Our new ideal girl: bikini babe, hostess

Observations

April 27, 2003|By Samira A. Tanedo | Samira A. Tanedo,Sun Staff

Since Sept. 11, 2001, patriotism has been in vogue across America, from bumper stickers to pop songs to the recent rallies in support of troops in Iraq.

So it only seems natural that television would work this patriotic fervor into prime-time programming. Reality shows like American Idol, America's Most Talented Kid, and the reincarnated America's Funniest Home Videos all seem to be out to capitalize on down-home American spirit.

But what about ABC's reality series All American Girl? The show, which airs Thursday nights at 8 p.m., began with a promise to produce the ideal "all-American girl." As the show hits the midway point of its 13-week run, though, the question is: Just what ideal of American girlhood is the show selling? It sure doesn't seem to be Mom, apple pie and great self-esteem.

The show is a contest, part beauty pageant, part Fear Factor, in which the contestants, aided by "coaches," strive to prove or improve themselves in various ways. So far, we've watched the coaches -- ex-NBA star John Salley, producer Suzanne de Passe and former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell -- judge the girls in such categories as how well they can race through an obstacle course in bathing suits, or plan a dinner party.

In one episode, we saw Ali (the contestants' full names aren't revealed), a graduate of Catholic University in Washing-ton, worry more about losing her bikini top than about how ridiculous it was for her to climb, crawl and shoot basketballs while in a bikini. Andrea, a former cheerleader, did the dog paddle in the water competition for fear her hair might get wet.

In another episode, US magazine beauty director Veronica Hinman made sure she dissected each of the girls' flaws, giving them "tough-love makeovers," perhaps so they could appear more "American."

Party time

Then the girls, who range in age from 19 to 23, but vary little in weight or race, coordinated a party for their coaches. While trying to demonstrate their interpersonal skills, Natalie, an overbearing cognitive science major, and Ali ganged up on perky, blond, blue-eyed Tarah, a national dance champion.

The point of all this? The show's producer, Marilyn Wilson, told a Canadian daily newspaper, the Halifax, that All American Girl demonstrates that "Women today have to do a lot ... the show reflects what a modern woman is."

Robert Thompson, Syracuse University's professor of Media and Popular culture and director of the university's Center for the Study of Popular Television, is skeptical about that premise. He calls All American Girl a "cheesy" attempt to emulate last November's Victoria's Secret television special, where lots of women and skin were supposed to equal high ratings. (It didn't.)

Ratings for the show so far have been lukewarm. Its premiere drew 4 million viewers, but they have dropped off since. For the last two episodes, viewers have been voting off the contestants; this week, six of the original 15 finalists will face the ax.

Maybe a different approach to All American Girl is needed. Imagine a show, for instance, presenting women of varying heights, weights, and ethnicities, including, of course, indigenous women, the original Americans.

Kalpana Krishnamurthy, co-director of the young women's organization Third Wave Foun-dation, suggests such a show, one that would offer an "amazingly beautiful picture of diversity" among young women "leading their communities."

Product plugs

Meanwhile, a real all-American -- Suzanne Eyler, Loyola College's second team All-American la-crosse player -- dismisses the show as a "gimmick," with the term all-American serving as smoke and mirrors for something else.

Eyler may be on to something. The marketers of Schick shaving products, Acuvue lenses and Cingular Wireless sponsor segments of All American Girl, and their products are shamelessly worked into the show.

While the series claims to sell us a model of 21st-century women, what it really seems to offer is an outdated replica of June Cleaver, the late-'50s mother on Leave it to Beaver. The "challenges" the girls face recall a time when it was "all-American" for women's lives to be consumed with domestic issues like party planning and discovering the ultimate in beauty care. Today, when women have titles like senator, doctor and CEO, is there really something all-American about how well they can impersonate Michael Jackson?

Of course, there is something tangible in this for the winner: a contract with a major entertainment company. And in this celebrity-obsessed age, maybe that's as all-American an ambition as there is.

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