Self-indulgence alert, day two
For more information about this post, see yesterday's.
By Jonathan Potts
You’re fat and you’re ugly. You’re a lousy dresser and your haircut has been out of style since the Carter administration. Your love life? Forget about it.
If you think I’m being harsh, then you obviously haven’t been watching much TV lately. Broadcast and cable networks have been spawning makeover shows faster than a rabbit on fertility drugs. From TLC’s “What Not To Wear” to ABC’s “Extreme Makeover” and Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” the unrelenting message of these shows is that nothing in your life is good enough, but that happiness can be yours if only you get sharper clothes, a chic haircut and a smaller nose.
The most extreme example of this genre is, of course, “Extreme Makeover,” a mesmerizing 60 minutes of television in which two people who believe they lost the genetic lottery are selected to receive extensive plastic surgery as well as personal training to free the beautiful person trapped inside the ugly person’s body. A similar show on Fox, “The Swan,” took the concept one further—the women who receive makeovers get to appear in a beauty pageant.
Make no mistake—many of the people who appear on “Extreme Makeover” give life to the saying that beauty is skin deep, but ugly goes straight to the bone. (And before you point it out for me, I realize I’m no Ashton Kutcher.) But many, if not all, seem to be living otherwise happy lives, enjoying successful careers and married to loving spouses who don’t seem to care about their partner’s physical shortcomings.
All the candidates for an “Extreme Makeover” however, suffer from a crippling lack of self-esteem; they are painfully self-conscious about their looks. Yet while the show promises to offer these poor souls relief, it reinforces for the audience the notion that has caused the participants so much pain in the first place: Good-looking people have better lives than their homely peers. Previous generations of ugly Americans had no choice but to make due with what nature had given them. No more; plastic surgery and reality television can now make them as shallow as the rest of us.
Of course, not everyone needs painful surgery to become good-looking; some just need a new wardrobe and a professional stylist. That’s where “What Not to Wear” comes in. Each episode is about a person who has been nominated by their so-called friends to appear on the show because of their criminally bad sense of fashion. Under the guidance of a male and female host, they get $5,000 and two days to buy new clothes. They also get professional hair and make-up advice. At the end of the show, they try on their new clothes for the hosts, who offer self-congratulatory praise about how right their fashion advice turned out to be. The participant admires their new look in the mirror and sometimes even breaks into tears, as though to say, “At last my life is complete.”
I don’t know if the show’s male “fashion expert,” Clinton Kelly, is gay, but I wouldn’t be surprised, and not because of the stereotype about gay men and their preternatural fashion sense. No, it’s because on makeover shows, gay men seem to exist solely to improve the lives of straight men, in the same way that black men in movies exist to improve the lives of white men. (See “The Green Mile” or “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”) Bravo’s much-ballyhooed “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” in which a merry band of gay men make a straight guy safe for marriage by cleaning up his apartment and his wardrobe, has been touted as an example of how tolerant Americans have grown toward homosexuals. If that’s true, then “Amos `n’ Andy” was a great example of how tolerant Americans in the 1920s had become of black people. “Queer Eye” isn’t much more than a 21st century minstrel show, the only difference being that now, the people being made fun of are allowed play themselves.
But let’s be fair to “Queer Eye”; it’s not only patronizing to gay men, but to straight men as well. It portrays them as overgrown boys who are hopelessly unable to dress or pick after themselves without help. (OK, so maybe some stereotypes are true.) Then there’s the point of the show—that these men have to change ASAP, or they risk losing their girlfriends and potential wives. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with trying to improve yourself to please someone you love. Yet I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would be to a television show in which a woman was pressured to make major changes in her life in order to please a man. And “Queer Eye” ain’t doing women any favors, either: It basically affirms many men’s hidden fear that committing to a woman means losing your male identity.
Few things are as American as self re-invention, and while it’s tempting to look for a sociological phenomenon in all these makeover shows, let’s not forget that television programmers aren’t exactly the most creative bunch. The success of one show spawns imitators, and the story arc on most reality shows these days has become as formulaic as those on most sitcoms. TV shows, after all, are just ways to fill the airtime between commercials. And that’s probably what’s most insidious about the makeover shows. It’s not that they schlep specific products, the way, for example, that “Survivor” does when its starving contestants vie for Oreos or Mountain Dew. No, these TV shows plug an idea that’s as old as the medium itself: You can fill every void in your life by buying something, whether it’s an Ikea sofa, a pair of boot-cut jeans, or a whiter, brighter smile.
Labels: television criticism