Cmon Girlfriend Sisterhood And Sexuality On Makeover Tv


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Cmon Girlfriend Sisterhood And Sexuality On Makeover Tv

  1. 1. International Journal of Cultural Studies Cmon girlfriend : Sisterhood, sexuality and the space of the benign in makeover TV Hannah Frith, Jayne Raisborough and Orly Klein International Journal of Cultural Studies 2010 13: 471 DOI: 10.1177/1367877910372705 The online version of this article can be found at: Published by: http://www.sagepublications.comAdditional services and information for International Journal of Cultural Studies can be found at: Email Alerts: Subscriptions: Reprints: Permissions: Citations: Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  2. 2. ARTICLE INTERNATIONAL journal of CULTURAL studies © The Author(s), 2010. Reprints and permissions: Volume 13(5): 471–489 DOI: 10.1177/1367877910372705C’mon girlfriendSisterhood, sexuality and the space of the benignin makeover TVG Hannah Frith, Jayne Raisborough and Orly Klein University of Brighton, EnglandA B S T R A C T G In the context of a purported shift from humiliation to thebenign exemplified by the marked contrast between How to Look Good Nakedand What Not to Wear, this article examines the cultural work performed by the‘space of the benign’. We identify three main mechanisms – body appreciation,synthetic friendship and suspended sexuality – which manipulate existingconstructions of female friendship and homosexuality to produce the host as the‘gay best friend’. As such, the host sidesteps the heterosexual scopic economywhile seeking to re-place women within it, and avoids the censure frequentlydirected at female presenters. At the same time, by coaxing women towards anacceptance of their body as is, How to Look Good Naked provides a ‘feel-good’sense of empowerment while preserving individualistic framings of bodyproblems and solutions. We conclude that the show rehabilitates women withinthe heteronormative scopic economy, and reinscribes them as neo-liberalconsumers. GKEYWORDS G appearance G friendship G gay G heternormativeG humiliation G reality television G scopic economy G womenThe contemporary mediascape is increasingly filled by what has been called‘Reality TV’ (Moseley, 2000). Programmes such as Big Brother, Faking Itand Wife Swap have received critical attention from the academy startingfrom the premise that such programmes are not mere representations ofreality but have a performative aspect. More specifically, work has targeted 471 Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  3. 3. 472 I N T E R N AT I O N A L journal of C U LT U R A L studies 13(5) the circulation of normative identities through cultural representations of class, race and sexuality: as such, reality television has been increasingly implicated in the shaping and securing of a specifically contoured citizen- ship that meets the social, political and economic demands of neoliberalism (Gill, 2007). This shaping is perhaps most obvious in the makeover show, where through surgery or fashion, ‘making over subjects’ through a dis- course of transformation (Bratich, 2007: 8) is most strongly articulated. While work has focused on the cultural politics demonstrable in the ‘reveal’ (the completion of the makeover), there is, as yet, little attention directed to the (mediatized) relationship between the expert and the participant. An exception is the work of Angela McRobbie (2004), who carefully charts the ways that experts’ use cruelty and humiliation to propel a participant to the final reveal and to an acceptance of an imposed normative identity. Similarly, that others have noted the extent of ‘trash talking’ (Lewis, 2008) gives more than adequate support to Mendible’s (2004: 335) declaration that humiliation ‘is the unifying principle behind a successful reality show’. A successful show that trades on being ‘nice’ (Cooke, 2007) is, then, of aca- demic interest. This article unpacks the cultural work being done by one such programme in the UK: How to Look Good Naked. We are drawn to How to Look Good Naked (produced by UK company Maverick Television for Channel 4) not only because it has registered some of the highest viewing figures for its UK network (Rogers, 2007) and has enjoyed great success in international markets (Morganstein, 2008), but also because of the extent of popular commentary it has sparked in the UK, which has drawn a sharp contrast between this and another strong UK export, What Not to Wear hosted by Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine. In the UK, the popular press have delighted in the contrast between the ‘humiliation’ and ‘bossiness’ of Trinny and Susannah’s finger- wagging dictates of what not to wear and the caring, fun friendship offered by host Gok Wan as he invites women to look good naked (Cooke, 2007; Esposito, 2008; Freeman, 