Book Review – Makeover TV

I really wanted to like Brenda R. Weber‘s Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity. The topic seemed attractive with the potential for a pleasant read on a subject for which sociological analysis has solid tools for critical examination. The author has watched over 2,500 hours of makeover television (which includes such shows as What Not to Wear, Extreme Makeover, The Swan, where the body is the main subject of the makeover, but also Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Pimp My Ride, Or How Clean is Your House? where the house or the car stands as symbolic representation of the people who own them.

I was hoping that the book would be usable for undergraduate classes on sex and gender. I was wrong. The book is a tedious read for the convoluted writing and non-stop jargon that seems to be the trademark of gender studies. And it is fairly repetitive. At the same time, for all the mentions of the 2,500 hours of makeover shows watched by the other, she does not provide a lot of examples and those examples mentioned seem to come from a very limited sample.

That being said, there are some interesting points and analysis that I will emphasize below but again, this book should not be considered a potential read for undergrads in popular culture, media and cultural studies alongside gender.

Weber’s first considerations go to the makeover genre in general to note that it is shot through with contradictions:

  • “To be empowered, one must fully surrender to experts;
  • To become “normal”, one must endure “extreme” body-altering interventions aimed at one’s gender, sexuality, race, class, and ethnicity;
  • To be truly feminine or masculine, one must be hyper-gendered;
  • To communicate an “authentic self”, one must overwrite and replace the “false” signifiers enunciated by the natural body;
  • To be unique and special, one must first be critically condemned by the social gaze;
  • To achieve a state of privacy where ugliness does not code as transgressive, one must appear on national and international television and publicly expose the shame of the “ugly” body.” (4)

So, makeover shows take a “before-body” that is not all of the above: not empowered, abnormal, wrongly-gendered (especially for straight women), sending out too many signals regarding class (not middle class), race and ethnicity (not white). That ugly, deviant, class and race-marked must be dramatically transformed into the “After-body” that is clearly appropriately gendered, middle-class, not too ethnically or racially coded and definitely straight. The before- and after-body may not be literally bodies, but may be homes or cars but the logic is the same.

Why would people (mostly women) subject themselves to such treatments? Makeover shows are morality plays: the before-body is the body of a depressed, disempowered non-subject that displays lack of confidence and is unable then to exploit her full potential in all aspects of her life, professional or personal. The makeover offers the way in which the subject truly becomes a subject: empowered, confident, autonomous, classy and physically attractive – the perfect individualized subject for the neo-liberal order. What emerges through the after-body is the real, authentic self. As Weber puts, the makeover show offers “salvation through submission” (6). The real self may be hiding under overweight, unflattering clothes, or a dirty house. The makeover offers to peel these ugly layers and reveal the real subject, hidden in there for whatever reason (depression, pregnancies and motherhood, etc.).

The contradiction then is that as much as the makeover is supposed to reveal the real individualized self that is now poised to competently take on the neo-liberal world of work and the straight world of romance, it does so through a form of normalization of the body by getting as close as possible to the white middle-class default position for competence, confidence and normativity. In other words, subjects who are seen as “too ethnic” receive more of a “makeunder” than a makeover. Similarly, lower class markers have to be eliminated as much as possible. And, of course, for women, gender has to be clearly codified through feminization. No more baggy clothes and tomboyish attitudes. Heteronormativity rules.

And, of course, such normative stance involves power if it is to be imposed upon the makeover subjects:

“Makeover narratives tend to play fairly old-school rules of power dynamics. Doctors and style gurus are all-knowing, great looking, never wrong; patients are miserable and depressed, aware of their short-comings, unsure of how to help themselves, willing to put themselves in the hands of experts for complete renovation, untroubled by any potential medical or financial complications, and fully satisfied and grateful for After-results.” (17)

And a big chunk of the show is occupied by the process of transformation, showing the hard work and/or suffering that subjects go through to achieve results defined by the experts as stand-in for social standards. There are moments of resistance by the subjects that are swiftly dealt with by the experts. Ultimately, submission to expertise and self-discipline brings the expected results. A nicely packaged morality play. A disciplined and regulated self, that displays its conformity to white, heterosexual, middle-class standards of appearance as neo-liberal subject is well-adapted to (and fulfilled within) the risk society. This disciplined (in Foucault’s sense) after-self contrasts with the undisciplined (fat, sloppy) and socially or ethnically over-signified before-self. The before self is, by definition, self-indulgent (too much food, too much sexiness, especially in non-white subjects) or lazy (dirty house, unruly children). The promise of happiness in personal life and success in the professional domain is the price to be obtained through the disciplining of the self.

