So Who Wants to Be a Swan?


The message boards of Fox's latest reality show, "The Swan," turned into a cultural battlefield, even before the first episode was broadcast.

The very concept of this particular show seemed to strike a raw nerve among viewers, who posted several hundred messages in what turned into a surprisingly heated debate over whether television is our fairy godmother, the ultimate Big Brother, or just a boob tube.

The show, which premiered April 7, picks 16 willing women and transforms them into, you guessed it, "swans" with the help of a makeover SWAT team consisting of a trainer, coach, therapist, nutritionist, plastic surgeon, dentist and stylist. According to the website, "Contestants must go through an intensive 'boot camp' of exercise, diet, therapy and inspiration to achieve their goals."

But here's the de rigueur twist: Each episode features two women, but only one of them will qualify to compete in the beauty pageant to be held at the end. As the website describes it, "Each week feathers will fly as the inevitable pecking order emerges. Those not up to the challenge are sent home. Those who are will go on to compete in a pageant for a chance to become 'The Ultimate Swan.'"

Like its other mega-successful reality show, "Joe Millionaire," "The Swan" draws on the obvious "fairytale" motif; in this case, it's Ugly Duckling rather than the overused Cinderella.

Most television critics have slammed "The Swan" as marking a new low in reality television's willingness to exploit human insecurity for high ratings. But as with Fox's trademark shows, "The Swan" draws its power from controversy -- as soon became obvious on the message board.

The women who posted the first few messages just wanted to know how they could get on the show, often adopting the language of the show by referring to themselves as "duck" hopefuls. But within a day, the tone of the messages began to change, as people began posting messages titled, "This is disgusting."

The trickle soon turned into a flood, as people angry at "makeover" shows flooded the boards with threats to boycott not only Fox but also its advertisers.

These messages variously label the show as "degrading," "immoral," "shameless," "disgusting," and racist (there do not appear to be any ugly ducklings of color.)

Some of the other angry critics are outraged fans of previously cancelled Fox programs like "Firefly" and the freshly-killed quirky and refreshing "Wonderfalls," which incidentally centered around a strong female lead character. They express an overwhelming sense of helplessness and anger because they have no say in what finally airs or succeeds on television. Their messages alternately plead with and curse Fox and the forces that control television programming, be it outdated ratings systems like Nielsen or the low costs of producing reality shows.

And then there are those who defend the contestants' right to explore any possible path on the road to self-improvement. These enthusiastic supporters see the show's emphasis on the whole woman -- from self-esteem to hair color -- as progressive rather than repackaged sexism.

More disturbingly, this group seems to be emotionally invested in the show's promise of total personal transformation. Their rhetoric reinforces the show's dubious claim that participating in the show would be "every woman's dream."

One woman promises that, if chosen, she will do "full frontals" for the show. Another, recently divorced, hopes for a "second chance" at life on the show's next run. she "needs a boost" to her self esteem, and thinks the show is a "great idea for women."

The most alarming message is from a woman who writes, "These women who were chosen are blessed. I hope that one day, I too will be blessed in such a way. My husband says that we can't afford any surgeries, so I'm just going to trust the Lord, and pray that one day I too will be given the opportunity to be a swan." In this equation, husband, Lord, and Fox form the holy triumvirate of woman's worth.

The woman's wishful tone again mimics FOX's rhetoric of 'mystified' self-improvement, mystified precisely because the improvement is not achieved by the self, but by a team of experts who are charged with reassembling her.

More interestingly, many of the women seeking to become "ducks" are aware that they might be judged for revealing their desire -- but strikingly their justifications once again recycle the rhetoric used by the show's publicists, restating the mumbo-jumbo about self-esteem and fulfilling a lifelong dream.

These messages do not challenge any of Fox's unnerving assumptions about women, but instead reflect them in their content. First is the idea that women naturally fall into "pecking orders" when they form groups. Second, women align easily with infantile, non-human characters like the "ugly duckling" (whose gender, it is important to note, is not emphasized in the original fairytale). Third, women's conception of "incredible adventures" and "life journeys" is restricted to getting on a reality show that will make them beautiful and/or unite them with their Prince Charming.

The most damaging assumption of shows such as "The Swan" is that women require a great deal of help to "improve" themselves. More accurately, they have no true "selves" to improve, rather are created from the outside in, by beauticians and counselors who tell not only how to look and dress, but also how to think and feel.

Apart from these unhappy women, "The Swan" also has a different -- and perhaps more disturbing -- kind of supporter. These view television, however "bad," solely as a form of entertainment. To take it seriously in a political or personal way, they argue, is to misunderstand television's role in our society. In other words, television has no ethics and there is no reason to demand it reflect those of the viewers.

These posters passionately and eloquently support Fox and the show, dismissing those who question the network's ethics as prudish and overly self-serious. They tell angry critics that "there are more important issues" to worry about, and advise them to "chill out." They go so far as to ask, "What is 'real'?" in responding to those who accuse Fox of distorting reality.

This is the postmodern viewer of a television executive's dreams -- a viewer whose cynicism about media puts "entertainment" outside of the moral or ethical standards of the viewer. As one such viewer writes, "ITS (sic) JUST A SHOW PEOPLE!!!!"

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