- Editing as Plastic Surgery: The Swan and the Violence of Image-Creation
“Few recipes for cultural anxiety could be more inspired than the marriage of two of the most inflammatory contemporary phenomena: cosmetic surgery and reality TV,” writes Gaby Wood in her article “Meet Marnie . . .”1 The article includes interviews with both Marnie Rygiewicz, a former contestant on FOX’s reality TV series The Swan, and one of the plastic surgeons on the show, Terry Dubrow. While many television critics shudder at the “sick glory of the concept,” 2 commenting that the show is “obscene” and that “its tastelessness is so over-the-top,”3 the popularity of The Swan among television viewers is undeniable: its premiere attracted some 15 million viewers, placing it in the running with many of the most-watched programs on TV.
The popularity and proliferation of reality television shows—in the form of docudramas, talk shows, competitive versions like Survivor, and most recently, makeover shows—has allowed for the creation of a new genre in popular culture studies. As different forms emerge, the implications of the genre as a whole for an understanding of the current vicissitudes of Western culture also proliferate. In this regard, the increasing popularity of the most recent trend in reality [End Page 55] TV, the makeover show, calls for its own study, not only to highlight the specificities of this particular branch of the genre, but also to describe its unique relation to the culture of which it is a part.
Through an analysis of one of the most radical of the reality TV makeover shows, FOX’s The Swan, I wish to illuminate the West’s newest relation to a feminine compulsion toward imitation whose mythos, as I develop below, began with the figure of the goddess, and which has always been intimately connected to technologies of mass production—from the proliferation of copies of the same divine statues in ancient Greece to the current obsession with plastic surgeries intent on mimicking “ideal” forms. As a medium for demonstration, I call upon the mythic scenarios expounded in Roberto Ca-lasso’s Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, which intimately link the “origin” of ideal beauty with narrative proliferation and repetition, two of the most obvious traits of The Swan. In addition, mythic scenario, as Calasso presents it, stages the struggle between the aesthetic and the symbolic, between experience and meaning—a confrontation that also plays itself out in the works of Jean Baudrillard, who sees this relation as central to our (the West’s) contemporary cultural experience. Baudrillard is often read as a pessimist, and even a nihilist, decrying the declining state of Western culture (a view that would ally his thoughts with those of the television critics who bemoan the “tastelessness” of The Swan). Yet the symbolic bankruptcy and one-dimensionality that Baudrillard describes are coupled with an appreciation for the allure of artifice and surface, which suggests that to turn one’s back on signals of cultural decay might be to miss an important moment of transformation—a moment of “seduction,” perhaps.
Imitation, Repetition, Emptiness: The Plight of the Contestant
Many contemporary theories of the human have pinpointed mimesis as one of the primary movements of the subject-in-formation. In his recent Serial Killers series, Mark Seltzer chronicles one contemporary form of perversion displayed by the West in its relation to this “primary mimesis.” As Seltzer explains, the intensities of the “pathological public sphere” coalesce in the singular figure of the serial killer, the “statistical” nature of individuals allowing for the rhythm of his crimes—the repetition of the “same” murder, on the “same” victim. Seltzer’s scenario involves “the instant translation of the uncertain difference between self and other into the ‘basic’ difference between male and female.”4 The perversion/inversion takes [End Page 56] place, for Seltzer, at the site of the originary process of imitation, the first scene of representation, which accounts for the particular status of the serial killer as legendary figure, part of a cultural narrative that entwines fact and fiction into the same weave.
The characteristics of the serial killer’s narrative, as well as its connection to...