Kelefa Sanneh on the genre of reality television in May 9 issue of The New Yorker. He is reviewing several books on the topic, including Brenda Weber’s, Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity. (Duke, 2010).
Weber sees in these makeover programs a strange new world—or, more accurately, a strange new nation, one where citizenship is available only to those who have made the transition “from Before to After.” Weber notices that, on scripted television, makeovers are usually revealed to be temporary or unnecessary: characters often learn that though a makeover is nice, they were really just fine in their Before states.” On reality television, by contrast, makeovers are urgent and permanent; “the After-body, narratively speaking, stands as the moment of greatest authenticity.” We have moved from the regressive logic of the sitcom, in which nothing really happens, to the recursive logic of the police procedural, in which the same thing keeps happening—the same detectives, solving and re-solving the same crimes. In fact, Weber points out that a number of makeover shows present their subjects as crimes to be solved: in the British version of “What Not to Wear,” makeover candidates line up in front of a one-way mirror, like perpetrators awaiting identification; “Style by Jury,” a Canadian show, begins and ends with the target facing a jury of her peers.
Makeover shows inevitably build to a spectacular moment when “reveal” becomes a noun, and yet the final product is often unremarkable: a woman with an up-to-date generic haircut, wearing a jacket that fits well; a man who is chubby but not obese; a dog with no overwhelming urge to bare its fangs. The new subject is worth looking at only because we know where it came from, which means that, despite the seeming decisiveness of the transformation, the old subject never truly disappears. “The After highlights the dreadfulness of the Before,” Weber writes. “In makeover logic, no post-made-over body can ever be considered separate from its pre-made-over form.” She might have added that no makeover is ever really finished; there is no After who is not, in other respects, a Before—maybe your dog no longer strains at the leash, but are you sure that sweater doesn’t make you look old and tired? Are you sure your thighs wouldn’t benefit from some blunt cannulation? Weber’s makeover nation is an eerie place, because no one fully belongs there, and, deep down, everyone knows it.