The reality TV show What Not to Wear promises transformation. A candidate is nominated, usually by friends and family, and then this person (most commonly a woman) receives $5,000 to spend on an entire new wardrobe that abides by the rules of fashion experts, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly. Participants are ridiculed for their "bad" fashion choices and are "taught" by London and Kelly what an appropriately dressed woman should look like. The obvious issue here is gender identities and presupposed assumptions about femininity. The not-so-obvious issue is one discussed in Laurie Ouellette and James Hay's book, Better Living Through Reality TV. With a strong leaning on philosopher Michel Foucault's Neo-Liberalism, the authors argue against the common misconception that reality TV is simply superficial entertainment, or "fluff". Rather, Ouellette and Hay place TV in an "analytic of government;" the government's agenda for perpetuating ideas of "free" market and self-government is present in many reality TV shows, What Not to Wear being one of them (P 12). The authors rationalize that power is powerful because it is something unidentifiable with unclear boundaries. A boundary that is crossed, and that is unclear to many, is the one of reality television.
Liberalism, today, expects individuals to be self-governing and self-managing. Self-management is a "prerequisite for personal and professional success" (Ouellette & Hay P 100). The lesson to be gained here is if you are unsuccessful at managing yourself (mainly, your appearance), how will you uphold in the work place? If a person cannot succeed at 'looking good', how will this person make the company look? Self-management is a reflection of self-respect and a person's sense of self-worth. Lacking in these areas display incompetence, supposedly. I relate it to being forced to play a game you never really agreed to play. This power is a "power" because if you refuse to play (by the rules), the only person who loses is you. The society in which we live is well-versed in what is marketable and what is not. What Not to Wear encourages women to make themselves marketable. The concept is to learn how to sell yourself and present yourself in a desirable way. The political rationality underlying What Not to Wear is in sync with the changes in society, especially in the work place (Ouellette & Hay, P 99). A major, long-running theme on the show is that it does matter how people perceive you, and if you look better, you will be perceived in a more positive light.
Another way that the reality show is an "analytic of government" is its method of punishment-and-reward. At the beginning of the show, the participant is humiliated by London and Kelly in front of their friends and family. They are forced to watch "secret footage" of themselves looking frumpy and ungroomed, and are made fun of for their clothing, shoes, etc. Participants then model their most "unfashionable" outfits in an unforgiving 360 degree mirror, while the fashion experts point out all that is wrong (which is everything). This touch of public humiliation forces the desire to want to change and learn exactly how to self-manage. Ouellette and Hay state that the humiliation is all in the name of fun, which "takes the edge off the disciplinary dimensions of the program" (P 110). I disagree and have to say that it is uncomfortable to watch a grown woman, an innocent victim essentially, be ridiculed by people she barely knows and then attempt to defend herself. A person should not have to offer an explanation for clothing choice and then be broken down by fashion experts (this, I realize, works to the show's advantage, as I am already drawn in by this person's confusion/hurt and I am curious to see what will happen to her in the end). This is the participant's punishment. Then comes the reward. At the end of the show, the participant models her new clothing, along with a new haircut and makeup application, and she is praised and congratulated for her success at improving her appearance. She is then sent off to meet her friends and family who cannot believe the "improvement" they see before their eyes and how What Not to Wear is a miracle-worker. This is a great reward for women: external confirmation. Punishment-and-reward, as well as external confirmation, are concepts tangled up in political agendas and are very commonplace in society as it is. Reality TV just serves it on a different plate.
One episode in particular caught my attention (I admit to having watched the show numerous times). Melissa "mojo" Buzzell, a 23 year-old fitness trainer and heart attack survivor, was nominated by her friends and family in order to steer her away from the workout clothes she wore everyday and everywhere. Having survived two heart attacks by age 19, she became a spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Go Red Campaign. A good portion of the episode focused on finding her red clothing "appropriate" for AHA meetings, as she would be representing the Association. Melissa was wide-eyed, "young and eager to learn" as the fashion experts noted. She fit the mold so perfectly. She was absolutely ready for the rules that would guide her transformation and she was a good student who listened to her "teachers". She was ready to be perceived differently. By the end of it all, she was; her new clothes and polished hair fit the role of an AHA spokesperson much better than her previous workout clothes. As Better Living predicts, Melissa was "presented with a set of 'customized' rules to guide her in a lifelong pursuit of self-fashioning after the TV cameras moved on" (P 99). Does this send the message that one cannot be a competent ambassador unless properly dressed? Maybe. What it does make clear is that the hidden powers that be (powers that instruct you to be self-governing, self-managing, and self-sustaining) hold that appearances matter, and if you want to be a part of something or represent something (such as a large company or foundation, like the AHA), you have to fit. To help demonstrate the ties between What Not to Wear and the implications of Neo-Liberalism, Better Living explains that a participant is molded into a "consuming subject who is 'free' to advance [her] private interests within the marketplace" as long as she acts within accordance of the governing rules set forth (P 114). This sounds very familiar to the $5,000 shopping spree guided by a set of fashion rules.
Moreover, Melissa's appearance on the show was part of a promotion to raise awareness about heart disease, especially for women. By having Melissa on the show, viewers learned about the AHA's campaign. The 'wow' factor was that the disease can affect women (and men) of all ages. While doing some light research, I found a number of newspaper articles and blogs that put the spotlight on Melissa's appearance on What Not to Wear and went on to discuss heart disease and the AHA. This all links back (albeit, in an unobvious way) to Ouellette and Hay's thesis: reality TV is not superficial entertainment or "fluff". Ties to politics and Neo-Liberalism are utilized by the great access and appeal reality TV has to the public.
With the help of What Not to Wear, women become "entrepreneurial surveyors" of themselves and learn how to manage their appearance (Ouelette & Hay P 112). Makeover TV shows such as this go beyond gender boundaries; the fashion rules do stem from preconceived assumptions of gender, but What Not to Wear works towards polishing a woman's look and instilling the message that she should maintain this "self-management" in order to gain opportunities, especially in the work place. Furthermore, reality TV shows like What Not to Wear should be regarded as an important power-player in society. If ideas such as "appearance does make a difference" or "dress for the job you want" are so commonplace and acceptable in society already, then TV shows that dictate the rules of these ideas should not be considered "fluff".
Ouellette, Laurie & Hay, James. Better Living Through Reality TV. Blackwell Publishing: 2008.
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