Accepting gender diversity on America's Next Top Model

Twenty cycles over seven years – that’s how long it took for male contestants to finally be on America’s Next Top Model (ANTM). Some dubbed last week’s finale as a battle of the sexes between the 20-year old Bronx boy Marvin Cortes and 19-year old small town girl Jourdan Miller.

However, ANTM has proven to be more than a reality series steeped in drama and superficial relationships. Cycle 20 told the the stories of contestants, not just striving to win a model competition, but also addressing personal issues such as teen marriage, poverty, parental abuse and LBGTQ issues.

Since the season kicked off in August, there was one looming question in people’s minds – will ANTM finally have its first male model winner?

Though this season may have been a long time coming, with Brits versus Americans, college girls and all-star editions happening long before male models finally graced the show, ANTM has shown a welcoming diversity not restricted to dichotomies of gender. As a national television show watched by thousands of teens, it provides inspiration for those who come from meager beginnings, like Cortes, who described his father’s janitor profession and run-down rat-infested apartment or Miller, who describes her self-esteem issues from her abusive first marriage.

Virgg, a contestant that host Tyra Banks personally selected after winning the show’s Instagram contestant search, has helped the LGBTQ community to find a voice on a national platform.

All of the contestants were willing to hear Virgg’s story about taking hormones in preparation for her sex reassignment surgery. It set an encouraging example of providing positive space and promoting dialogue around transgender issues.

ANTM audiences first saw a transgendered contestant with Isis King in Cycle 11, who Virgg says was a huge inspiration for her. I only hope that Virgg, despite her early self-removal from the show, proves in turn to be an inspiration for transgender teens.

This season, many fans were able to support contestants they identify with, especially since two minorities, a homosexual contestant and Latino contestant made it to the finale.

Despite Miller’s ultimate ANTM title win, the blonde bombshell’s victory doesn’t undermine or overshadow the real diversification of body types and personalities that Tyra brought to national television.

Though not every contestant pursues modeling after the show, ANTM places contestants through a series of rigorous and often fear-inducing challenges, whether it’s an underwater catwalk or strutting vertically alongside the side of a large building.

These challenges manifest into a formative journey, allowing contestants to develop their own identity and confidence.

With the end of Cycle 20, I hope that, off-screen, there will be more genuine connections and conversations about acceptance and the breaking down of disempowering stereotypes.

ANTM has come a long way from being a reality series of girl drama and breakdowns. The show’s renewal for another cycle also renews my hopes to see more inclusivity and diversity.

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