The reckoning of Tyra Banks

How do you solve a problem like Tyra? With cancel culture!

by Otamere Guobadia
26 May 2020, 7:00am

There are few true second chances in cyberspace, and certainly no eraser. The successes, but more commonly the mistakes and follies, of everyone from the most high profile of public figures to the most ordinary of individuals, can be archived to be recalled at a moment's notice, meme-ified, tweeted and retweeted to infinity. As Tyra Banks, model extraordinaire-cum-media-polymath-cum-villain now knows: the internet never forgets.

Beyond her supermodel credentials, a stint at Harvard Business School and her infamous, oft-rehashed feud with Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks spent much of the 00s not only hosting her own eponymously-named and short-lived talk show, but also being the face, the force, and the chaos behind America's Next Top Model. When it debuted in 2003, the format was revolutionary. It laid the groundwork for a new kind of reality television competition, a format that Project Runway and RuPaul's Drag Race would follow, and launched the careers of Winnie Harlow, Nyle DiMarco, Eva Marcille and Isis King, to name a few.

But ANTM's 23 Tyra-helmed cycles -- particularly in earlier ones -- also inadvertently empowered and normalised the chaotic machinations and antics of its supermodel host, seemingly enabling abuses of power in the name of 'good' television. These abuses were not sequestered behind the scenes, but rather left to play out in all their uncomfortable, cringe-worthiness on TV screens the world around.

There's no doubt that Tyra often used her platforms to have important conversations around racism, bigotry, body-shaming and a number of issues, but the list of her sins is long. Sins with implied life-ruining off-screen repercussions for the young women she wielded power over in the name of mentorship.

Tyra’s behaviour -- or at least, Tyra the reality TV character's -- oscillated from cruel (sending a model to the dentist to have her gap tooth closed because it wasn't 'marketable' and then mocking her when she refused; later telling another girl she needed to have her tooth gap widened; many coerced haircuts; her now infamous humiliation of Tiffany) to brazenly offensive (getting her girls to 'swap races' and putting white models in blackface and afro wigs) to outright bizarre (once pretending to collapse in front of distressed contestants and another time pretending to have rabies in front of a bewildered audience). The last few years, and particularly the last few weeks, have seen clips of these moments shared virally, causing a reappraisal of Tyra's legacy. What she faces presently is a common kind of 'trial by archive', in which the subject is not charged with recent transgression, but rather with past infringements usually in the form of long-forgotten tweets (or in her case a back catalog of well documented and internationally-televised bad behaviour).

There have been many tweets calling for Tyra's cancellation as retribution for the aspiring models she victimised, ascribing the most consciously malicious intentions to her damaging behaviours. There have also been many tweets asserting that Tyra has nothing to apologise for, calling her would-be cancellers sanctimonious nitpickers trying to tarnish Tyra's groundbreaking legacy, simply for the pleasure of playing at being offended. Whichever side you stand on, one thing is clear: a reckoning is upon Tyra Banks, one that lays bare complex issues of blame, cancel culture, sin and accountability.

Many of us grew up worshipping Tyra with young eyes, only to reappraise her actions with the benefit of growth and hindsight. But that’s not to suggest that she didn't have a fair share of critics casting her side eye at the time. When Tyra put on a fatsuit in 2005, in a cringe and misguided social experiment, a number of articles took her to task, eventually prompting a broadcasted heartfelt apology. But these voices were in the minority, outweighed by the praise and power she accrued. By and large Tyra's transgressions only seem so egregious to a modern audience.

This isn't to suggest that Tyra was not at fault, but likewise it doesn't make sense to frame her as a power-hungry, manipulative despot. Tyra's proposed cancellation lays bare a paradox of this kind of televised, more-than-a-gaffe public transgression -- particularly those typified by entertainment personalities. When replayed, Tyra's historic behaviour enrages, disappoints and confounds us -- a modern audience -- but it undoubtedly enthralled audiences in the past. Her sins could be seen as the product of an era that not only legitimised her behaviour live on air, but rewarded it with plaudit, prize and magazine cover after magazine cover. Reality television and the talk show, by design, have always been a barometer of moral consensus. The public’s attitude towards queerness, race, class, gender, disability and more are all captured and reified in these convenient media time-capsules. Despite their scripted-ness, more than any kind of dramatisation they can stake a genuine claim to represent life as it is (or was), even if only by showing us what illusions and narratives people accepted, reproduced and sought to project.

ANTM, under Tyra's stewardship, represented a particular iteration of the American dream rampant in 00s culture. What a Girl Wants, Princess Diaries, Ugly Betty-esque Cinderella stories. Stories that wanted young women to be willing to do whatever it took to get out of their backwater towns or cramped apartments in Queens and into a spotlight that unironically delighted in pretty-mean-girls-rule-the-world archetypes. Tenets we accept today as the obvious moral duties of on-air talent were simply not seen to be so in the world of 00s reality TV, and many times behaviour that contradicted them was encouraged by the powers that be. Tyra's actions could not have been sustained without collective complicity. She was a woman who -- for better or worse -- was given the power, station and legitimacy to loudly inhabit some of our best and ugliest instincts.