2008). In replacing humiliation with kindness, Cooke (2007) argues that Gok is ‘genuinely non-judgemental’, and awards the show the accolade of being TV’s ‘most benign makeover show’. Responding to this cultural positioning of the show1 this article has two aims: the first is to unpack the mechanisms through which the show mani- fests as benign. We identify these as three-fold: by drawing on a discourse of body appreciation; by constructing a ‘synthetic sisterhood’; and by cre- ating a space of ‘suspended sexuality’. Our second aim is to explore what work the space of the benign is doing. We are not seeking to establish whether the programme format is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ for women than those which draw on humiliation. Indeed, we remain ambivalent about this, as is often the case when well-rehearsed socio-political critiques are unable to override an emotional response to a programme or film. In this we draw on Sedgwick’s (1997) notion of ‘reparative reading’, in order to encompass the affective complexity of our responses and to throw light on the way in which – despite Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  4. 4. Frith et al. G C’mon girlfriend 473all limitations – by offering the hope and wonder of transformation, we canbe seduced by the show’s ‘reparative potential’ (Crozier, 2008: 65). Therefore,instead of a simplistic evaluation of the merits of the show, we address thequestion of what kind of making-over of subjects is being done in thisseductive, playful space. We argue that a discourse of body appreciation opens up and closesdown certain possibilities for the re-valuing of subjects within the scopiceconomy (Skeggs, 2001). Drawing on Bourdieu’s model of class, based onthe interplay of four different forms of capital (economic, social, culturaland symbolic), which are tradable according to their exchange value,Skeggs argues that women invest in the body as a form of cultural capitalwhich signals the worth of the person. Within the inescapable scopic econ-omy, in which some bodies and appearances are valued more highly thanothers, ‘we enter and know our positioning in relation to others via theirbodily and visual value’ (Skeggs, 2001: 303). We suggest that the benignoffers a tender shove, inviting women to engage with the job of generatingand improving their value within the scopic economy. As a friendly brokerwithin this economy, Gok prises open the space of the benign and offersmultiple points for the identification and dis-identification of both viewersand contestants.2 We argue that these aspects may explain the popularappeal of the show and its warm welcome within the popular press.Body appreciationOne prominent criticism of many makeover shows centres on how theyserve to reinforce cultural preoccupations with physical ‘beauty’, exacer-bating body distress (Kubic and Chory, 2007) and, in some cases, normal-izing the practice of cosmetic surgery (Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer,2006). The makeover narrative centres on the consensual positioning ofwomen’s appearance as a problem which needs to be fixed. For spectaculareffect, the majority of programmes select the ‘worst case’ for transforma-tion, and women fight to position themselves in a hierarchy of suffering asthe most deserving of expert attention and most ‘worthy’ of surgical proce-dures (Sender, 2006). Alternatively, candidates are nominated by colleagues,family or friends who eagerly document the ways her body is sub-standard,backed up by the critical eye of the show’s experts (Lewis, 2008; Sender,2006). In ABC’s Extreme Makeover the body’s ‘problem areas’ are ‘literallyinscribed on women’s flesh, as the surgeon maps them out with a markerprior to surgery’ (Deery, 2004: 213), while in What Not to Wear womenundergo the ‘often humiliating process’ of trying on their favourite clothesin a tiny mirrored changing room and are subject to ‘coruscating critique’by Trinny and Susannah (Lunt and Lewis, 2008: 15). Here, presenters,surgical experts, friends, relatives and the person being made-over, all posi-tion the body as both problematic in itself, and as troubling to the self. Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  5. 5. 