The Bad And The Ugly

Reality TV is churning out a new wave of Stepford wives

Excuse me, but I must interrupt my usual critique to ponder the finale of The Swan on Fox and why, increasingly, remaking oneself to look like Barbie Aguilera on her day off from Scores is seen as empowering.

What gives? Do we have a chicken-and-egg thing going on: The more reality programs that show women in bikinis and underwear, the more women will want to remake themselves to get on reality shows?

Is that why, once the Apprentices graduated from the show, they posed in their balconette bras and panties for Maxim? Their hypersexualized behavior and wardrobes on the show were bizarre (you knew something was strange when both Donny Deutsch and Donald Trump had to lecture this group on feminism and using their talents, not their wiles), but was this because they are the kind of monomaniacs who would do anything to be on TV or do we have a sea change here?

It’s not as easy as concluding the culture is reversing to Stepford Wifedom, although the original book was supposed to be a satire. But the release of the movie comes at a cultural moment when the image of women is certainly Victoria’s Secret-based. In the mid-’90s, remember, things had gotten so evolved, and beauty pageants were looked on so piteously, that the Miss America people were thinking of throwing out the swimsuit competition all together. The 1993 contenders ended up padding out to the stage barefoot in prim one-pieces, dragging big beach towels behind them.

Since then, clearly we’ve moved the dial in the direction of the hooker/stripper aesthetic—but then again, the Janet Jackson backlash gave the decency/morality people more leverage and definitely made networks more fearful.

Advertisers have always been reactive to criticisms from religious groups. And by comparison with the reality genre, advertising is largely respectful to women. (It’s always ladies’ day here in Chicken Capital, USA.) It’s been at least 20 years since men, not women, have played the idiot role in commercials—because somebody’s gotta be the boob.

The only person allowed to vacuum in a commercial these days is Dyson, the earnest British guy who’s monumentally focused on the suction of his machine. Meanwhile, women are embracing porn—recently, on the MTV dating show Room Raiders, a 19-year-old woman went into a prospective date’s bedroom and, after finding piles of triple-X-rated stuff, said, “Cool, I love porn!”

The Swan is not as evolved. It simply preys on age-old vulnerabilities and insecurities in a happenin’, faux-enlightened format. Last week, the finale of “the most unbelievable competition ever attempted” presented women who were completely surgically remade walking awkwardly in lingerie so that their agitated husbands and uncomfortably dressed-up children in the audience could applaud them.

Nely Galan, the show’s creator and producer, has said she admires people who are brands, like Martha Stewart. But for the Martha cult, power comes from transforming a lampshade or a turkey. Here, the ethos is “Surrender, ugly!” and the contestants are the turkeys.

The show outdid Extreme Makeover in the ratings but generally pulled contenders from the same pool of rural women who have trouble with their husbands and their teeth. But at least EM offered the occasional fix of the deformed lip. So by comparison, it’s a humanitarian show.

Whereas a team of fixers determines the multiple surgeries for each woman on The Swan (this—and the fact that they all looked like they came off an assembly line—was the most Stepford-esque part), all the “swans” had to do was demonstrate the ability to withstand pain at Olympic thresholds, and then heal. Sounds like the very definition of an abused wife. One woman reportedly ended up in a wheelchair for eight days after 23 procedures.

Perhaps not aware of the irony, Fox ran a PSA during the show, a lyrical animated piece, directing viewers to, a site devoted to educating women about depression, anorexia, bulimia, abuse and self-esteem issues. It was sort of like Philip Morris paying for gory ads to warn of the dangers of smoking and then offering a free sample.

In the 1950s, on Queen for a Day, a program The Swan has been compared to, women would tell their pitiful stories and then the audience voted on who most deserved the prize, usually a washer and dryer. The curtain would open, the woman would get to see the major appliances, and she’d cry and scream, “Oh, they’re beautiful!” Fifty years later, on The Swan, it’s the same thing—the curtain opens, the women cover their faces and cry and scream, and throw themselves against the mirror to get a better look at their own new major appliances. (Post-surgeries, the women weren’t been allowed to see themselves for four months—all the better for the Twilight Zone reveal.)

Crowned last week, the 27-year-old winner (complete with swan tiara and mink coat) sports the three-name-ready-for-The O.C. moniker of Rachel Love Fraser. She got a nose job, brow lift, chin implant, lip enhancement and breast lift, as well as liposuction in five places and full teeth veneers. Her look at least differs from the other multiple-surgery recipients in that her hair extensions were dyed red.

“Once I’m happy with the way I look, maybe my marriage will work out better,” Rachel said. This is too cruel—what’s the chance that once she goes back to Sammamish, Wash., having strutted her stuff in corset and garters on national television, the angry, undermining father and distant, abusive husband (at least, that’s how they appeared in clips on the show) are going to get right in line? Her only hope is to hire herself out for “media” functions along with the rest of the bizarrely incestuous real-TV grads, a true bimbo limbo of now-camera-addicted exhibitionists.

Meanwhile, Swan 2 is in the works, and there’s talk of a men’s version. (How about that pageant!) For Galan, the problem with building a brand through reality TV is that it’s hard to stamp out people uniformly, like sheets at Kmart. For the rest of us, the problem is getting the strength to look away.