This past Wednesday, Tyra Banks crowned her seventeenth America’s Next Top Model, which means—in my estimation—that we have enough top models for several generations. Yet, I have a sneaking suspicion Tyra isn’t planning on stopping anytime soon.
There’s a lot to talk about in Top Model. This is a show with a history of posing women as murder victims, of styling models in blackface, and of playing up the racial and ethnic stereotypes of its competitors, from the “spicy” Latinas, the “exotic” Asian women, and the “ghettofied” black models. (Jenn Pozner devoted a large portion of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV to dissecting the “tyranny of Tyra Banks,” and I can’t recommend her book highly enough.) For the moment, though, I’m going to put these issues aside—not because they aren’t incredibly important, but because for this post I want to focus on one pretty specific element: how the models talk.
“Top model’s gotta speak, not jus’ look pretty,” Tyra said on a previous season, in a voice meant to imitate the Southern drawl of one contestant.
The show definitely identifies the ability to communicate as a qualification for modeling. Previous challenges have featured the models speaking in Japanese, Catalan, Australian English, as well as pronouncing the names of brands and designers with which they were unfamiliar. (Really, who would guess how to say “Hermes” at first glance? Let me give you a clue: if you get it right, it’s because you’ve got a bunch of what we like to call cultural capital.)
But most of the time, when Tyra is talking about the contestants’ speech, she’s talking about their accents. And when she’s talking about their accents, she’s talking about class.
This season featured Laura Kirkpatrick, a Kentucky girl who was constantly called “sweet” and “bubbly”—at least partially due to her Southern accent—who was then eliminated for being “too sexy” and “erotic” for her country brand. However, past accented contestants have gone through much worse than Laura. Back on Cycle 6, North Carolinian Kathy Hoxit was eliminated first, and at least part of the reason was because of the Appalachian lilt to her voice. One of the challenges on the show was a press conference:
Kathy: Ah’d like to say tha’ mah middle name is fearless.
Reporter: You need to get rid of that accent a little bit.
Instead of pointing out that the reporter’s response was non sequitor and more than a bit rude, Tyra later said at judging that she had to “work on the Southern accent” and criticzed Kathy for being “vacant” and a “deer in headlights,” referring to her as a “hillbilly.”
Kathy’s accent marked her as an outsider, the Hillbilly, with all the stereotypical connotations of low socioeconomic status, lack of education, and certainly insufficient refinement to be successful in the fashion industry. Kathy’s race, voice, and geographic home converged to create this label: had she been black (like fellow accented contestant Danielle) she would have been criticized for a different reason, not as a “hillbilly,” or its synonymous identities of “white trash” and “redneck;” had she had a more subtle accent, or a Southern variety with less rural roots, she would have been a “Southern belle” and her warmth and hospitable nature celebrated. But she was not and she did not—instead, she fit cleanly both racially and linguistically within the identity forced upon her by judges.
How, then, did Danielle Evans fare on that same season? A black woman from Arkansas, Danielle seemed to surpass the judge’s demands on a model’s communication skills. While other competitors were criticized in their interviews for being long-winded, using clichés, and making up words, Danielle was commended for her high-brow vocabulary and humorous and witty delivery. Yet, although they nearly always praised what she was saying, when it came time for deliberations, the judges could only seem to comment upon how she said it. Originally from Arkansas, Danielle’s voice reflects not only the region of her upbringing, but her identity as a black woman with command of African-American Vernacular English.
Unsurprisingly, the judges had a problem with this.
After the contestants’ first Cover Girl commercial shoot, Tyra provided this feedback, respectively before, during, and after the judges’ discussion:
Tyra: Alright, Danielle, so you know about the accent. [Affecting Danielle’s accent:] Perfe’t’shun. You have to really study the other girls that have the newscaster accent, just the normal accent where no matter what city you’re in it’s pretty much a standard accent. That’s extremely important in doing a commercial.
Guest Judge: Danielle just has to refine her movements and what she says.
Tyra: Dan-yell wuz liiike talkin’ liiike thiiis. And you ain’t gun be nobuddy’s CuverGirl talkin’ like this.
Tyra: Danielle. Danielle-now, you need ta’ git it togetha’-now-ya nee’ ta star’ soundin’-a li’l betta-now cuz you ain’t gunna get no commercial talkin’ li’ that.
With each interaction, Tyra’s attempt at mimicking Danielle’s accent becomes more prolonged and exaggerated, until in the final instance she is virtually unintelligible.
Unlike Kathy, who by virtue of her accent, place of origin, and self-identity, was easily stereotyped as a “hillbilly,” Danielle’s image and voice defied classical categorization. She was alternately dismissed as “country” and “ghetto,” as if the judges could not precisely say what is objectionable about her voice, just simply that it embodies at least two marginalized English dialects by simultaneously being “Southern” and “black.” Thus, Tyra’s criticisms become sweeping: “She cannot do a Cover Girl commercial speaking like that” and “Danielle’s speech is off.”
The conclusion of the season should be Danielle’s happy ending. After a sprained ankle, dental surgery (Tyra decided the gap in her teeth was unacceptable), international travel, hospitalization for dehydration, and constant barraging about her speech, she is ultimately announced as the winner of the competition and proclaimed “America’s Next Top Model.” Yet, the happy ending is perhaps marred by this exchange, which closes the final episode of the cycle:
Danielle: I am the winner of America’s Nex Top Model, my life has officially changed.
Tyra: We gonna get you some voice lessons, girl!
Tyra’s not the only one at fault here. We all make assumptions about people about based on the way the dress, how they act, and the sound of their voice. Southern accents are judged particularly harshly. Sociologist John Edwards writes, “Although lower-class, minority, and ‘provincial’ speech styles often have positive connotations in terms of integrity and attractiveness, their speakers are typically assessed as being less competent, less intelligent, and less ambitious than are those who enjoy some regional, social, or ethnic majority status.”
The thing about accents, though, is that while it’s become pretty politically incorrect to judge someone overtly because they’re poor, it’s completely acceptable to rip apart two women on national television because of the sound of their voice, and what we think that must imply about their class background.
Kathy and Danielle are just two examples on one television show—what other shows are there where accent or vernacular is used as a marker for class?
(Note: In the transcription above, I tried my best to alter spellings to best communicate the sound and pronunciation of each speaker’s voice.)