- The Swan: The Fantasy of Transformation versus the Reality of Growth
The reality television show The Swan is a show partly about beauty and partly about change. The creator of the show, Nely Galán, envisioned portraying a journey of “self-transformation” in which each participant, with the aid of specialists, challenges herself to overcsome her “stuckness” and to put into action the dream of “how wonderful life could be if only she could look, feel, and perform her best.”1 During each segment of the show, two women, who have applied to be participants, engage in a personal makeover program including very extensive plastic surgery, cosmetic dental work, personal coaching, weekly psychotherapy, fitness training, and nutritional counseling. The women live on location, away from their homes and families, for three months. Throughout the program they have no access to mirrors or reflective surfaces. At the end of three months, they are rigorously groomed and exposed to themselves, the experts, and the audience in a climactic moment called “the reveal.” The premise of the show pits the two women against each other, with one woman in each segment moving forward to participate in a beauty pageant against all the other segment winners for that season. One contestant, who best embodies the transformative potential of The Swan, is ultimately crowned America’s Swan.
I will attempt to apply a psychoanalytic perspective on the construction, participation, and viewer process of this show. Using the [End Page 17] children’s story of “The Ugly Duckling” and the ideas of agency and action, narcissism and exhibitionism, work and change, and grief and resolution, I will try to identify the ingredients that support an effort of self-change and the factors that limit it. First, I will explore how becoming an active agent for oneself is facilitated by the responsive presence of an “other.” Second, I will review how this responsive other’s reaction to our core narcissistic and exhibitionistic needs can either facilitate advancement through a developmental continuum, or impede the developmental trajectory. Third, I will investigate how, once we are stuck at certain developmental achievements, our development can begin moving forward again by having a new experience of agency with a responsive other through which the old errors in this process can be reworked into a more successful resolution. Ideally, in this new relationship, one has the chance to change certain parts in the self and other, as well as to successfully accept and grieve that which cannot be changed. Fourth, I will review how The Swan, in its attempt to dramatize the process of changing the self, gets some things right and some things wrong. Its errors, including overselling, excessive emotionality, superficiality, and self-interest, risk affecting the participants and viewers in significantly negative ways, and minimize the positive potential of the show.
“The Ugly Duckling” and Our Search for Acceptance
The title The Swan seemingly refers to the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling.” This tale, and children’s stories and fairy tales in general, deal with universal dilemmas of human life and have been told to youngsters for ages to warn them of the struggles they face within themselves, and to guide them in mastering the fundamental predicaments in life, including their internal conflicts and external struggles. Bruno Bettelheim thought “The Ugly Duckling” problematic in that it offered no active solution to the problem of feeling left out, different, and unloved. The duckling just waits to be discovered as a superior bird; no talent or effort on his part is required:
The child who feels misunderstood and not appreciated may wish to be a different breed, but he knows he is not. His chance for success in life is not to grow into a being of a different nature . . . but to acquire better qualities and to do better than others expect, being of the same nature as his parents and his siblings. . . . To encourage a child to believe he is of a different breed, much as he may like the thought, can lead him in the opposite direction from what fairy tales suggest: that he must do something to achieve his superiority. No need...