Monday, 27 April 2009

Critically examine the use of a ‘makeover paradigm’ in a media text of your choice.

Critically examine the use of a ‘makeover paradigm’ in a media text of your choice.

‘Makeover’ in the sense of an alteration of appearance of girls and women along lines of ‘fashion’ and ‘taste’ has recently become a popular television genre in its own right, promoted from its television birthplace in partial slots during daytime programming to ‘primetime’ higher audience entire programmes in the mid-evening (Moseley, 2000). Critical examination of these texts reveals a number of interesting discourses at play, in particular that of self-production along gendered lines. I have chosen to examine the media text What Not To Wear (BBCTV, 2001- ) as it is a recent example of ‘makeover television’ which has achieved great popularity among UK audiences by progressing from the short makeover slot of daytime television, to a programme dedicated to teaching (mainly) women in the UK ‘what not to wear’, or rather, what to wear by analysing their lives through popular psychology, borrowing from behavioural therapy and the discourse of self-help.

In order to critically examine the use of a ‘makeover paradigm’ in What Not To Wear I focus on a particular episode entitled ‘Young Mums’ (BBC1, 27th September 2004 ). Although the analysis is based on this particular episode, the show follows a tight format therefore much of the analysis could be applied to other episodes of the same programme. To ground the analysis in the historical context of makeover, I will first examine the makeover genre itself. The analysis will provide a brief outline of the What Not To Wear format, then critically examine a number of the discourses inherent to the ‘paradigm’ of makeover as presented in ‘Young Mums’.

First, the discourse of the production of the self through transformation (Rose 1989), particularly the production of a ‘feminine body-subject’ (Bartky, 2003:33) will be examined. Second, the use of governance, regulation and surveillance will be analysed with reference to Foucault. Third, the way in which the language and symbolism of popular psychology is borrowed by the hosts to create a semblance of therapy as part of the re-production of self. Fourth, the role of the hosts as ‘expert’ and the form of language and touch used to convey the hierarchy of knowledge and class will be considered. Finally, the sites of resistance visible within the episode will be explored.

As Moseley (2000:303) argues, makeover ‘has been a continuing staple of the woman’s film . . . feminine beauty culture . . .[and] women’s magazines’. The central theme to this genre has been the individualistic ideology of self-improvement (Rimke, 2000:62, Weber, 2005: 4) with a narrative of progress whereby any woman, if she tries hard enough, and consumes the right products, can become her ‘true’ self (Weber, 2005). Underlying this ‘possibility’ is the concept of responsibility to produce and maintain the ‘best’ self possible – a responsibility to oneself and those around not to ‘let oneself go’ (Weber, 2005:4). The makeover paradigm as displayed on television follows this formula, with the revelation of the self in a climactic finale (Moseley, 2000:304).

What Not To Wear is the British daughter of the daytime television makeover paradigm. Presented by Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, self-defined style ‘experts’, the programme has so far aired 4 series. Though each series has differed slightly in format the basic formula is the same, featuring two women’s makeover transformation:
Conversation with one of the presenters in a set that is symbolically designed to look like a psychotherapist’s office.
Friends and family are interviewed on the subject of the women’s ‘style’, Trinny and Susannah examine their wardrobes, often discarding or destroying items.
Watch their videos and discover ‘what people really think’ of them.
Scrutinise themselves and scrutinised by the presenters in a 360 mirror, often in a favourite piece of clothing.
Given a set of style ‘rules’ to follow when shopping and given £2,000 to spend.
The shopping task is divided into two days – on the first, they shop on their ‘own’ while being filmed, on the second, Trinny and Susannah evaluate the clothing that has been bought, then shop with the women to direct them.
Their hair and make-up is styled by stylists.
The revelation – the ‘new’ woman is revealed to herself in a mirror.
The ‘new’ woman is revealed to (usually) delighted friends and family.

