GRAAT On-Line - Book Reviews

Brenda R. Weber, Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010). $23.95, 344 pages, ISBN 978-0-8223-4568-8—Georges-Claude Guilbert, Université François Rabelais, Tours.

Brenda R. Weber teaches Gender Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, and has published extensively in the field. But Makeover TV has as much to do with Cultural Studies / Visual Studies / Television Studies, etc. This rigorously scholarly yet very entertaining book is part of the Console-ing Passions: Television and Cultural Power series edited by Lynn Spigel. It is devoted to that particular brand of reality TV whose raison d’être is to subject automobiles, homes or (more interestingly) people to a makeover. It was written only after Weber had viewed more than 2,500 hours of makeover television. Her huge corpus includes non-American shows. In addition, she cajoled her friends and relatives into viewing makeover television for her, and even grilled her students on the material. As a result she demonstrates an impressive familiarity with her subject; there is no program she has not watched, from the most innocuous to the most radical, from those that merely buy the participants a new hairdo and a makeup set to those that involve the heaviest surgery. Examples include The Biggest Loser, Dog Whisperer, Extreme Makeover, How to Look Good Naked, Pimp My Ride, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Supernanny, and the British show What Not to Wear.

The book is skillfully divided into five chapters: “Makeover Nation: Americanness, Neoliberalism and the Citizen-Subject,” “Visible Subjects: Economies of Looking, Pedagogies of Shame, Sights of Resistance,” “I’m a Woman Now: Race, Class, and Femme-ing the Normative,” “What Makes the Man?: Masculinity and the Self-Made (Over) Man,” and “Celebrated Selfhood: Reworking Commodification through Reality Celebrity.” These titles speak volumes and very much indicate the way Weber operates, the pun on “sights” in the second chapter being much more than a mere play on words. Indeed sights and sites of resistance is what this book is mostly about. I myself whenever I have watched a makeover television show, in France (where they often show appallingly dubbed American makeover programs), Australia, the UK or the US, have often wondered about the “political” conclusion I should draw at the end, in terms of race, class and gender. And this is exactly what Weber does, leaving no stone unturned. To this end she summons all the theorists and cultural critics she was able to lay her hands on: Foucault, Butler, Bourdieu, Halberstam, Mulvey, Dyer, Fiske, McRobbie, Tasker, Warner, Bordo, Cohan, Connell, and even one of my own personal favorites, transgender theorist Susan Stryker. Each writer is used with chiseled precision, as each sentence pronounced by a participant is pondered over by a meticulous Weber.

How does makeover television work? Its “dramatization of labor, suffering, punishment, and reward constitute almost the entirety of the reality makeover’s textual time, positioning the During as the heart of these programs.” [31] Weber calls the said participants Before-bodies at the beginning of the shows and After-bodies at the end. She highlights the way they significantly speak of themselves in the third person, she asks the questions that must be asked about agency, and throughout the book she underlines the “glorification of the normative” [13]. She remembers that America (as Hollywood indicates) has always been fond of Cinderella plots, of transformation stories, very much part and parcel of the American Dream; and she establishes suitable parallels with makeover television, that focuses on “real life” Cinderella yarns, except of course, as Weber reminds us, that “the name ‘reality’ is a bit of a misnomer” in shows that constantly question every conceivable notion of “identity” while they claim to know exactly what identity is [16]. Before-bodies, Weber explains, are always presented as inadequate, whereas After-bodies are better equipped for work and dating—or dating and work, depending on focal point.

The whole book details what Weber compellingly calls “Makeover Nation,” where inhabitants have “earned their citizenship through the process of the makeover itself.” [39]. “In makeover nation, majority perception equals truth, so it follows that one’s public image is critical for determining and proving citizenship eligibility.” [71] Most participants of the shows (at least those that interest me more, as a feminist) are white heterosexual women. Gay men may be seen in a supposedly positive light, as experts on makeover tactics, but they remain peripheral, as do lesbians and African Americans. Clearly, most shows are sexist, homophobic, fattist, lookist, and racist, as they strive to eradicate any marker of difference from the Before-bodies, transforming everyone into a middleclass white desirable professional, according to “majority perception,” the American Dream here being one of utter conformity, a conformity that promises to bring happiness. Among my favorite lines in Makeover TV are “Makeover Nation stands as a symbolic promised land. In similar fashion to the Statue of Liberty, Makeover Nation beckons: Give me your tired, your poor, your cellulited and your wrinkled, the cluttered and the ramshackle, the huddled and ugly masses, yearning to break free.” [79] Weber is particularly good when she looks at shows involving doctors—those condescending plastic surgeons who make millions and are widely uncritically respected off and on screen. She notes the “discrepancy between the authoritative ‘seeing’ masculinized doctor and the passive ‘looked-at’ feminized patient,” and observes how only us “Cultural Studies scholars, perhaps empowered by our own high levels of education and cultural capital, hold the critical lens to medical doctors without hesitation.” [119] Indeed, don’t we academics tend to demand more explanations from specialists we consult, unwilling to let them pontificate speedily and then dismiss us, as clueless as when we arrived? So why should we as most viewers and participants seem to, uncritically accept their “gender-normalizing gaze”? [153]

The principal observation of Makeover TV is that all those programs present the After-body as some “natural” or “true” body. The makers do not dwell on artifice even though they deal in artifice. The After-bodies all yell bewildering sentences like “I am finally me,” “I am myself,” “I feel like a woman,” “I feel like a real woman,” etc. I shall refrain from indulging in spoilers, let the reader find out what Weber’s conclusions are. Antifeminist? Feminist? Postfeminist? Postmodern feminist? How can we reconcile the sweeping waves of essentialism makeover television offers with our own political convictions? What about the subject? The citizen? The Self?—this is basically an epistemologically irreproachable ontology book. Is the participant empowered or victimized by the program? Or both? Is the viewer empowered by the program, or merely encouraged to indulge more than ever in her couch-potato tendencies, gorging herself on junk food and daily reducing her chances of professional promotion as well as her chances of exciting dating, at the very moment when she is watching her fantasized double getting a makeover that brings her closer to the stars, her other fantasized doubles? The reader of this book, an indispensable buy for every Cultural Studies / Gender Studies library, will be given every possible element to ponder that question and others. At the very least s/he will refrain from dismissing reality television too quickly in the future, mistakenly seeing it as culturally irrelevant.

© 2010 Georges-Claude Guilbert & GRAAT On-Line