Imagine being stranded on a desert island, or having a bisexual find her true love in the midst of fifteen males and fifteen females. Imagine going on a blind date, engaging in fierce competitions in different countries, or going under the knife for the idea of bettering oneself. Reality television displays all these situations and more. Reality television covers numerous circumstances that everyday people encounter, how these people react in those circumstances, and what they learn from the experience. The popularity of reality TV has grown throughout the years, resulting in even more new reality TV shows being created for the future. These shows are able to teach society lessons, about style, life, and certain people and concepts. Numerous reality TV shows, such as Extreme Makeover, perpetuate concepts of “beauty” to their viewers and reaffirm established solutions to achieve society’s concept of the ideal look and lifestyle.
Many different spectrums of reality TV shows exist, ranging from concepts of finding romance, to concepts of how to dress, as well as concepts of mere survival in certain situations. There are numerous channels on basic television that present different reality television shows. For example, VH1, MTV, TLC, E! and BET have running times for reality shows ranging from A Shot at Love to Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Reality television shows come from a plethora of themes. Some include dramatic situations about family life such as The Osbournes and Hogan Knows Best. Others include humorous pranks such as those practical jokes seen in Hell Date, while some others are competitions such as those seen in Beauty and the Geek, Road Rules, and America’s Next Top Model. Using contemporary pop culture television shows such as those mentioned aids in creating meanings and messages about gender, race, class, and sexuality. Viewers are drawn to watch these shows, and the shows in turn, whether knowingly or unknowingly, exemplify messages and societal understandings about femininity, masculinity, and norms and ideals about race, class, and sexuality. “Viewers may be drawn to reality TV by a sort of cinematic schadenfreude, but they continue to tune in because these shows frame their narratives in ways that both reflect and reinforce deeply ingrained societal biases about women, men, love, beauty, class, and race,” (Pozner, 97). Although many viewers may be tuning in on these shows solely for entertainment purposes, watching the shows may influence the viewers in such a way that affirms certain stereotypes and thoughts about certain concepts and ways of life.
All types of reality TV shows have an effect on their viewers, and makeover reality TV shows especially influence their viewers because of the messages entailed and the effective media involved. Many different forms of media exist today, such as radio, the internet, and telephone. With new innovations occurring day after day, enhanced forms of communication continue to proliferate and grow. When it comes to common contemporary media, television is extremely effective in communicating with its viewers. Television is a communication method that not only provides means of entertainment for the viewers, but also includes messages of improvement and education. Shows on television provide viewers with ideas on how to live and how not to live. Reality shows teach viewers how to survive and compete, and they also educate viewers on the lives of certain celebrities, such as those featured in Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, The Simple Life, and The Surreal Life. Many different reality television shows also teach viewers how to enhance their looks and conform to the ideal standard of beauty. In fact, “television’s embrace of the beauty/style makeover matters because TV is more in sync with the rhythms of everyday life than other media, and even its niche-oriented dimension is capable of normalizing the makeover as part of an everyday, ‘real-life’ common culture in ways that other media have not been able to accomplish,” (Ouellette & Hay, 102). Viewers are not only entertained by watching these shows, but they are exposed to many different situations that can influence their day to day decisions, such as picking out their clothes for work or school. These shows educate people on common contemporary US culture standards and norms, and influence viewers on how to live their lives.
Extreme Makeover, a popular makeover reality TV show, affirms the idea of altering and ‘correcting’ certain appearances in order to achieve ideal beauty. Extreme Makeover originated on ABC and premiered in 2002. This particular reality show features stories of individuals that are chosen and given the opportunity to change their appearance. The skills of top plastic surgeons compose the “Extreme Team,” which also include cosmetic dentists, hair and makeup artists, stylists, and even personal trainers to help individuals become fit. Participants in the show are all dissatisfied with their appearance and desperate to take this risky, life-altering opportunity to change and undergo various procedures in order to unveil and reveal their new, seemingly more confident selves to their families, friends, and Extreme Makeover viewers. The show features many tips on fashion, hair, and makeup, as well. “Popular reality TV shows, like Extreme Makeover and The Swan, perpetuate the belief that without beauty (attainable through plastic surgery), women are doomed to a life of heartache and failure. Dating-themed shows like Average Joe and The Bachelor go one step further, reinforcing the belief that sexual charm and physical attractiveness are lures that women can use to attract men,” (Newman, 92). Shows such as these send a specific type of message that describes ideal beauty and how to attain success and societal acceptance. As seen on many of these shows, there is a cultural value for thinness for women and muscles and broad shoulders for men. Viewers and participants are exhorted to emulate this ideal look and standard of beauty. As seen in much of television, many are influenced to believe that desirability and the ability to be loved and accepted are contingent upon achieving this physical perfection. Viewers tend to internalize these media messages and media-driven ideals of beauty, and feel guilty or ashamed if they fail to achieve those standards.
By allowing viewers to internalize the media messages it sends, Extreme Makeover is able to market cosmetic surgery as a remedy or enhancement for confidence and outward appearance. They influence viewers to ‘correct’ their appearance and make it more appropriate to fit the ideal standard.
“The beauty/style makeover, which aims to transform ‘ordinary’ people into improved versions of themselves using tactics from cosmetic surgery to stylish new clothes, is often criticized on two grounds: The first is that the programs reject any distinction between content and commerce, so that they effectively serve as ‘advertorial’ for the fashion and beauty industries. The second is that makeover programs perpetuate existing gender and social hierarchies by imposing restrictive notions of beauty and taste on women and the working/lower-middle classes,” (Ouellette & Hay, 101).
By seeing these media images and reality TV shows, viewers are influenced to believe that conventional physical beauty is a large attribute, an ideal that many are willing to attain no matter how risky. Some are willing to undergo great lengths to achieve this ideal standard. Some risk their health by undergoing surgery or even starving themselves to change and ‘enhance’ their appearances. Male participants in Extreme Makeover are determined to achieve the square-jawed, muscular ideal of beauty, while female participants desire the thin, large-breasted look. These participants are willing to undergo being surgically altered to attain this look. This can be seen in the YouTube video featuring before and after clips of a male participant and female participant from Extreme Makeover. As seen, these participants undergo numerous surgeries, pain, and months of recuperation in order to achieve their desired standard of beauty. When comparing their before and after appearances, the participants look completely different, as if they are totally different people. Their appearances are significantly altered and they are made to appear drastically different and ‘enhanced’ after the surgeries.
Doing what it takes to achieve the ideal look of beauty is considered success in itself and worthy of pride and a sense of fulfillment for many of the individuals on the show. No one forces people to appear on shows, but shows have a large impact on society ideals and standards. Makeover shows do not invent those certain presumptions, but they educate them by exposing viewers to the extreme solutions on how to achieve beauty. Makeover shows presume “that the right outward appearance, defined by dominant ideologies and filtered through professional doctors and style experts, can bolster an individual’s advantage in an unstable, youth-oriented labor market. For women and increasingly for men as well, looks are also understood as a form of currency in the postfeminist dating and marriage market,” (Ouellette & Hay, 106). Participants are willing to undergo the pain of going under the knife and completely change their appearance, thinking that they will receive the reward of love, security, confidence, success, and validation from society. Undergoing this change results in a prize of acceptance and ‘self-improvement,’ but is a change this drastic really required for success? Is following society’s ideal style and ‘correcting’ one’s image a positive thing or does it undermine the true worth as people?
Although participants claim to be more confident and happy after these lengthy procedures, undergoing these surgical procedures to alter one’s appearance seems to be shallow, vain, and materialistic. There are many advertisements that influence society’s picture of ideal beauty. Magazines, flyers, reality TV, and even websites such as lookingyourbest.com feature beautiful models and suggestions on how to attain this standard. These standards do not focus on intelligence or other capabilities. Instead, they focus solely on beauty and outward appearance. Looks, no matter how artificial or unattainable, seem to overshadow everything and determine how much success one will gain. “Non-Western features are reprimanded, then ‘corrected’: A black woman’s lips were reduced on Extreme Makeover, The Swan ‘softened’ an Asian woman’s eyes, and American Idol judge Simon Cowell repeatedly asserted that African-American singer Kimberly Locke didn’t have the right ‘image’ to become a pop star – until Idol stylists relaxed her kinky hair,” (Pozner, 98). Not only are lips, eyes, and hair altered, but body parts that are usually covered when in public are deemed worthy of change to some people. For instance, some have gone so far as to perform anal bleaching in order to achieve this ideal beauty standard. Overall, following and taking these chances, some risky, some frivolous, to conform to the standard seems to be demeaning and superficial. How far is society really willing to go to achieve the look?
Above is a Dr. 90210 parody just for fun. Although Dr. 90210's premise differs from that of Extreme Makeover, the idea behind the parody can apply to Extreme Makeover.
"Extreme Makeover Plastic Surgeon Dr Jon Perlman." YouTube. 29 May 2008
"Dr. 90210 Parody." YouTube. 28 May 2008
Newman, David M. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007. 71-145.
Ouellette, Laurie, and James Hay. Better Living Through Reality TV. Malden: Blackwell, 2008.
Pozner, Jennifer L. “The Unreal World.” Learning Gender. 2004. 96-99.