Reality TV & The Transformation of Identity of the Self

Exposed bodies labeled by social stereotypes
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The cultural economy of entertainment and advertising has transformed the identity of the self by creating ideal and normative images or behaviors through governmentality and biopower, simultaneously targeting marginalized groups that lie outside the narrow boundaries of such definitions.  From makeover television such as Work Out or The Biggest Loser to beauty and fitness advertising, citizens have become active viewers by inadvertently deflecting societal problems into individual ones.  In doing so, the transformation of identity becomes a form of empowerment and self-regulation where media becomes our source of knowledge and inspiration while choice and control lies exclusively within the self.

As a result of cheap production and high viewer ratings, reality TV has become the most pervasive form of entertainment within media and an increasingly influential source for creating normative images.  For example, Extreme Makeover, a reality show that takes men and women who deviate from the societal norm and reshapes their physical appearance through a number of extreme surgeries.  The narrative for each show runs through a similar background story in which the individual begins unhappy with the way the look and their lives in general and through the full body reconstruction, takes the initiative, through self-control and effort, to redirect their destinies and thus lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

Additionally, a number of feminist critiques can be found within reality shows and with this show in particular.  In  Extreme Makeover, there is an uneven representation of men and women with women being the high majority.  The shows emphasis on the “correct” weight is equally important in the transformations of both genders, but in the case of women alone, the final appearance of the women lie within narrow definitions of femininity influenced by the patriarchal ideal; arched eyebrows, slim figure, full chest, narrow nose, long hair.

These same feminist images are found in media advertising and is not usually separate from normative feminine behavior.  For example, most hair product commercials depict a slim, culturally-defined “beautiful” woman who not only has the long silky hair we as women are expected to desire, but undergoes a confidence transformation through her hair from dullness and unhappiness to vibrant and playful.  Her body movements are gentle, delicate and poised.

Reality TV goes beyond constructing the ideal citizen through image alone but through productive behavior as well seen in shows such as Intervention, where subjects transform from unproductive failures of society to “healthy” and contributing citizens.  As Jesse Daniels points out in her analysis of the show in Intervention: Reality TV, Whiteness, and Narratives of Addiction, issues of race create an additional discourse within the normative behaviors of culture defined within the context of whiteness similar to feminine norms of beauty in the context of patriarchal ideals.  Similar to deviation from “healthy” weight or the hegemonic feminine appearance, refusal or failure to exercise the opportunity to gain self-control represents an individual lack of responsibility that evades the accountability of society as a whole.

The transformation of the identity of the self as a response to the cultural economy of entertainment and advertising extends beyond physical and internal discourses of what is “healthy” illustrated through the reality shows mentioned above.  Within transformations of the identity of self, standards are rooted in the normative social constructions of race and gender in Western society, defining deviations according to culturally-defined ideals.  Media has influenced the viewers to the point of internalization and acceptance of our “unhealthy” or deviant selves and as a result, taken the heat off of social and cultural builders of our society who help create this phenomenon of self nonacceptance and instead, allow others to benefit from it.  Self-regulation becomes a solution that begins and ends with the individual.  But we should not be asking what we as individuals can transform but what society can transform to enhance the lives of the people on a much broader scale.

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