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  • Of Swans and Ugly Ducklings:Bioethics between Humans, Animals, and Machines
  • Joanna Zylinska (bio)

Only Some Will Make It: Enter The Swan (and a Few Ugly Ducklings)

Four months ago, these nine women were given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change their lives forever. They underwent the most radical transformations, both inside and out. They went from ordinary women to extraordinary beauty queens. Tonight, in the most dramatic pageant in the history of television, one of these lucky women will be crowned the Swan.

"This is the most unique experience of our lives.""Our goal is to transform average women into confident beauties.""It's a brutal regimen over three months.""Only some will make it.""But all will be changed forever."

The Swan, Fox, 20041

This article takes as its starting point a consideration of the extreme makeover show The Swan-in which contestants undergo a "total transformation" via radical cosmetic surgery as well as confidence training-within the context of Michel Foucault's and Giorgio Agamben's work on biopolitics. Biopolitics is a form of political regime under which the bodies and minds of citizens are administered and life is "managed." I want to argue that what is at stake in shows such as The Swan is precisely the subjection of the participants' bodies [End Page 125] and lives to the disciplinary techniques applied by the dominant sociopolitical institutions. The recently popularized genre of "extreme makeover TV" treats post-Big Brother audiences to documentaries featuring the remodeling of real people's homes, gardens, wardrobes, and-as has been the case with shows such as ABC's Extreme Makeover, MTV's I Want a Famous Face, and Fox's The Swan-bodies.2 There is, however, something unique about the way in which The Swan treats the subject of makeover by framing it in biozoological terms, and by introducing the survival of the fittest as its principle of entertainment. The program is designed as a competition between a group of average-looking women, who are all undergoing a three month long "total transformation" that involves cosmetic surgery, a weight-loss program, and "personality training"-all undertaken without being able to see themselves in a mirror. Each episode features two competitors who are judged by a panel of experts on the success of their transformation, with the overall winner of the series being crowned "the Swan."

While I suggest that extreme makeover TV is part of the global biopolitics of life management, the aim of this article is not merely diagnostic: I am first and foremost interested in the possibility of developing a counternarrative to this rather gloomy story of biopolitical disciplinarity. It is in the area of bioethics that I want to locate my counternarrative, a bioethics not conceptualized here as yet another disciplinary practice telling us in advance how our bodies should and should not be treated. Eschewing the systematic normativity and formal prescriptiveness of many traditional forms of bioethics, my bioethical project arises in response to the beautifully monstrous bodies of The Swan's participants. Proposing to read the show's "swans" as twenty-first-century neocyborgs bearing the marks of technology on their bodies, I want to explore the promising ethical ambivalence of the kinship between humans, animals, and machines that these bodies exemplify (even if, it may be argued, the program itself ultimately forecloses on this promise).

The Biopolitics of Makeover Culture

Ladies, always remember where you came from and how you got here, and don't forget to live HAPPILY EVER AFTER!

The Swan, Fox, 2004 [End Page 126]

First of all, a few more words about biopolitics, a concept that is being increasingly used by cultural theorists to describe the political regime of modern Western democracies. Foucault traces the origins of this regime to the classical rule of power over life and death, whereby the sovereign exercised "his right of life only by exercising his right to kill, or by refraining from killing": the sovereign's "power of life and death" amounted to the right to either take the life of his subjects or allow them to live.3 In modern times, however, this power has undergone a process of...


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