In its simplest terms a 'cancellation' is the loss of right to navigate cyberspace unimpeded and with presumptions of good faith. What follows can be lost earnings or livelihood and, in the worst scenarios, doxxing. The last few years have seen dime a dozen takes lambasting our perceived 'cancel culture', as well as those arguing that this cancel culture simply doesn't exist. Both perspectives have merit, but what these arguments often do is fail to accurately represent what is a complicated, multifaceted phenomenon. Cancel culture exists precisely because there are crimes, committed by those with more money and power in the equation, where there is no other recourse for the affected and downtrodden. It seeks to serve justice where courts and karma fail; a satisfying vigilantism that appeals to our innate ideas of good and evil. We can admit that cancelling ostensibly 'bad' people feels right, and some cancellations are inarguably a public good. But cancellations demand pantomime villains. They require evil characters like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey who have acted in such inhumane ways as to give up their humanity in the public's perception. But in less black and white cases they require two-dimensional interpretations of actions and motives to align with what punishments we think they deserve. Instead we flatten out and remove that humanity, Drag Race villain edit style.

Scapegoating characters like Tyra is a kind of ritualistic purging of our old sins. It allows us to feel good about ourselves -- to cathartically lambast our stupid, malicious stars for their moral failings, and posture as though we have always known such things to be obviously bad. It retcons a history of empathetic, good behaviour both on the internet and in the wider world, which is radically out of step with our truth: that our collective desire to hold these people to account was sorely lacking at the time at which the posts and transgressions were originally made.

There is also some merit in suggestions that for some people, cancel culture simply does not exist. Cancel culture did not develop in a vacuum, and as such does not mete out its punishments equally. How long a celebrity stays 'cancelled', unplatformed or otherwise impeded is often a function of how privileged, beautiful or wealthy (and oftentimes white) they are. One only has to look at the thriving careers of James Charles and Jeffree Star, two examples of a number of incredibly successful YouTubers accused of making racist comments pre (and post) their ascents for evidence. Jeffree Star's influence on social media is so remarkable that he needed not even address recent viral allegations of racism from a close collaborator that he called a famous black beauty blogger a 'gorilla' via text. The text in question dated just a month after his infamous YouTube apologia for what he assured his loyal viewers was a decade-behind-him racism.

Last week Tyra acknowledged her years-long maltreatment of ANTM contestants, labelling her behaviour as "off choices", sending "virtual hugs" to those who were hurt both at the time and by their viral replaying. It was a masterclass in bad apologies, but it also outlines another fascinating, if unintentionally funny, dynamic to Twitter's kangaroo courts: you simply can't cancel crazy. Characters like Tyra and, to an even greater extent the eternally-feuding rap star Azealia Banks, represent a kind of delectable chaos: they don't play by our rules, nor do they necessarily occupy the same, largely imagined, plane of sanity or morality. This is why they often transcend these valid criticisms. In their inadvertent refusal to be held accountable by us mere mortals, there's a wacky joy to be gleaned from messiness, a glimmer of comedic sensibility in Tyra's non-apology and Azealia's propensity to relapse from moments of self-accountability into yet more chaotic public feuds.

This is not to defend or excuse any of their past comments. Bigotry is bigotry. But the questions remain: How do we simultaneously root out bigotry while also affording room for growth and redemption? How do we account for a generation of young people, from athletes to musicians, TikTok stars to regular teens, making their juvenile mistakes in the most connected and un-erasable age thus far? Trial by archive is only going to entrench itself deeper for a generation growing up nearly entirely online. There are no easy answers, and more than one thing can be true. Yes, some unrepentantly bad people deserve to be cancelled and the collective fury of the internet is sometimes the most effective way to serve justice, and yes, cancel culture encourages us to hold both our idols and everyday individuals at arm's length waiting for fuckups to happen or be revealed. It encourages our cynicism, and often preys on a particular minority fear: that those who historically harboured harmful opinions and have a public reformation, do so only to become publicly palatable, but still hate us. Canceling satiates our bloodlust and our need to see and participate in justice, but it also sees an enemy round every corner and shuts out the possibility that those socialised into bigotry might actually rise into allyship.

Cumulative disappointment has made us understandably cynical, but chances to be better -- to grow and change -- should not be foreclosed upon. Forgiveness is never owed, nor a foregone conclusion, but cyberspace without earnest players and forgiveness is misery. It is earned by acknowledgement of harm, reparation, improved and sustained good behaviour. People can and do change, but it's worth remembering that Twitter's guillotine hangs high and sharpened for those who show themselves incapable of it. These cyber courts have no statutes of limitation. Shape up or ship out.

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