474 I N T E R N AT I O N A L journal of C U LT U R A L studies 13(5) The promise of the makeover is not only that ‘beauty can be achieved by all women’ (Gallagher and Pecot-Hébert, 2007: 65–6), but also that, by trans- forming the physical, experts also ‘fix’ the psyche (Hayes, 2007). While How to Look Good Naked is undoubtedly implicated in the same processes, we argue that in starting with the premise that the body is already ‘good enough’, How to Look Good Naked can be read as more benign. Although, as with other programmes, women who appear on the show describe parts of their body as disgusting or otherwise repellent, Gok as expert, does not concur. If there is a selection procedure (and presumably there is) this is not visible to the viewer. The participant is chosen for her ordinariness; her body and its imperfections are presented as typical rather than excessive, and her body dissatisfaction is portrayed as usual but mis- placed. She is presented as ‘everywoman’, who, like many other women, has a part of her body of which she is ashamed or which disgusts her: ‘Ladies you’re having a total tummy trauma and my girl this week is no exception …’, or, ‘like Nicki, 49 percent of you women say your belly is the bit of your body you’d like to change the most’.3 Unlike other makeover programmes, in which consensus over the problematic nature of the partic- ipants’ appearance is constructed using a discourse of mockery or humilia- tion, How to Look Good Naked opens up a space for a more sympathetic and empathetic reading of the participant. For example, while the ‘mirror room’ has been identified as a particular site of humiliation on What Not to Wear, the parallel moment in How to Look Good Naked operates dif- ferently. As the participant strips off in front of the mirror, Gok’s only com- ment is: ‘Tell me what you can see.’ Rather than being stuffed into a small room surrounded by mirrors, the participant is in a spacious white room, around which mirrors are placed. The camera offers close-up, soft-focus shots of the body, which are sensuous and erotic rather than exposing. This contrasts sharply with the approach of Trinny and Susannah, who raid the mirror room, critically scrutinize the woman’s appearance, and frequently grab and manipulate parts of the body. As an audience we are invited to respond not by judging her or being repulsed or disgusted, rather we are positioned alongside her and are invited to respond with empathy and recognition, since she is one of us. A benign reading is also made possible through the narrative trajectory of the show, which focuses not on problematizing the body, but on posi- tively re-framing it, to be admired and appreciated as it is. But, if the body is already good enough, why is there a need for a makeover? The ‘prob- lem’ in How to Look Good Naked is explicitly presented as the woman’s (misguided) perception of her body. This neatly shifts the ‘problem’ from the body itself, to the individual’s relationship with, and ways of seeing her own body, placing the programme firmly within the psychological space of ‘body image’. The idea that a perceptual distortion or mismatch between the body-as-is and the body-as-seen gives rise to body distress has a long history in psychological research and theorizing about body image (Cash Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  6. 6. Frith et al. G C’mon girlfriend 475and Pruzinsky, 2002). Indeed, the show’s format centres on the participant’sjourney through a number of exercises designed to change how they seetheir bodies, which mirror many of the techniques used within psychology.For example, in a task which echoes the silhouette studies in psychologicalresearch,4 the participant is asked to position herself in ‘Gok’s line-up oflovelies’ according to whether she thinks her ‘offending’ body part is biggeror smaller than that of the other women. The various tasks are designed todemonstrate to the woman, and by implication the audience, that her per-ception of her body shape and size is inaccurate. As Gok remarks to onewoman following the ‘line-up’: You’re walking around with an extra 5 inches, so what you’ve got to get inside your head is that in fact big doesn’t mean bad, and you’re not as big as you think you are. The reality check is look in the mirror and real- ize what you have got is all yours and you need to be very proud of it.Additionally, she is explicitly invited to be proud of, and enjoy her body.Gok’s speech is liberally smattered with appreciative descriptions of ‘yummytummies’, ‘gorgeous babes’ and ‘racks worth raving about’, which presentthe body as delicious, attractive and valued, whatever its size or shape. Inother words, Gok invites women to re-evaluate their bodies and reconsidertheir worth. This worth is continually reinforced as Gok routinely solicits compli-ments from others in tasks where the women are paraded and displayed forocular consumption. For example, in parts of the show, women are pre-sented naked as live mannequins in shop windows, or portrayed in theirunderwear in photographs posted on billboards. Through these visualdemonstrations, Gok invites ‘appreciative’ comments from the public aboutthe woman’s body and appearance. Although this could justifiably be seenas encouraging the objectification of women, in the context of perniciousbodily critique and pervasive body hatred, this incitement to ‘body-love’ andappreciation could be seen as a welcome respite. Despite widespread bodydissatisfaction, women are