Reality television is infectious. Given the choice between watching a half hour of lame plotlines and predictable jokes airing on many of today’s evening sitcoms, or watching a makeover and reality show like ABC’s “Extreme Makeover,” a significant amount of viewers would opt for the reality show, finding difficulty in changing the channel when their favorite ‘underdog’ is about to emerge a beauty queen or financial victor.
Naturally, one might question viewers’ fixation of makeover television shows. What is the relationship between how we see ourselves and the social relations in which the self is embedded? What does it mean, in a broader sense, when a reality show suggests that a shiny, new car or extreme facelift will improve social mobility, leading to countless job interviews and romantic partners?
A panel discussion entitled “The United States of the Self: Makeover Television and the American Dream,” held at the Annenberg School on Friday, October 1, explored the logic behind the makeover phenomena, pointing to the origin of the “American Dream,” which has been shaped and transformed over time, as the zeitgeist of American self-invention.
Sharrona Pearl, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, delved into the history of the self-fashioning concept, dating back to the Victorian era. “There was a moral code in the 1800s regarding character,” said Professor Pearl. “If you were beautiful, you were considered morally good. If you were ugly, you were considered morally bad.”
The makeover arrived around the 1930s, believed by many to be a form of witchcraft and deception. Questions surfaced about the “invisible mask,” such as “who is the real person behind the makeup?” Several decades of self-making later – shaped by whatever grooming and media technologies were available at the time – a new era was born, embracing the definition of the “American Dream” with contemporary ideals like celebrity, confidence, beauty, and happiness.
“All of these reality shows are working through the same logic,” said Katherine Sender, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Chair of the panel discussion. “…the logic being that losing weight or looking prettier will help to reach the ‘American Dream.’”
Veering from the criticism of this quest for progress as superficial and banal, the panelists concluded contemporary social and economic conditions – such as fame, beauty, and confidence, to name but a few – demand that both women and men must embrace technologies of self-transformation and representation in order to compete in today’s global, neoliberal marketplace.
In addition to professors Sender and Pearl, the panelists included Dana Heller, professor and the director of the Humanities Institute and Graduate Program at Old Dominion University; Susan Murray, associate professor of media, culture, and communication at the Steinhardt School, New York University; Kathy Peiss, professor and department chair in History at Penn; and Brenda Weber, associate professor of gender studies at Indiana University.