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  • Makeover as Takeover: Scenes of Affective Domination on Makeover TV
  • Brenda R. Weber (bio)

Susannah: “We’re going to rescue Kim. She doesn’t know it, but we’re going to give her £2,000 to spend on a whole new style.”

Trinny: “But in exchange she’s got to hand over her clothes, her body, and her soul to us so that we can do whatever we want with her.”

What Not to Wear, BBC

I begin this discussion on discourses of power, subjectivity, and affection in television makeover shows not with one of the shows themselves, but with a commercial that aired on a recent rebroadcast of the BBC’s What Not to Wear.1 In this advertisement for a cosmetics line called Vital Radiance, two women face the camera in a video-cinematic language indicating confession and intimacy. The women’s friendly pairing visually gestures to the hosts of What Not to Wear, friends-in-fashion-expertise Trinny Woodhill and Susannah Constantine, whose tough love guides the style transformations they inflict on an endless array of dowdy Brits. In the commercial, both women appear to be in their forties. They sit in a well-appointed living room, stylishly dressed, their hair nicely coiffed. The primary color palette is of lavenders and creams, everything very calm and lovely. Neither woman, then, particularly needs the feminizing or class makeover magic communicated through the more dominant narrative of What Not to Wear. Indeed, there is a different kind of makeover logic at work in this interstitial narrative. The woman on the left of the screen, a blonde, comments with dissatisfaction: “My [End Page 77] makeup just wasn’t working as well. I didn’t look like myself.” Her friend with darker, though graying, straight hair in a long bob, corrects her: “She looked like herself, just not as good as herself.” After one application of Vital Radiance makeup, the blonde is suddenly beautiful, and the disapproving friend can change her tune: “Now she looks like herself, only better.” The blonde puts her arm around her friend’s neck and pulls her close, saying through affectionate laughter, “I knew there was a reason I liked you.”2

This moment depicting two friends who bond over frank style critiques nicely parallels the larger dynamic not only of What Not to Wear but of reality TV makeover mandates more broadly, where the reason one needs/deserves a makeover is some “unnatural” separation between outside and inside, between internal subjectivity and external signification of selfhood. Friends function here as the mirror reflecting mismatched ontologies. In this regard, it is the friend’s responsibility and obligation to direct the woman whose appearance is “not as good as herself” to makeup and makeovers, since these are tools offering a necessary rectification, devices that can alter outsides so that they more fully signify beautiful insides. Even when makeover promises are predicated on a slightly different premise—that by remaking the outside, self-improvement will cause an ugly inside to become lovely—the makeover functions as the transformative device that brings about salutary change.

Whether the work of the makeover is outside to in, or inside to out, what seems to me most important, as I have noted in other work,3 is not so much the teleology of the transformation itself as the way in which the discourse of outsides and insides works to underscore a metaphoric stability between these two positions, at the same time that it collapses the difference between outside and inside. The putative objective of the makeover, just as with Vital Radiance cosmetics, is to make a person (here coded specifically as female) appear as herself, only better. As Dore, one of the transforming ugly [End Page 78] ducklings during season two of The Swan, observes: “For the rest of my life, I’m going to be someone new.”4 A new and improved appearance will not only make the woman more congruent with larger codes of beauty, but will increase her confidence and thus her personal power. In order to gain access to this form of power, however, makeover subjects (often called “victims,” “targets,” “marks”) must submit fully to style authorities—or...


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pp. 77-99
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