willing and able to express body appreciation ifexplicitly invited to do so (Avalos et al., 2005; Frith and Gleeson, 2008). One further point of distinction between How to Look Good Naked andother makeover programmes which may mark it as benign, rests in the con-trast between the surgically transformed or carefully styled body of othermakeover shows, and the naked, unadorned body which takes centre-stagein How to Look Good Naked. This in itself raises interesting questionsabout the role of expertise and advice in propelling women towards apparentempowerment and self-transformation. Some makeover programmes havebeen criticized for the portrayal of women participants as passive man-nequins for the (usually male) expert’s ministrations (Banet-Weiser andPortwood-Stacer, 2006). In Extreme Makeover, for example, the role of the‘participant’ is passive; women hand themselves over to experts and become‘a space, a project, something to be worked on by others’ (Deery, 2004: 213). Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  7. 7. 476 I N T E R N AT I O N A L journal of C U LT U R A L studies 13(5) Consequently, the ‘success’ of the transformation is largely credited to the skill of the ‘experts’. In programmes like What Not to Wear, ‘experts’ are concerned with ‘teaching’ women how to display and perform the ‘right’ kind of femininity (McRobbie, 2004; Woods and Skeggs, 2004). The illu- sion of the makeover is that the transformation is complete when the women no longer need expert advice and become fully functioning neolib- eral subjects, able to control and monitor their own consumption in order to adopt ‘tasteful’ attire. How to Look Good Naked shares many of these features; but while Gok is a styling expert, the narrative trajectory of the show is constructed such that this expertise is jettisoned, as the final reveal exposes the naked body. Gok repeatedly reiterates that the big challenge is to get the participant feeling good about her body – good enough to show it off in front of a large audience; at which time, Gok’s ‘expertise’ is shrugged off with her garments. In this sense, the benign space of How to Look Good Naked rests in part, on the way that the body is good enough as it is. Indeed, the pro- gramme prides itself on effecting change without drastic measures, as Gok says: ‘There’s been no surgery and no crash diets, just a whole lot of lovin’ for my gorgeous girl, who’s looking and feeling all woman.’ It may seem that, in exploring the differences between the space of the benign in How to Look Good Naked and the strategies of humiliation in programmes like What Not to Wear, we are in danger of reinforcing the binary between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ programmes identified in the popular media coverage. It is not as simple as that. In making over subjects using this set of discourses, How to Look Good Naked may offer up opportunities for women to be proud of their bodies, to have their worth recognized, and to be able to use and benefit from expertise without being overwhelmed by it. Nevertheless, while celebrating the body as it is, the show does little to disrupt prevailing constructions that frame the ‘problem’ of body distress as individualized and internalized, while obscuring the socio-political context of the scopic economy of appearance (Skeggs, 1997). The unconditional acceptance of women’s bodies assured by the way Gok invites compliments from others (and presumably negative judgements are relegated to the cutting room floor), obscures the very real possibilities of risk and failure which form a routine part of women’s engagement with and placement within the scopic economy. Indeed, it could be argued that by shifting the ‘pathology’ away from the body towards internal psychological dispositions, the programme is more pernicious in presenting the ‘problem’ as being at the core of women’s psyche rather than in the external surface of the self. Moreover, while celebrating the body as it is, it is important to note that the ‘naked’ body is never unmediated. In order to be recognized as acceptable and attractive, the body has to be performed and presented within visual dis- courses of catwalk glamour and heteronormative femininity. In this sense, the programme is at least as pernicious as others. Some have argued (and we would agree) that narratives which centre on the ‘celebration’ of the Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  8. 