’re the stars, not the boys. Yeah, they do some modeling stuff, but basically we have them here to work for us: build our buildings, provide security and eye candy… that sort of thing.”
Yet attention from a boy is exactly what helps Tookie believe she is beautiful and what elevates her in the eyes of the other girls.
Second, traditional beauty standards still exist in this fictional world and are never truly challenged. Tyra’s bio on the back page says she “is a leading voice in empowering girls and is dedicated to expanding the definition of beauty worldwide” and while there is a huge cast of varied-looking girls in the book they are still bound by a traditional standard of beauty. For example, the only character who could be considered plus-size, Dylan, is never explicitly acknowledged as such. Instead she just has a “big butt,” even when it is revealed that she has an eating disorder. Another such character is Abigail, the standard “militant feminist” who spends her small part of the book campaigning for hairy women. However, even she doesn’t stand strong in the face of the glamorous Modelland:
Abigail brought the knife to her chest. “Noooo!” Harriet screamed. But instead of impaling her body with the weapon, Abigail began to scrape her body with it. A tuft of her thick underarm hair tumbled to the ground. With lightning speed, Abigail shaved her sideburns, her arms, her most private of parts, and then her legs. She finished by removing all the knee-length black hair from her head. Every trace of her hair, eyebrows included, was gone and lay in clumps at her feet….Now that she was completely without hair, the group could see the Abigail who had been hiding all along…Abigail was not simply pretty. She was out-of-this-world, breathtakingly beautiful— absolutely, undeniably, soul-stirringly stunning.
Great, the character I was rooting for ends up shaving off all her hair to fit in before being incinerated by a giant fireball (I’m not kidding). Lastly, the issue of race is conveniently avoided, with all the characters being from fictional lands like Bou-Big-Tique or Canne Del Abra. And while Tyra does describe the characters they are always either caramel- or olive-colored or just plain pale.
I started off reading this book for some lighthearted fun and a few laughs, but it quickly became a nonsensical, nightmarish, acid trip that seemed like it would never end. When it finally did end, I was more relieved than narratively satisfied. Would I recommend this book to young readers? Probably not. Would I recommend this book to my peers? Yes, if only for the selfish reason that I need someone to talk to about it. There is so much more to this book that needs to be discussed that I can’t fit here. If you’ve read the book please share your thoughts in the comments and help me understand what I’m feeling right now. If you plan on reading it, just be aware that it stops being funny when you realize just how long it is. And if you decide to skip it altogether it’s no great loss. Tyra has two more Modelland books in the works so this won’t be your last chance to get in on the… experience.