As noted in the previous Beauty Imperative post, reality programming re-defines and further entrenches the linkages between beauty and whiteness. Less obviously though, it also upholds heteronormative beauty standards. It does so in a number of ways: firstly, by presenting the pursuit of beauty as a pursuit of a ‘normal’ heterosexual relationship; secondly, via the suggestion that heterosexual people are more likely to be beautiful; and thirdly, by either putting homosexuality/queerness under erasure or by mocking it as an entertaining stereotype.
In relation to the first issue, reality shows such as The Swan and Extreme Makeover were informed by heteronormative narratives that equated happiness and success to heterosexual coupling and gave substantial airtime to details of the contestants heterosexual relationships or desire thereof. This trait was particularly evident in the “Where Are They Now” episode of The Swan. Detailing the engagements, new boyfriend’s, and improved marital relations of the contestants, as well as continually emphasizing the ‘newfound thrill’ of garnering appreciative male gazes, the episode continually reiterated an underlying aim of the show: to make women more beautiful for men.
Statements by many of season one’s contestants further revealed this aim, making it very apparent that many women on the show envisioned their surgical alteration as a means to make themselves more pleasing to existing or potential male partners. For example, one contestant pronounced that she thought her husband should leave her “because he deserved someone more attractive.” Another explained that she didn’t leave her unfaithful husband “because I guess I’m afraid no one else would ever love me”. Here, her radical surgical alteration is presented as able to ward off infidelity and bring about a successful heterosexual union.
Season one’s winner, who the show repeatedly noted had a husband who felt she was “just average,” was surgically altered so as to be more pleasing to her mate. Enthusing that her hubby’s jaw dropped down to the floor when she paraded down the catwalk, she affirmed that she viewed her husband as the primary benefactor of her surgical extravaganza. Similarly, Belinda, whose supposedly ‘fat’ body was problematically equated with her string of abusive relationships, was whittled down to size in hopes of acquiring a mate. This ‘beautifying’ of the female body for male benefit continued in season two with a number of contestants noting they hoped to improve or save their marriages, while numerous others related they hoped to find a male partner after their surgical improvement.
In addition to presenting the pursuit of beauty as means to successful heterosexuality, such shows also suggest that heterosexual people are more likely to be beautiful by not including homosexuals in their narratives. While The Swan is perhaps most obvious in its emphases of the heterosexuality of its contestants, other makeover shows suggest that heterosexuals are more able to approximate beauty by the relative absence of homosexual participants. By putting homosexuality under virtual erasure, these shows enforce the notion that homosexuality is not, in fact, ‘beautiful,’ nor, such shows suggest, can it be made-over into beauty.
By equating the pursuit of beauty with the pursuit of successful heterosexuality, shows like these are saturated with what theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner call “the project of constructing national heterosexuality.” In fact, Reality TV in general, as evidenced by shows such as The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Wife Swap, Joe Millionaire, A Wedding Story, A Baby Story, and Trading Spouses, largely circulates around narratives of heterosexual coupling and reproduction.
Moreover, when homosexuality is showcased on Reality TV, it is often done so in a way that reinforces existing stereotypes and packages homosexuals and queers as entertaining oddities. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, as well as Boy Meets Boy, Survivor, Extreme Makeover, and The Real World all aired ‘gay stories’. Yet, they did so in ways that enforced stereotypes such as the ‘fashion savvy gay man,’ the ‘effeminate hairdresser’, or the ‘radical lesbian.’ Furthermore, gayness was offered as a marker of difference – as what makes one more amusing, more emotional, or more angry. Homosexuality is thus represented as a quirk to be mined for its shock value. Moreover, as theorist Kathleen LeBesco notes, Reality TV “falls short in its representation of lesbians and bisexuals.”
The stereotype of the ugly ‘butch’ lesbian was also repeatedly alluded to in shows such as The Swan via its continual derision of women ‘looking masculine.’ Here, The Swan trafficked in a surgically inscribed ‘femininity’ through the recurring suggestion that the unaltered contestants were simply not feminine enough. Show surgeons made statements such as “she’s a handsome woman, the goal is to make her a pretty woman…[to make her less] bulky and masculine.”
When another doctor commented to one participant “you’re nose is too big for your face and it’s not feminine,” he suggested that it is painstakingly obvious noses must conform to normative gender standards or else be cut down to size. Here the show reveals its very limited definition of acceptable femininity.
Further revealing that the show specifically links feminization to being attractive to men, the shows ‘experts’ noted that another contestant needed “to be feminized” so that she could live out “Her fantasy…that when she comes home looking ‘hot’ her husband’s going to wish he had treated her better.” Here, the show implicitly derided any woman who ‘looks masculine’ while simultaneously suggesting females are obliged to attract men. In so doing, it offers a condemnation of the non-heterosexual woman, coding her as ugly, undesirable, and deviant.
However, anyone with any appreciation of beautiful bodies knows that non-heterosexuals are just as (if not more) body beautiful than the rest of us. Been to a True Colors concert or a gay bar? Then you know that queers and homosexuals are a nice-to-look at bunch. Give me a fashion conscious queer over a couldn’t care less if I wear the same underwear 5 days in a row hetero any day!
The point is that ‘beauty’ does not require white skin or hetero desires no matter how much reality TV, pageants, and advertisements instruct us otherwise.