Posted by Irresponsibility
Treasure in Heaven? The Social Psychology of TV Make-Overs
The bastard child of reality TV and old-fashioned game shows, TV make-over shows offer ordinary folk the opportunity to – as Extreme Makeover puts it: “change their looks in an effort to transform their lives and destinies.” It’s an offer no right-thinking person would refuse: complete psychic satisfaction for the price of a nose job.
One remarkable thing about make-over TV is that the shows’ real protagonists are not the interchangeable, instantly forgettable array of mismatched malcontents, but the sleek, self-assured, superior presenters. Partly this is because they are the main characters and they have to bond with the audience to encourage repeat viewing. If this were all there was to it, however, make-over show presenters and experts would be charming and charismatic. They would be the people you wanted to invite into your living room on a regular basis. But – by and large – they aren’t. The most popular make-over shows, judged by trans-Atlantic appeal, are fronted by abrasive and sometimes downright abusive experts, people you would cross the street to avoid if they were in a bad mood. Gordon Ramsey has made millions out of swearing at hapless restaurateurs on both sides of the Atlantic; Supernanny has succeeded by taking the same approach to dealing with recalcitrant toddlers. Extreme Makeover flourishes because it literally cuts its subjects to pieces, and House Doctor Ann Maurice makes a living barking at middle-aged homeowners for displaying too many family photos. You Are What You Eat won its following thanks to Gillian McKeith’s tough-love diet advice, and one American dating-make-show is simply called Tough Love.
In these shows, and dozens more of their ilk, the make-over candidates are presented as – at best – clueless, naïve, uncultured, and socially inept. Initially, they are shown in a way that wins our sympathy: the lonely junk-food addict on You Are What You Eat, the frazzled chef whose business is sinking in Hell’s Kitchen, or the dowdy office worker on What Not To Wear who hasn’t had a date in years. As the show progresses, though, conflict arises. The over-eater sneaks an illicit burger; the frump clings to a favourite ratty cardigan; the chef refuses to stop cooking a costly dish. This precipitates a crisis. Success depends on the presenter being able to make-over the subject. Will their foolishness, their mulishness, derail the narrative? Often as not the presenters turn directly to camera and lament: they’re killing me! What am I going to do? There’s nothing I can do. Suddenly the presenter is the one on trial, at risk of losing their good name. We, the audience, know the presenter is only trying to help. His or her intentions are pure. We find our interest and sympathy shifting to the authority figure. We understand instinctively that a happy ending relies on maintaining the proper relationship between expert and acolyte, so we cast our lot with authority, and hope they manage to talk sense into the backslider before the hour is up.
Putting all this energy into creating a pattern of audience identification seems a little extravagant, given the overriding ethos of TV is to sell, sell, sell. Most make-over shows are comprehensible simply as how-to guides for finding emotional satisfaction in consumption. Why elicit moral judgments if all you want is for people to pick up a credit card? People don’t need to psychologically invest in the hierarchy of the show to be convinced a new hair-cut, or body, or bedroom suite, will improve their life. So why do it? The answer is simple, and alarming: make-over shows are designed to construct social order. They exist not merely to dispense style tips and business advice, but to reinforce behaviours and ideologies that benefit the dominant culture. In a society shaped by 2000 years of Judeo-Christianity that means promoting submission, conformity, and unquestioning obedience to aloof authority figures.
If make-over-shows-as-religion seems fanciful, just watch closely. Take What Not To Wear, for example. Each episode follows the same pattern: a badly dressed person is nominated by a ‘friend’ or family member, after reviewing evidence of the miscreant’s fashion crimes the presenters swoop to confront her. They throw away all her old clothes, give her a lecture about what she is not allowed to buy, and send her shopping. Finally, she is packed off to a salon to be rendered unrecognisable by means of a new hair-do and make-up. Break it down and the millennia-old pattern emerges: confession, renunciation, purification, submission, and redemption. Christianity, repackaged for a culture that worships shopping malls.
Anglo-American culture can do without God, but it cannot do without the ordering force of religion. To maintain a profoundly unequal society the minority has to convince the majority they deserve their second-class status. For centuries the Church held off the peasantry by promising them treasure in heaven if they submitted to their divinely appointed place on earth. Now, the elite no longer have God in their corner, nor heaven to promise. This makes fire-and-brimstone social control impossible; the powers-that-be have to persuade the majority to internalise oppression. It makes perfect sense to invoke the rhythms of religion, to create a secular liturgy that – like the old, sacred version – reassures people a higher power knows best, and urges them to accept stricture, and delay gratification, in hope of a future reward.
This process is even clearer in make-over shows that aspire to more than just cosmetic adjustments. Take the aforementioned Tough Love. Old-fashioned make-over shows are content to cluck over people’s wardrobes and then march them to Ann Taylor for a refit; the goals are shallow, but at least the results are demonstrable. Tough Love attempts something far bolder, and more disturbing. Host Steve Ward, a second-generation matchmaker with a finance degree from Drexel, oversees the transformation of eight single women. But he doesn’t want to update their hair-dos, or teach them how to wear eyeliner. He explicitly aims to change their personalities; not what they look like but who they are. This sinister objective is justified on the basis: it’s for her own good. The women are, by virtue of being on the show, clearly not able to manage on their own, so it is only proper that an authority figure step in and save them. Ward is quite conscious of, and delighted by, his Messianic aura. The show, he boasts, “gives me an incredible amount of power over [the women’s] lives, which ultimately force[s] them to look at things the way I want them to look at them.”
There it is, in black and white: make-over TV is designed to make people to look at things “the way I want them to look at them” – when “I” is an authority figure. It’s not about helping people, it’s about encouraging them to identify with a class that patently does not have their best interests at heart. By taking the side of the God-figure in make-over shows we, the audience, internalise ideologies of power, obedience and control that benefit the status quo. Instead of seeing people as unique, inherently worthwhile individuals, we are seduced into regarding them as problems to be solved. At a fundamental level the only difference between Catholics murdering infidels, and Trinny & Susannah gleefully throwing someone’s wardrobe to the dumpster is one of degree. Both claim to represent a higher power, and assure us that no matter how miserable the subject looks, they’ll be grateful later because it’s for their own good.