[Editor's note: MTV News correspondent Kim Stolz was a finalist on "America's Next Top Model" in 2005.]
Six cycles and three years after Nigel Barker nicknamed me "Tim" (like, I get it — he thinks I'm too gay), "America's Next Top Model" has announced that one of the contestants of Cycle 11 is transgender. This, no doubt, is quite a historic move for the show, which previously had a sort of unspoken "must be born a woman" clause. However, from scrolling through the photographs of the Cycle 11 girls, Isis looks just as — if not more — qualified than the rest. She's more model-esque than most of her competitors, with long, skinny legs, and it's clear that she's had top surgery (her boobs are bigger and prettier than almost all of the girls' — oh my!). Plus, I'd bet my "ANTM" earnings (OK, fine, a lot more than that) that she's got the best walk of the bunch.
That said, whether or not she wins isn't what I'll be watching for. You — and CoverGirl — can count on her walking out of the elimination room, tail between her legs (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist), sometime mid-season. Instead, I'll be keeping an eye on how Tyra and the "ANTM" team follow through on their so-far commendable move. Right now, they have LGBTQ blogs galore on their side. "This is an unprecedented opportunity for a community that is underrepresented on television. We applaud Tyra Banks and the CW for making this historic visibility of transgender people possible," GLAAD President Neil Giuliano said in a recent statement. But wait a second — has Neil seen the season? Aren't we talking about a reality show here? With ratings?
Yeah, we are. As much as we should applaud the subversive topics that "ANTM" has covered in its reign thus far — physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, female circumcision, gayness (hi!!) — we must also accept that there were moments when those issues were clearly exploited for entertainment value. Maybe we can't blame Tyra for this — after all, it's business, right? But with Isis taking the role of the most taboo contestant yet, there are clearly concerns that can't be overlooked. Those of us from cities and liberal-arts colleges (I stress the liberal) tend to forget that most people watching the show have never met, seen or perhaps even heard of a trans person. I remember talking to the girls on my season about transgender people (the conversation didn't make it to air). Most of the girls reacted with confusion, and more than a few said, "Ew!!!" Most people don't even know the difference between transgender and transsexual, and what "top surgery" and "bottom surgery" mean, and that many transgender people identify as "straight" because they are, in fact, attracted to the opposite sex of what they consider themselves to be.
Now, weeks before the first episode airs (19 days and counting), the media is already hailing Isis as a role model. When asked about earning the title, she responded, "I like to help people, but I'm here to follow my dreams." I respect that, but I do hope she is aware of the intense scrutiny — by the media and her fans — that will follow her appearance on the show (if I were her, I'd count on some inappropriate and offensive hate mail as well). The fact of the matter is that "ANTM" is made up of approximately 13 41-minute episodes, and there are challenges, photo shoots, judging sessions, random drama and 13 other girls to watch. The moment that the transgender issue is addressed will bear great weight on the perception of trans-ness by the viewing audience, and subsequently, the way they treat any trans person who crosses their path. I'm certainly not saying that Isis deserves special treatment or that she and "ANTM" have a responsibility to educate viewers; I'm merely stating the fact that this season will have the capacity to shape people's minds across the world about a minority that is still "taboo" and thought of as a "mental illness" by many of the nation's top physicians.
The good news is that even if the show's portrayal of Isis is extremely offensive and exploitative, it will undoubtedly start a mainstream discourse about transgender issues, and those conversations are what will lead to a greater awareness and equality for trans people — something that's long overdue. So, as September 3 approaches, I (cautiously) applaud Tyra, "ANTM" and the CW for, at the very least, putting the issue on the table.
What do you think of the show's decision to include Isis? Leave a comment and let us know.