Do you remember America’s Next Top Model? Yeah, that show’s still around. They just had season 20. So I’ve been watching it, or whatever, catching up on Hulu. What? I like to watch fluff sometimes, okay? But it’s been making me really uncomfortable lately.
And not for the usual reasons. Sure, they’re obsessed with looking skinny, and long, and bizarre. There’s the show’s focus on appearance and the general beauty culture issues, which are mad problematic. And I’m aware of that. But this season threw male models into the competition. And that just got uncomfortable.
I mean, yeah, hormones are raging and suddenly all the heterosexuals on the show are flirting and smooching. Obviously, the addition of men was meant to bring more sex into the mix. But it also brought some scary sexism.
I’m talking about Marvin and Renee, or “Marnee,” two contestants who started dating in the middle of the season. That’s not the issue. Renee is terrifically shy and reserved; Marvin is outgoing and charismatic and kind of trying to be a ladies’ man. That’s not the issue. The issue comes in Marvin’s treatment of Renee. Yes, he’s sweet and affectionate and she says she enjoys his energy, but he is also constantly pushing him to be physically affectionate with her, something she is not comfortable with, especially in public.
The most jarring scene for me was when the whole cast went for elephant rides in Bali, and Marnee shared an elephant. Marvin kept pushing Renee to kiss him, something she didn’t want to do. (As she says in the interview after, which is edited into the scene, she’s not comfortable with PDA.) Marvin’s response is that he “just wants to kiss on an elephant” and that Renee is “stealing” this experience from him.
It is her fault that he is unhappy. She owes him this kiss. She is hurting him by refusing to kiss in public. Her needs or concerns are unimportant. Marvin wants to smooch in public and she should get over her hangups because she is ruining his elephant ride. Finally, she kisses him.
I cringed through the whole scene. See, I know Marvins, Dad. I’ve dated some. One in particular called himself my boyfriend after our first date. When I told him that was moving too fast for me, he apologized. But on the next date he said he hoped we would still be together in two years. And the date after he called me his girlfriend. That’s when I called it off. But he was hurt and upset whenever I told him that I was uncomfortable with where the relationship was going; my actions were causing him distress and I ignored my own discomfort for two dates too long because I was made to feel as if I was somehow at fault or overreacting.
This kind of emotional blackmail isn’t uncommon, and I think as women, we’re taught to ignore our own alarm bells when a man tells us that our alarm bells are insulting or hurtful to him. It recenters the conversation on the male and discounts a woman’s own feelings and instincts on a situation. Marvin, and the non-boyfriend, both felt a sense of “sexual entitlement,” or that the women in their lives owed them physical and emotional affection and that it was wrong to refuse it.
What’s most upsetting to me is that the relationship between Marvin and Renee is portrayed as romantic and supportive. And yes, Renee does say she has feelings for Marvin; I had feelings for the toxic non-boyfriend. But I think we should be teaching our girls (and this show reaches a lot of girls and young women) that they’re not “stealing” anything from men when they listen to their own misgivings. They are not wrong to say “No.” And their desires matter.
At least, that’s what I’d wish I’d seen in that show, Dad.