8. Frith et al. G C’mon girlfriend 477body, individual transformation and personal empowerment may serve as ajustification for the renewed objectification of women, the increasing com-modification of life (Illouz, 2007), and are a poor substitute for the sub-stantive empowerment offered by social change and liberation thoughcollective action (Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer, 2006). However,although this programme falls far short of dismantling the scopic economy,it may offer some women alternative ways of harnessing and laying claimto value within this system, as well as improving their sense of self-worth.Therefore, while recognizing the significant limitations of this, we are reluc-tant to dismiss it as wholly ‘bad’.Synthetic sisterhoodWe turn now to our second argument about the way that How to LookGood Naked generates an apparently benign space. Earlier, we outlinedthe ways in which programmes like What Not to Wear had attracted crit-ical attention for drawing on a discourse of mockery and humiliation. Incontrast, we argue that How to Look Good Naked draws alternatively ona discourse of friendship, care and intimacy which evokes a ‘synthetic sis-terhood’ (Talbot, 1995). Here we are interested in the ways in which Gokperforms intimacy for a distant and imagined audience, partly, though notsolely, through simulating intimacy with the women who appear on theshow. We also argue that the nature of this intimacy is coded as stereo-typically ‘feminine’, constructing this male expert as ‘one of the girls’. Inso doing, the show utilizes a different moral code, which may be morepalatable for audiences, perhaps explaining its popularity and criticalacclaim. In their analyses of teen magazines, both McRobbie and Garber (1980)and Talbot (1995) argue that these offer their readers a false or syntheticsisterhood by inviting girls to join a close-knit, intimate community withshared interests and concerns. Despite increasing attempts to include menwithin makeover shows (such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), the genre’sfocus on cosmetics, beauty products, clothing and accessories indexicallylinks to normative female cultural forms, including daytime television andwomen’s magazines. Haag (1993) notes how, by encouraging increased dis-closure, facilitating the discussion of personal and affiliative issues, and theuse of touch, programmes like The Oprah Winfrey Show mimic the waysin which intimacy is typically done in female friendships. In this section, wechart the ways in which How to Look Good Naked attempts to build asense of intimacy and friendship with and for audiences. Central to the narrative of the show is the relationship between thepresenter and the person receiving the makeover. This relationship isworked up using a number of verbal strategies. Friendly ‘greetings’ wherekisses, hugs and incidental talk (e.g. ‘I’ve even got you a brew on’), which Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  9. 9. 478 I N T E R N AT I O N A L journal of C U LT U R A L studies 13(5) reflect exactly the sort of personal exchanges one would expect to find in everyday friendly talk, are broadcast for consumption by an absent audi- ence – the viewer at home (Talbot, 2007). Gok and the participants are ‘doing sociability’ on air. This ‘friendliness’ is further cemented by Gok’s use of a wide range of pet names and endearments – such as ‘angelcake’, ‘babes’, ‘my darling’ and ‘girlfriend’; this is a recognized strategy for enhancing intimacy (Horton and Wohl, 1956), and such endearments are liberally smattered throughout the show. Gok’s informal language (tum- mies, racks, bellies and bangers), and alliterative speech (e.g. ‘Ladies you’re having a total tummy trauma …’) serves to close the gap between ‘expert’ Gok and the ‘ordinary’ women who appear on the show (Talbot, 1995). Finally, through explicit expressions of concern for participants, Gok is pre- sented as caring for and supporting the women on the show. For example, when one woman describes how difficult she would find it being naked in front of a new boyfriend, Gok says: ‘You’ve been knocked down time and time and time again, but this time you are going to pick yourself up, but you’re not going to do it on your own, because I’m going to help you.’ Later, when Nicki says she is ‘really scared’ and ‘just can’t’ get naked ‘not in front of all those people’, Gok replies: I’m not going to make you, don’t worry [...] You can’t let me down, it’s impossible for you to let me down. I’m so proud of you already. Gok’s response (whether sincere or not), clearly indicates an ethic of care as he appears to put his concern for Nicki’s well-being above the demands of the show. This ethic of care is also coded visually. Gok is often pictured caressing, touching or stroking the women who appear on the show. When the women cry – which inevitably they do – Gok hugs them or places a reas- suring arm around their shoulder. Even when they are not crying, Gok embraces them and holds their hands. Much of the visual action takes place in spaces stereotypically coded as feminine (i.e. the shopping mall, the clothes shop, the changing room), and Gok is often pictured in private spaces, access to which is typically afforded only to lovers or friends, such as the bedroom or dressing room. Finally, we want to draw attention to the ways in which this intimacy extends to the distant and imagined audience. First, using synthetic personal- ization (Fairclough, 1989), Gok demonstrates that he knows and understands the concerns of viewers at home – e.g. ‘This week ladies, I’m talking tummies’, or ‘A staggering 93 percent of you girls wish you had a flat stomach.’ Talbot (1995) argues that the setting up of shared presuppositions and beliefs attrib- uted to the audience, presents the writer (in the case of teen magazines) as the reader’s friend, who knows what she thinks and feels. The same process oper- ates in How to Look Good Naked, as Gok repeatedly makes assertions about what the viewer at home thinks and how they behave: ‘Ladies it’s hot off the press. Men don’t want to wake up to washboard stomachs. So ditch the sit- ups girls and bare your bellies.’ Like other reality television programmes, Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  10. 10. Frith et al. G C’mon girlfriend 479How to Look Good Naked navigates the tension between the friendliness ofordinariness and the authority of expertise (Talbot, 2007) by shifting awayfrom didactic address towards a partnership with clients in which theexchange of knowledge is presented for the audience to overhear (Taylor,2002). Gok and the participants rarely address the audience using direct-to-camera shots. Instead the audience overhears the relationship between thetwo by observing the action on screen. Moreover by sharing his behind-the-scenes strategizing and thoughts in voice-over Gok cements his intimacy withthe viewer as he shares his secrets. Through these varied mechanisms, the relationship between Gok, theparticipant and the audience is constructed as one that is characterized bywarmth, intimacy, friendship and care. We are not suggesting that How toLook Good Naked is using strategies for engaging audiences that have notbeen used elsewhere – indeed there is a large body of evidence to suggestthat many of these strategies are used across a wide range of different mediatexts. Rather, we are suggesting that the use of these strategies, in theseways, within the context of this makeover programme, serves to constructa ‘synthetic sisterhood’: a close-knit, intimate community of women withshared interests and concerns, and particular ways of interacting and beingcharacterized by friendship and care.5 Despite being a man, Gok is includedin this sisterhood as ‘one of the girls’. We are not suggesting that syntheticsisterhood is necessarily a ‘good thing’. Indeed Talbot (1995) identifies suchtechniques as covert advertising promoting commodity-based femininitywithin patriarchal systems that weigh women’s worth on the basis ofappearance, while McRobbie (2004: 3) argues that such closeness and com-monality actually ‘imprisons [girls] in a claustrophobic world of jealousyand competitiveness’. Illouz (2007) also highlights the pernicious ways inwhich the affective is deployed to tie life and subjectivity more tightly intomarket and, we would add, scopic economies. However, we suggest thatthis narrative offers a different point of identification with the show andserves to construct a different moral framework. Rather than belittling,mocking and joining in with the moral condemnation of a woman who has‘let herself go’ or who fails to ‘make the most of herself’, the audience isinvited to join Gok in coaxing the woman to re-evaluate her worth. Our jobis to be a good friend, to support her in realizing her value.Suspended sexualityIf Gok occupies mediatized space in How to Look Good Naked as ‘one ofthe girls’, we are invited to question how his homosexuality may be utilizedto this end. That the male presenter’s sexuality is an important dimensionof How to Look Good Naked is evidenced by the use of publicly gay mento host country-specific versions of the show; for example Carson Kreesley(USA, also airs in Australia) and Jani Kazaltis (Belgium). However, in con-trast to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which the hosts’ homosexuality Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  11. 11. 