I went to a great lecture today by a visiting American academic named Brenda R. Weber. The title of the lecture was ‘Makeover Nation: Constructing the Neo-Liberal ‘American’ Citizen’ and was about how makeover shows help foster neoliberal ideology of homogenised, privileged citizenship. Such that if you are willing to change to adapt the look and style of the celebretified heterosexual distinctly gendered white upper-middle-class, including in your symbolic world of house, car, possessions, then you will have access to the privileges of full democratic citizenship. The interesting part, I thought, was the idea that what the privileged look and feel demonstrated was that you were taking care of your self, taking the burden off the state and bearing your own responsibility as a citizen.
Brenda showed a clip from a British makeover show, What Not to Wear. It was so appalling it made me cry. A spectacled, greying chubby Indian woman of 35 years decided that she was missing out on things because she didn’t care about her appearance, so she was getting help from the two hosts, Trinny and Susannah, to learn to feel properly bad about her appearance. The hosts did some really manipulating and bullying things, such as interview her husband who said he wished she was more feminine, interview her boss who said he wished she looked better so it didn’t put clients off (she was an accountant) and then kept pulling up her shirt so the viewers could ogle her boobs in her tatty bra, despite her protests. They then kept telling her that her big boobs were her best feature. I think probably the saddest part was that this woman agreed to let this all happen to her and be aired on tv because she thought her life would be so much better if she were prettier. Actually, the saddest part may be that she’s right.
That’s why this all works and why one must continue to be an absolutely committed feminist. Because now, yes, women can get power, but it is all in the service of the capitalist, American-dominated free market globalised bloody exploitative, heteronormative obnoxious economy. It’s just so well done, how they get you. How many women are really going to say, yeah, I’d rather not get as far in my career, not be treated nicely in restaraunts, shops and bars, find it harder to meet friends and lovers, feel all the time like people are judging me negatively, get grief from my family, etc and not give a fuck about my appearance, rather than get the clothes, make-up, plastic surgery and hopefully better job and better life? And can you blame them. Why not have an easier time of it?
The real question, though, is does it work. I can’t wait to see what research comes out about all these people who go through the makeover shows as they feel 5, 10 years later. Did they maintain their new selves. Brenda talked about how genuinely better the women on the shows seemed to feel after their makeover. Like their old bodies, their ugliness, were standing in the way of them expressing their true identities. That’s so sad, because what that’s saying is their true identity is just like someone else’s. In any case, does that new self stay strong, does it get a better life than the old one? It’s absolutely imperative to know. Because if it doesn’t work it is a much less complex argument: don’t do it because it’s a con. That’s much better than saying, don’t do it because it fucks up the world (but your life will be a lot better…).
Also, I’d like to know how real these shows are. The bullying of Trinny and Susannah is obvious, but what about bullying behind the scenes? What kind of contracts do the participants sign? Can they refuse to have their shirts pulled up on tv? Are there participants who end up hating it or being rebellious and those shows don’t get aired? Can they ask for certain things not to be aired? Are they encouraged to say things they may not really mean? How real is it?