The particular episode analysed here features two women, identified as ‘badly dressed mums’ (BBC1, 2004), Michalina, aged 35 and Sara, aged 26.

The formula for the show illustrates the discourse of the production of the self (Rose, 1989). This production occurs through a narrative of transformation (Moseley, 2000:304) in which a woman who is seen as someone who does not ‘fit in’ to an image of current styles of femininity is transformed during the episode. As illustrated below, this self is by no means finally produced, but requires constant re-production under an internalized and external gaze (Weber, 2005).

Rose (1989:103) argues that this self-production is a modern construct, where consumption is the way in which we ‘shape our lives’ by creating, managing and marketing ourselves from a range of consumable options. In line with this argument, What Not To Wear presents a discourse of self-fulfilment through consumption.

The ‘self’ that is produced for each woman on What Not To Wear is presented as the ‘true’ self that had been hidden from the world. This fairly essentialist concept that ‘inside’ each of these women is a ‘true’ self, waiting to be unveiled is demonstrated in the language used by the presenters throughout the ‘Young Mums’ episode. Particular to this episode is the discourse surrounding ‘being a mother’ and the effect of this on a woman’s subjectivity. At the end of the episode, Trinny comments of Michalina’s husband: “he got back a woman he thought he’d lost, and I think that’s a big thing for a man when a woman has kids, that they sort of – sometimes stop being a wife” (BBC1, 2004). The way in which both women are portrayed throughout the episode is as a collection of identities; mother, employee, wife . The premise of the episode is that their ‘mother’ identities have taken over.

Importantly for the discourse of self-production, these identities are presented and analysed as always relational to another. Sara searches at the end of the programme for recognition of her transformation from Carl, her husband. The need for his gaze is commented on throughout the shopping task in a way in which suggests, as Weber (2005:14) puts it “being looked at in an appreciative or sexualized way affirms a woman and, in turn, allows her to be more confident”. Susannah attempts to convince Sara to buy a dress she does not like because it will have Carl “standing to attention within seconds of you walking in the door”.Similarly, Michalina feels that her ‘improved’ self will be able to “be herself” and “not have to worry about people sniggering behind my back” (BBC1, 2004).

The self that is produced to ‘fit in’ in this way is presented as what Bartky (2003:33) terms ‘the ideal body of femininity’. Although the presenters do not attempt to alter the women’s bodies in the same way as the plastic surgery of Extreme Makeover (Weber, 2005), the ‘rules’ given to the women are in line with what Trinny refers to as what the women ‘should’ be. In the case of young women, that is “sexy, trendy and fun” (BBC1, 2004). Women should look feminine, and that means showing, or creating a traditional ‘hourglass’ figure (often by wearing heels which force women to walk in a way that pushes them forward and draws attention to the compartmentalised body parts of breasts, bottom and legs considered to be feminine and likely to illicit the ‘gaze’) (Bartky, 2003), wearing makeup and styling their hair. Weber (2005) refers to this homogenisation of production as ‘the economy of sameness’; an idealisation of image that has been criticised by feminists not just for lack of creativity, but also for the way in which it is tied up with the gendered nature of social power, whereby women are represented and traded as passive objects and suffer at the hands of social and physical abuse (Bartky, 2003:35).

The ‘feminine body-subject’(Bartky, 2003:33) that is revealed at the end of What Not To Wear is not the finalised ‘self’. Throughout the episode the women are instructed in the ‘disciplinary practices’ (Bartky, 2003: 33) required to continually re-produce and govern themselves. In analysing this mode of self-surveillance, it is useful to refer to Foucault’s (1977) framework for analysing relationships of power so pervasive that they are exercised upon the individual themselves through self-surveillance.

