Remember, dear, it's what inside that counts.
Isn't that what your mom told you? Isn't that what you tell your kids?
Well, ABC's new "reality" show, "Extreme Makeover" blows the lid off that old crock.
What's inside, it turns out, doesn't mean diddly-squat. Looks are everything. So if your appearance does not conform to acceptable cultural standards, please get fixed by the nearest available plastic surgeon. Non-conforming personality traits will be extinguished later.
In each episode of the show, that inside sources say is produced by Satan, two self-described ugly ducklings trade their dignity and privacy for free plastic surgery. After confessing their insecurities to the show's hostess, they are whisked off to Hollywood for massive structural rehabilitation, including facelifts, eye jobs, nose jobs, and breast augmentation, liposuction, microdermabrasion and ear pin backs.
When the scars and swelling are sufficiently reduced, it's time for cosmetic dentistry, new hair colors and styles, expert make-up jobs and finally, chic clothes. Then the Cinderellas are brought home to Arkansas or Nebraska and unveiled to their friends and families. They are instructed to live happily and beautifully ever after.
We're shown a few graphic and grisly pictures of the surgeries and recovery. As one critic noted, it's "mutilation as entertainment." The operations look unbelievably painful, but that part is skipped over quickly.
The women, and some token men, who have been on the show so far are not Manuel Noriega-ugly. This week's victims, Karen and Sandra, were actually perfectly attractive, certainly friendly looking and quite well spoken. But Karen had a bumpy nose. Sandra had very unfortunate teeth. Her husband had recently died and she said, "I need a new beginning in my life." Dr. Jon Perlman's answer: "We'll lift your breasts and nipples up."
There's a pick-me-up for you.
Karen and Sandra do look lovely after their makeovers. Either of them could be a local news anchor. They don't look artificial, at least on TV. But they do look homogenized. So do all the prior makeover subjects.
Karen and Sandra were delighted with the results and you couldn't help but feel happy for them. You also couldn't help feeling like you needed a shower and a chemical peel after watching such a slimy, dehumanizing and exploitive escapade.
Why is this popular? Why is it entertainment?
Maybe it's voyeurism. You get to watch someone publicly reveal deep insecurities and then follow her cosmetic resurrection. A real EveryGirl goes to Hollywood and is morphed into a synthetic EveryStarlet.
And this is what passes for reality on television?
Instead of watching actors pretending to be real people, you see real people transformed into specimens that look like actors. But why is that comforting or amusing to watch?
I suppose this is a version of the American dream -- with Botox. This is the ultimate in becoming a "self-made wo/man," a truly invented self that meets all fashion industry standards. It's the ultimate in can-do spirit; anything can be fixed, even your puss in the mirror.
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined a great phrase in 1992. He said that we Americans were "defining deviancy down." As more and more deviances become acceptable and normal, the very idea of deviance atrophied. Rap songs celebrating rape? That's cool. A serial-killing cannibal as movie hero? Excellent. Swearing in restaurants? Not a problem. Blabbing about your eczema condition loudly on a cell phone in public? Hey, it's free country.
"Extreme Makeover" is perhaps part of "defining normal up." If virtually nothing is deviant, if the increasingly weird and anti-social becomes tolerable, then just about everything is normal.
Unfortunately, if everything is normal, then nothing is normal. And we featherless bi-peds are social creatures and we need there to be such a thing as normal. So, what we now consider truly normal is a culturally determined and commercially marketed myth-ideal that is artificial and unattainable.
Normal is not Cliff, Norm and Carla from "Cheers," but Chandler, Monica and Rachel from "Friends."
Normal is cookie-cutter good looks and with that comes American Nirvana -- high self-esteem. Where there is cellulite, self-doubt is sure to follow. A normal self is manufactured by being nipped, tucked, straightened and whitened on the outside. That's what counts, the inside stuff will follow.
What a terrific message for America's youth.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, is based in Washington. For many years, he was a political and investigative producer for The CBS News Evening News With Dan Rather.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer