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  • History as Mystery and Beauty as Duty in The 1940s House (1999)
  • David Scott Diffrient (bio)

On the first night of her family's nine-week stay in a painstakingly restored, World War II-era house on the outskirts of London, Lyn Hymers—the fiftysomething matriarch and breakout "star" of the British time-travel reality show The 1940s House (1999)—finds herself in a dilemma. After spending an hour putting curlers in her hair, she wonders aloud to the camera how wartime women managed to maintain such an air of grace and charm in a period of national crisis and ever-diminishing rations. Although comically self-effacing, Hymers's throwaway question—"How could it take this long to look this ugly?"—is not merely a rhetorical response to the strict beauty regime imposed on women of that cinematically glamorized era. It speaks to the diegetic fixation on various modalities of feminine hygiene and makeup within the show and, by extension, broader extradiegetic concerns with such concepts as authenticity and artifice, two aesthetic forms or sensibilities impinging upon the perceived verisimilitude of this and other history-based reality shows.

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Figure 1.

"How could it take this long to look this ugly?"

Among the many dichotomies (now vs. then; us vs. them; modernization vs. tradition; etc.) structuring The 1940s House, it is primarily this tension between artifice and authenticity that leads us to question the underlying contradictions of reality series in general, especially those which purport to either [a.] faithfully recreate an image of the pre-TV past through technological mediation; or [b] express veracity through "vulgar" or "ugly" modes of performance. Like so much of the commentary voiced by today's adjudicators of taste—pulpit-pounders and television critics put off by the sensationalistic premises of programs like NBC's Fear Factor (a show in which, as a reviewer at the New York Times synopsized, "contestants eat horse rectums") and MTV's Real World vs. Road Rules (the latter a cross-pollinated game show-documentary, the most notorious scene of which features a disgruntled contestant spitting on his opponent)—Hymers's inquiry, directed at her own reflection in a vanity mirror, casts in relief the dialectical play of beauty and vulgarity, the attractive and the offensive, central to the genre.

Given its predilection for direct-camera addresses and similarly confessional, confrontational mirror shots, in which reflections of women in various states of emotional distress and/or physical disarray accompany disembodied voiceovers pondering the difficulties of particular tasks, we might question whether or not The 1940s House really seeks to reveal the mysteries of the past. By exacerbating the gap between the failures or frustrations of present-day participants and the miraculous achievements or resilience of their forerunners, might the program be promoting a vision of history that cannot be easily reconciled with its producers' goal of illuminating the past through tactile experiences and material objects? This essay attempts to unpack the suggestiveness of Hymers's question so as to uncover what I believe to be the two main themes of the series, which pivots on an axis of gendered labor and leaves intact the mystery of history as it has normatively been conceived. Doing so, I hope, will lead the reader to reflect on the show's parallel concern with the duty of beauty (as it too has normatively been conceived), an obligation that has ideological as well as moral implications not only in the context of wartime Britain, but also in the domain of that most unsightly yet insightful of programming: Reality TV.

"Hands-On-History": Tactilizing and Televising the Past

"I want to be able to smell the smells…to use the everyday items that normal people used."

— An unnamed young girl in the opening minutes of The 1940s House

In 1999, the same year that the original incarnation of producer [End Page 43] John de Mol's Big Brother debuted in the Netherlands, another single-setting reality TV show was launched on a smaller if no less significant scale in Great Britain, giving viewers an equally vicarious experience akin to voyeurism. A "hands-on-history" miniseries produced by Simon Shaw of...


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pp. 43-53
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