One of the key ways in which Foucault (1977:200) conceptualises the omnipresent nature of surveillance is through the Panopticon; illustrated as the architectural design with a central, supervisory tower at the centre with cells to be supervised around the periphery. The role of the 360 mirror in What Not To Wear, is structurally similar to the Panopticon and serves to act as the focal point for ‘self surveillance’ of the women. Asked to scrutinise her body from every angle, the woman inhabits the central, supervisory space and looks into each cell onto the divided aspects of her body that must be disciplined.

In the ‘Young Mums’ episode, both women enter the 360 mirror in a piece of clothing they like. Trinny and Susannah use a combination of mockery, criticism and praise to first show the women they are not how (or who) they should be, then inform them how they should be.

Sara is informed by Trinny, as the presenter pulls her dress tight to her body; “You have a figure to show off, so you need to get that waist back – you know, we’d like to see more” Susannah, reinforcing the message, pulls her dress up, stating “you’ve got great legs, you’ve got such good ankles you should show them off” (BBC1, 2004). Michalina is laughed at by the women in a display of class elitism, when her assertion that the clothes she is wearing look “quite classy” is met with schoolgirl-style ‘cruelty and viciousness’ (McRobbie, 2004:106). Susannah, in a voice laden with sarcasm, praises Michalina for talking “about the outfit with such conviction” and Trinny is unable to contain her disgust, screaming “I think that is SO HIDEOUS!”. Both comments are met with confusion from Michalina, who clearly does not consider herself to look hideous. Interesting, considering Trinny’s tendency for raising her voice, and reminiscent of Rowe’s (1997:79) analysis of the reaction to ‘unruly women’ who take up ‘too much space’ is her assertion that Michalina comes “running and charging at us” with her bright clothes, and that this frightens people. By the end of the episode, Michalina affirms the comments that the presenters made at this first site of surveillance, signalising its internalization and necessity for constant regulation to prevent relapse. Looking at her new produced self, Michalina agrees with the presenters, stating; “I was a blob…a clown and a blob” (BBC1, 2004).

Rose (1989:227) places the rise of self-regulation in the nineteenth century, in the context of a shift from individuals controlled by an interventionist state, to individuals controlled much more closely by themselves and those around them. Intrinsic to this regulation and ‘production of selfhood’ (Ibid:231), he argues, are the ‘techniques of psychotherapeutics’. Importantly, this link is clear in What Not To Wear. At the beginning of the episode, the presenters conduct conversations with the women to “probe their minds” (BBC1, 2004) in an environment culturally recognisable as that of a psychotherapist, with the women ‘probed’ on a chaise longue. During these conversations, the presenters refer to ‘feelings’ and the language of popular psychology, contributing to the assertion common to the genre of ‘self-help’ that it is the individual inside, not structural constraints of society, that lead to problems (Rimke, 2000:64) and that by altering her appearance, the woman will alter her life. In a style similar to that of the daytime television talk show, the short conversations do no not offer ‘sufficient space or time for personal emotions to be fully developed’ (Macdonald, 2003:83) and are very much directed by the presenters.

During Sara’s conversation, she starts to talk about the fact that her identity seems to be consumed by looking after her triplets (earlier in the programme, Trinny illustrated the hard work involved in looking after three children). Rather than explore the many structural constraints that are involved in this exhausting (and seemingly unrewarded) work, Trinny responds to the statement with the question “how does your husband feel about how you dress?” (BBC1, 2004). At the end of the programme, Trinny refers back to this feeling of identity loss, indicating that the ‘new’ Sara can be the centre of attention. Revealingly, Trinny comments that people will no longer constantly ask her about her children, but will now focus on her clothes instead, indicating that she feels Sara’s identity is her clothes.

The presenters also borrow from behavioural psychology, invented to ‘render human conduct amenable to reshaping’ (Rose, 1989:239). Trinny and Susannah use both reward and punishment in order to ‘reshape’ the women. At a key moment in Michalina’s shopping task, Trinny begs her to buy a dress, giving up on the ‘rewarding’ of compliments and screams in Michalina’s face; “JUST BUY THE OUTFIT OK!” (BBC1, 2004). This illustrates that What Not To Wear lies firmly in the discursive tradition of self-regulation through psychotherapeutics (Rose, 1989:227).

Within the genre of self-help, particularly makeover, the role of the ‘expert’ is key (Giles, 2002:606). Trinny and Susannah present themselves as therapist and teacher. They adopt a position of authority that can be conceptualised in the way that Foucault (1984:61) has analysed the therapist and priest who gains power through confession. They intervene ‘in order to judge, punish, forgive, console and reconcile’ (Foucault, 1984: 61-2). The hierarchy evident in this authority manifests itself both in the language used by the presenters when addressing the women and the ‘economy of touching’ (Bartky, 2003:30) whereby the presenters touch the women often aggressively and intrusively.

The language used by the presenters often takes on a patronising tone; the difference between Trinny admonishing Sara’s children for not eating with their spoons, and the order to Michalina to get “back in your box, try the other thing on” (BBC1, 2004) is barely noticeable in tone. The way in which the presenters grab, pull and on one occasion rip the knickers, from the women is intrusive and humiliating at times for the women . Trinny and Susannah also touch the women in a way that would usually be associated with animals; they are ‘herded’ around and continually have their thighs patted and slapped. Although this form of touch is presented as jest, it echoes the power hierarchy within a society where women are often subject to un-requested touch and bodily intrusion, including high incidence of rape . The message given out that it is acceptable to herd and intrude on women ‘for their own good’ is a dangerous one.

This clear hierarchy is one of both knowledge (of ‘what to wear’) and class. The presenters are from upper-middle class backgrounds and display their opinion of the way in which the other women dress with ‘extreme bodily displeasure’ (McRobbie, 2004:105). Their class difference is illustrated by and reinforces their role as ‘experts’ and is tied to their knowledge of ‘style’. Trinny displays this by telling Sara; “we might know a bit better than you” (BBC1, 2004).

Although the power relations within the makeover paradigm of What Not To Wear are pervasive and permeate into the minds of the women being made over, as Foucault argues, this form of power depends on ‘a multiplicity of points of resistance’ (1984:95). Certainly, there are multiple points of resistance throughout the episode. Often this resistance is played up to the camera, to the audience as fellow participant; Michalina, picking up a pair of brightly coloured trousers, says “they are lovely, aren’t they [pauses, puts them back on the shelf] … no, I’m gonna be good [picks them up again] no, I’m not gonna be good.” (BBC1, 2004).Similarly, as a site of class resistance, Sara argues with the presenters on the necessity of spending over £100 on a pair of jeans. Although both women thank the presenters for their ‘new’ selves, and seem genuinely happy at the end of the episode, this does not reduce the importance of their resistance throughout their encounters with Trinny and Susannah.

The ‘Young mums’ episode of What Not To Wear is critically examined above in relation to discourses of self-production, surveillance, popular psychology and the authority of expert and class. The makeover paradigm within What Not To Wear is part of the discursive production within society of ‘feminine body-subjects’ (Bartky, 2003:33) through self-production (Rose, 1989) and surveillance. There is a great deal more that could be critically evaluated within the media text What Not To Wear. The role of surveillance could be examined in far more detail, particularly in the earlier series where hidden cameras were used to survey the women. Although not used in the episode analysed here, some episodes of What Not To Wear have featured video diaries, which could be viewed through a Foucauldian analysis of the role of confession (Foucault, 1984: 63). In terms of this particular episode, the women were actually revisited by Trinny and Susannah for the 2005 series of What Not To Wear, which could be analysed in terms of resistance, surveillance, governance and the portrayals of class. Although analysing such texts often meets with a resistance of its own, it is important considering the cultural weight and sites of power within the makeover paradigm as demonstrated above.


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What Not To Wear, ‘Young Mums’, BBC1, 27th September 2004, 7pm

What Not To Wear, BBCTV, (2001- )

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