As always in individualized discourse (by does not, by any means, evacuates the social), any questioning of the social structure is remarkably absent.

Weber identifies three themes that run through the makeover genre:

  1. Renovation and rejuvenation, not just change but improvement through individualized yet disciplining and normative techniques.
  2. An initial shaming and humiliation of the subject to make them subscribe to the urgency of their makeover, but combined with caring attention from the experts (what Weber calls “affective domination“).
  3. The mandatory final “big reveal” where the After-body is revealed to the amazed audience, spouses and relatives of the subject who gets the celebrity treatment.

Which means that almost all show follow the same format with some variation:

(1) the initial shaming (note the scary music in this clip of How Clean is Your House? anything to emphasize the grossness of the place)

(2) The scolding of the subject by the experts with some resistance easily defeated.

(3) Submission and redemption

(4) The actual work of transformation

(5) The Big Reveal (sometimes before an awed audience, especially for body makeover)

(6) The euphoric subject and satisfied experts

The makeover genre fits perfectly within the individualization thesis in that people’s flaws are blamed on their poor choices and irresponsibility and that there is no salvation by society. Individualized issues require individualized solutions. However, the before-subjects have been shown to be incapable of the discipline that is required for a fulfilled self, as visible to others through personal grooming and style, proper housing and well-raised children. The makeover restores the subject to the middle class state of responsibility, style and restraint.

Individual discipline is posited not just as a moral but a social obligation (so the rest of the world does not have to look at the subject’s fat, ugliness, lousy clothing, spoiled brats, etc.). The individualized self is always under societal gaze. Investing in care of the self is a requirement for a better romantic and professional life.

“The transformational message suggests that the suffering person’s misery is specific, individualized, and nonsystemic. If people tease you about your ears, then change your ears. If people critique you for being a tomboy, become more girly. If people think you are always frowning, then get a brow lift or Botox. The insistence on individuated experience places the focus squarely on self-management and self-production where, as Wendy Brown notes, prime value is put on peoples’ capacity to ‘provide for their own needs and service their own ambition’ (6-7).” (62)

The makeover format also subscribes to a meritocratic ideology where everyone can make it with hard work and discipline (and just a little privatized help)… and a little something else:

“Entrance to Makeover Nation requires that Before-bodies experience abjection, anxiety and the willingness to change. Citizenship for After-bodies, by contrast, confers confidence, glamour and potential celebrity. If the cost of passage to Makeover Nation is the public of one’s lifelong humiliation, subjects seem more than willing to pay the fare, the rewards of belonging far outweighing the pain of isolation and critique.” (79)

These are the main themes that the book develops, providing examples, mostly from What Not To Wear (I would have hoped to read more from other shows, with more examples) but a lot of it is muddled, in my view, by jargon and abstractions that do not bring all that much to the discussion. Actually, they deter from the powerful theme of white, straight, middle-class normalization through individualized discipline.

Weber also devotes a chapter to men in makeover shows. After all, the whole idea of submitting to expert transformation is a very feminine idea. How do men accept it? Well, they accept it because the shows afford them more places of resistance (after all, they have to accept expertise from women and – gasp! – gays) and more agency (they are depicted as more actors in their own makeovers). And the makeover definitely is geared towards making them more masculine in order to be more attractive and successful, but in a powerful way (as opposed to the feminine, sexy yet classy style for women).

7 thoughts on “Book Review – Makeover TV

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  5. I am so into the Hoarders on A&E. Does this mean I’m a bad person? :) I agree about the shaming nature of these makeover shows. The How Clean…ladies call their subjects names (like pig and slob), flat out accuse them of child and pet abuse and chastise them for laziness when its clear that most of their subjects have deep psychological problems which no amount of house cleaning will cure. A&E’s Hoarders seems to do a better job in providing psychological counseling and follow up care for its subjects. And I just love that show so shoot me.

    • @Denise,

      “I am so into the Hoarders on A&E.”

      HA! Why am I not surprised?? :-P

      Actually, I’ve seen a lot of people on the Intertoobz that are into Hoarders as well (it’s a consistent trending topic on Twitter) and other makeover shows as well.

      Is there something about these stories of shame and redemption that is so attractive / addictive… does it appeal to some Christian underlying cultural script?

  6. You know, I hadn’t thought about it all that deeply! I do like the redemptive aspects of the show, yes. For me, the enjoyment is really more about creating some sort of order in a chaotic space/mind/world.

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