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  • Swan's Way:Care of Self in the Hyperreal
  • Mark Poster (bio)

Reality Media

As the last century came to an end and the new one began, media culture in the United States has taken increasingly surprising turns toward "reality." On the Jerry Springer, show ordinary folk reveal and act out their loves and hates before a national television audience. Broadcasting in talk-radio format, Howard Stern insults listeners and guests alike, and Rush Limbaugh screams at everyone the wisdom of know-nothing reactionary politics. Judge Judy enacts reality court proceedings, and extreme sports shows feature the disgusting consumption of bugs and horrific battles. On the Internet, users earn a living by selling virtual characters and weapons for players in massively multiple online role-playing games. Bloggers are perfecting the literary form of the online confessional. The brave new world of reality television, talk radio, and virtual global gaming introduces a fascinating, novel landscape of mediated popular culture. Are we to take these examples as indications of a significant cultural formation, or simply as an ephemeral passing fad of programmers and audiences alike? If they do deserve serious attention, what frameworks of interpretation can be used to decode their meanings?

To render my task a bit more manageable, I will narrow my focus to one category of these examples of media culture: cosmetic-surgery reality TV shows.1 Starting in late 2002 with ABC's Extreme Makeover, [End Page 151] many networks programmed new series that presented run-of-the-mill individuals (almost all women) having their bodies transformed by face lifts, breast enlargements, tummy tucks, liposuction, rhino-plasty, tooth veneers, chin implants-a great assortment of surgeries that promised to alter their bodies into the shape of commonly recognized beauty. These medical procedures became performances visible to television viewers. The market success of Extreme Makeover encouraged other networks to come up with their own variations on the theme. FX premiered Nip and Tuck in July 2003, a fictional series featuring two cosmetic surgeons. MTV inaugurated I Want a Famous Face in March 2004, introducing the celebrity factor: participants modeled their surgeries on the bodies of stars, challenging doctors to reshape them into the image of their favorite pop idol. Not to be left behind, Fox aired The Swan in April 2004, a reality series that included a competition in each episode between two women having multiple surgeries, and culminated in a grand finale of a beauty contest that selected from the winners of each episode the ultimate woman, "the Swan." The E! Network came aboard with Dr. 90210 in July 2004, enhancing the format of cosmetic-surgery reality television with the aura of Beverly Hills. Throughout 2004 viewers enjoyed a cornucopia of action with scalpels. (See Table 1.) The United States was not alone in its fascination with these series. In the United Kingdom in 2005, for instance, makeover television shows included Channel 5's Cosmetic Surgery, Sky One's Sun, Sea and Silicone, and Channel 4's 10 Years Younger.

Name of Show Network First Aired
Extreme Makeover ABC December 11, 2002
Nip and Tuck FX July 22, 2003
The Swan Fox April 7, 2004 (Season One, 10 episodes; Season Two, 9 Episodes
ending December 20, 2004)
I Want a Famous Face MTV March 15, 2004
Dr. 90210 E! July 11, 2004

One might easily approach these programs as baleful examples of patriarchy, capitalist ideology, neoliberal market culture, excruciatingly bad taste, the deplorable culture of the masses, shameful exploitation, audience manipulation, heterosexual normativity, the postmodern imagination, decadent American civilization, the relentless barrage of images of beauty, consumer narcissism, boredom, a culture of superficial amusement, and so forth. Yet serious issues are raised by these reality TV series of cosmetic surgery. I shall argue, first, that they exemplify a form of media culture that carries Jean [End Page 152] Baudrillard's concept of the hyperreal to new levels and illustrates a landscape of hitherto unimaginable combinations of humans and information machines. Second, and this is my main concern, I shall inquire if and how these shows illustrate a new variation of Michel Foucault's concept of the care of self.2 To this end, I shall attempt to extrapolate...


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pp. 151-175
Launched on MUSE
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