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“Britain’s Next Top Model” is a cultural crash in slow-mo, says Laurie Penny

... which is precisely what makes it such shockingly good television.

The new series of Britain's Next Top Model, which airs tomorrow after months of breathless publicity, is set to be the most screechingly obnoxious cycle yet of this long-running, extraordinarily popular global pageant of beauty fascism.

The show, a high-fashion reality knockout that pits pretty young women against one another to compete for representation in a series of invasive and demeaning "challenges", is a repulsive montage of contemporary culture's hateful attitude towards young people in general, and young women in particular.

At the end of every episode, a weeping, underweight teenager is marched down the catwalk of shame and sent home to contemplate her deficiencies on the dole, after being informed that she does not "have what it takes". Public criticism of the series has focused on its supposed promotion of eating disorders, but Next Top Model is problematic for a whole host of reasons.

Last year, the UK version of the show faced press excoriation for allowing an anorexic contestant, Jade, through to the final round. Like every reiteration of the so-called "size-zero controversy" -- which has now been thoroughly incorporated into the mythology of the fashion industry -- this story simply cried out to be illustrated with ogle-worthy shots of stick-thin, half-naked teenagers. (Last week the new judge Julien Macdonald confided in Wales on Sunday that the notion of the industry giving space to models larger than a size eight is "a joke".)

Cultish obsession with the bodies of emaciated girls is only part of what makes Britain's Next Top Model so obnoxious and so fascinating.

This is not, at heart, a show about beauty, or even about fashion: it is a programme about social mobility. The reason America's Next Top Model and its 20 local variants have been so wildly successful is that they formalise the rules of late-capitalist femininity as experienced by young women in the west: life may be hard and jobs may be few, but if you are beautiful enough, if you are thin and pretty and perky and prepared to submit to any conceivable humiliation, you too might have a chance of "making it".

Cats in a sack

The show takes ordinary teenagers, for a version of "ordinary" whose baseline is remarkable slenderness and regularity of feature, plucks them out of regional obscurity and makes them fight like cats for a chance of a better future.

These girls will do almost anything for that chance. They will strip naked, they will cry and wail on camera, they will betray one another clumsily and, of course, they will scream. The orchestrated screaming is an essential part of the Next Top Model experience, though the British contestants have yet to muster the enthusiasm of the American hopefuls, who dutifully erupt into hysterical shrieks whenever anything happens on the show at all.

The fairy tale these girls are chasing was dreamt up in the neoliberal haze of the 1990s, when supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell overtook actresses as the iconic female role models of the age, courted by rock stars and showered with money and attention merely for showing up and looking a certain way.

This sustaining mythology no longer has any basis in reality. In today's world of faceless, interchangeable, airbrushed femininity, the modelling industry is glutted with identikit beauties who earn very little and exist to be chewed up and tossed aside for younger, less traumatised models. Yet the dream persists.

Indeed, the new host of Britain’s Next Top Model is the 1990s supermodel Elle Macpherson, known in her day as "The Body". Macpherson quite literally embodies this cruel fantasy, precisely resembling a woman who has been pickled in a tank of flattery for 20 years.

The show is soaked in the language of corporate self-fashioning, with endless motivational sermons from the judges and hosts about "working it", "believing in yourself" and "being on top".

The atmosphere of naked desperation differs from that of talent contests such as The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, which are all about showcasing the weird and wonderful. Britain's Next Top Model, by contrast, is about the art of ambitious self-effacement.

Car crash

For all the show’s platitudes about personality, individuality and the importance of "standing out", the girls who do best are always the most blankly identikit, the meek, spiritless women who excel at taking orders and "representing the brand". This quite possibly makes Next Top Model the ultimate capitalist psychodrama.

The servile posturing of Top Model hopefuls is as nothing, however, compared to the submission that's required of young women in modelling when the cameras stop rolling.

In 2007, Anand Jon Alexander, a top fashion photographer, was jailed for 59 years on several counts of rape and assault of young models in California. According to industry insiders, sexual and physical intimidation is standard practice in the world that the young contestants of Britain's Next Top Model compete to gain access to.

In 2009, the former model Sara Ziff's gonzo documentary Picture Me courageously exposed the epidemic of misogynist bullying and sexual assault in the fashion industry, with teenage girls routinely required to submit sexually to male agents, photographers and designers who hold every shred of power and who cover for each other's indiscretions if the girls wish to remain in work.

Britain’s Next Top Model is a rags-to-riches fairy tale updated for the 21st century. Like all fairy tales, it has a moral: if you're a girl, your success in life depends on your ability to brutalise your body into a stereotype of faceless corporate femininity, your capacity to compete coldly with other women for physical attention, and your willingness to submit tamely to industrial exploitation and sexual abuse.

This is what the dream of modelling means for young women today, and it is this contemporary parable about the rewards of self-discipline and submission that makes young women want to starve themselves.

The cruel, misogynist realism of Britain's Next Top Model is a cultural car crash in slow motion -- and this is precisely what makes it such shockingly good television.

The new series of "Britain's Next Top Model" begins on LIVING on Monday 5 July at 9pm.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue