Contestant/patient/makeover subject Rachel L. can't believe her eyes when her
new look is revealed to her for the first time on "The
Swan." TV's extreme makeover shows are newest medium
If you haven't yet noticed, a hot trend in reality TV - the evolutionary
edge of television - is the extreme makeover. Be it "Extreme
Makeover," the home edition or the plastic surgery version,
these shows are beginning to pop up in prime time like vigorous
stalks in a brand new field of entertainment.
Now a new show, "The Swan," has taken the extreme makeover
concept to a whole other level.
Each week on "The Swan," two women are transformed by
a team that includes plastic surgeons, psychologists and personal
trainers. For three months, they undergo dramatic surgeries and
an intense rehabilitation/training in a private facility with no
mirrors. At the end of the three months, they are filmed in a ritualized
unveiling before a mirror, where each one suddenly meets her new
appearance with cries of wonder and tears of joy.
Then the woman with the more impressive transformation is entered
- along with 8 other winners - into a grand finale beauty contest
where one ultimate winner will be selected as "The Swan,"
and receive the show's grand prize.
It's a curious phenomenon, and this type of entertainment has drawn
obvious criticisms from those who see plastic surgery as unhealthy
and/or shallow. But whatever disdain makeover TV generates pales
before its immense viewership, largely gained by continually escalating
The impact that it has had deserves deeper discussion.
It seems the ideas and actions behind "The Swan" are
nothing less than a collaborative art. After all, the simple goal
of plastic surgery is to transform the flesh - to literally re-shape
it - into forms that are thought to be more aesthetic.
Though beauty is difficult to define exactly, most of us acknowledge
the allure of youth's beauty, the mysterious signals and codes of
bone structure and symmetry, the balances in relations among the
body's features, be it lips, breasts, ears or teeth. Plastic surgeons
and other cosmetic specialists study these templates of modern beauty,
and work with the flesh the same way an artist transforms paint,
clay, glass, metal, or any other material.
The power of art is largely based in the rule of transformation:
a magical or miraculous effect, or something that looks an awful
lot like it. Transformation contains some essential metaphor about
the workings of the world and our condition of being. A notion of
our own eventual disappearance lingers powerfully in the mind's
vault, and drives us onward. We watch the world grow as it falls
apart. As creatures, spirits, or even just raw material, we embody
the truth of change, and something of the beauty in truth, and vice
versa. Thus, we are awed at the sight of transformations, whatever
It could even be said that we rely on these spectacles of change,
like hungry dogs, to transform our thoughts and perspectives, to
make us whole and more fulfilled.
Along these lines, there are a number of artists whose work consists
of nothing less than the meaningfully manipulated transformations
of their own faces or bodies. The most prominent of these is Orlan,
an infamous French artist whose many plastic surgeries have all
been ritualistically documented, and whose goal at one time was
to possess the features of Botticelli's Venus.
Another prominent figure is Stelarc, a United Kingdom-based artist
whose work is based in the belief that the body has become obsolete
and seriously needs to be re-engineered in order to adapt to a future
existence that takes place not only on Earth, but in the space of
"Alter the architecture and you adjust the body's operation
and awareness," says Stelarc.
"It's not so much about enhancing the body but rather constructing,
experiencing and being able to articulate alternate, intimate and
involuntary interfaces with technology - ultimately exploring alternate
kinds of embodiment."
His latest project is a proposal to graft a human ear - initially
grown on the back of a mouse - onto his arm. The ear will be packed
with sensors that respond when spoken to or approached.
Many seem to want to blame a society that could bring its members
to such extreme action, but perhaps it's better to refrain from
this. Life often seems too complex for us to judge. It is as it
is before us, and all of it is somehow wondrous.
For better or worse, desire for beauty is real and this may have
an importance that transcends any rationale for denial.