Apr 122004
Authors: Brent Ables

In responding to the “Reality TV” fashion that currently

dominates television, people seem to generally fall into two

groups: those who love the shows genuinely and those who mock and

despise the shows and laugh at their massive popularity. Either

way, there does not seem to be a significant portion of the

population that is, in any way, frightened by them.

Before I explain why I fall into this last category, let me say

that I am not one to condemn the genre simply because of its

popularity; there is no necessary connection between a show’s (or

book’s, or movie’s) popularity and its quality. Furthmore, my not

watching a great deal of television means that I only catch

snippets of these shows on other people’s televisions, and thus

I’ve seen too little to condemn them all equally. What I do know,

in fact, comes mainly from commercials.

It was, for example, in commercials that I learned the basic

ideas of the two shows that gave birth to my fears: on MTV, “I Want

A Famous Face”, and on Fox, “The Swan.”

In the first, MTV locates (recruits?) contestants of all sorts

that share one apparently overwhelming desire: to look exactly like

their favorite celebrity. Two brothers, for example, wanted to both

look like Brad Pitt and a woman wanted to have Kate Winslet’s face.

MTV then provides the means and resources for this to occur: the

idolaters undergo plastic surgery, liposuction, etc. and dye or cut

their hair, hoping, in the end, to be identical to their favorite



“The Swan” is a little more insidious and competitive. Fox

recruits over a dozen female “ducklings” (that they had the tact to

leave the “ugly” out is surprising) who, for whatever reason, are

unhappy with themselves. These candidates are then put through a

three-month cycle of psychological “therapy,” physical exercise

and, of course, plastic surgery. The women do not look in the

mirror for these three months. After their “transformation,” they

all compete in a beauty pageant for the chance to be crowned “The

Ultimate Swan.”

What troubles me so greatly about these shows is, first of all,

the values and messages they promote, but also the fact that they

are so uncontroversial as to not even merit discussion in the ways

that important popular media trends often do. While I understand

that prime time television is perhaps not a known source of moral

commentary – and perhaps it should not be – there are nonetheless

things to be learned from what networks place on the air to elicit

our consumer responses.

The game show, of course, has always been a prime place to find

ordinary people willing to challenge and/or humiliate themselves to

win whatever prize is being offered. “The Gong Show,” to take a

classic example, consisted of singers and performers whose sole

purpose was not to be so bad as to be kicked ceremoniously off the

stage. On the other hand, “American Gladiator” or “Survivor” are

built on competition and ruthlessness. On both kinds of these shows

in the past, the competitors were first and foremost ordinary

people who did not go through any sort of intense preparation to

appear and were sent back home the next day.

Apparently, however, the “average person” is just not acceptable

for those who create such shows as “I Want A Famous Face” or “The

Swan.” The whole premise of these shows is that being who you

actually are is not acceptable, and that the first step to being

comfortable with yourself is becoming someone else. The message

promoted is that there is no ethical or practical limit to

self-recontruction, and furthermore that happiness with one’s self

is something to be developed through external means – in this case,

surgeons and pseudo-psychologists.

As for the lasting value of these supposed transformations, the

networks have nothing to offer (the characters disappear when the

seasons end). What do these people do when they return to their

former lives? Do they continue (in MTV’s case) to imitate the

celebrity they now resemble, or do they reenter their normal lives?

Is that even possible? What is to be gained from looking like a

celebrity beyond the initial and illusory self-esteem that must

fade as these people realize that 99 percent of their life is just

the same as before? Is the obsession of these people not merely a

peculiarity, or is it a mental sickness? If not, what does that say

about our culture?

Furthermore, what do younger viewers learn when they watch these

shows? Do children that struggle with their weight think that,

instead of exercising or eating healthy, they can merely have their

bodies mutilated (anyone who has seen plastic surgery will know why

I use this word) to fit into a cultural beauty standard? Will young

girls who watch “The Swan,” which features all female contestants,

receive the message that ugliness and beauty is a competitive

endeavor and the greatest thing to do for yourself is let

specialists literally re-create your body and mind? For that

matter, what sort of “specialists” do these programs employ, and

what degree did they earn that allows them to determine how others

should look, think and feel?

These are just a few of the questions that I think should be

asked about this trend in reality television; perhaps the most

important one, however, is why they haven’t been asked already.

Brent is a freshman studying philosophy. His column runs every


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