480 I N T E R N AT I O N A L journal of C U LT U R A L studies 13(5) is highly visible and explicit, our reading of How to Look Good Naked per- ceives Gok’s sexuality as suspended by the show’s narratives. As such it serves as an absent presence, simultaneously indicated and neutralized. Within the programme, Gok’s sexuality is rarely spoken, and has to be read ‘into’ via the cultural competences of the viewers (interpreting roles, ges- tures and dress) and reference to the wider media coverage in which Gok presents as gay (see Philby, 2007). Additionally, Gok’s persona is con- structed as devoid of desire, or at least a desire that extends past the trans- formation of his participant and his proclaimed aim to have all women feel good about themselves. He is without gay culture and politics; disembed- ded from these in order to service the imperative to self-transform, which, for many of his straight female participants, involves staking a viable (sexual) claim within the heterosexual economy. There is a clear resonance here with academic attention given to the inclu- sion of gay men on prime-time television, where the potential empowerment stemming from an increased, relatively positive, gay visibility (Morrish and O’Mara, 2004; Ramsey and Santiago, 2004) is shadowed by a critical aware- ness of the ways in which gay representations are inhibited by a need to main- tain the ‘comfort’ of a specifically shaped (hetero-) liberalism (Mitchell, 2005; Papacharissi and Fernback, 2008). ‘Comfort’ is afforded by various plays of incorporation whereby gay characters are seemingly ripped from any gay context to be re-inscribed and sanitized through familiar (straight) cultural values and norms (Gorman-Murray, 2006). Accordingly, gay men manifest as disconnected from (gay) culture and politics, and from mature sexual desire, in order to manifest through imageries which either align gay masculinity with femininity and/or with symbolic repertoires that promote ideal neolib- eral citizenry (Dean, 2007; Griffin, 2008; Guillermo, 2009). This work provides useful entry points for our reading of the UK version of How to Look Good Naked: Gok’s homosexuality, while always medi- ated, has to be understood as part of a wider contested symbolic sphere – where sculpted, muted representations and processes of incorporation replace invisibility, and are implicated in certain cultural reproductions of sexual and gender norms. This in itself enables Gok to harness established essentialist notions of gay men as ‘imbued with instinctive domestic sensi- bilities’ and natural good taste (Gorman-Murray, 2006: 232; Morrish and O’Mara, 2004), and to lend cultural credibility to his presence in the makeover show. This point is underscored when Gok, armed only with scis- sors and ‘natural know-how’ literally cuts a woman’s clothes to fit, and by his ability to rush into high street stores and breathlessly select the ‘right’ garments even in the face of the participant’s initial reluctance. More specifically, we argue it is Gok’s suspended sexuality, the absent presence of his sexuality, which contributes to a mediatized version of synthetic sisterhood, and thus helps to create the benign in the show. This is produced as Gok deploys stereotypical repertoires that delimit femininity to the subjective, the domestic and romantic, in order to generate the Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  12. 12. Frith et al. G C’mon girlfriend 481grounds for sympathetic, synthetic, friendship. This deployment partly restson prevailing cultural imaginaries that attempt to forge ideological equiva-lence between the male homosexual and the female (Maddison, 2000) thusproviding legitimacy for Gok’s expertise on all things ‘feminine’. In addi-tion, this suspension also works to render Gok as ‘safe’ and harmless. Thereare two aspects of this; first, Gok is ‘safe’ because his sexual desire lies else-where, an important point in the development of male–female friendshipswhere women want respite from the sometimes difficult attentions ofstraight men (Skeggs, 1999). Second, he is able to dodge being positionedas a fellow competitor for the straight male gaze – a positioning that femalehosts struggle to escape. Gok’s own style and personal taste, described as‘cartoonish’ (Cooke, 2007), seem to reinforce his sexless, non-competitorpresentation, as does footage of him in intimate spaces (for example, thebedroom) that, in different circumstances, would trigger different readingsand responses. These aspects of the show may go some way to explain whyHow to Look Good Naked has been described as altruistic (Freeman,2008): Gok’s ‘suspension’ allows for the unhindered, transparent applica-tion of his ‘know how’ solely for the betterment of his ‘babes’. We are reminded here, that, in terms of Queer Eye at least, gay expertise isfor the straight man (Gallagher, 2004), a point that speaks to the ways inwhich the homosexual manifests as a (kindly) resource for the self-devel-opment of the straight participant/character (Ramsey and Santiago, 2004).Certainly, the homosexual as faithful guide to productive (and reproduc-tive) heterosexuality is a common theme in lifestyle programming andmainstream ‘rom-coms’ alike, with gay men fixed into the role of ‘gay bestfriend’ (Shugart, 2003). The ‘character’ of Gok fits well into this space,reconstructing his gay male identity into a castrated, context-free configu-ration, which not only renders him apparently harmless but also enableshim to be grafted seamlessly as a supporter and adviser into the heterosexualworld. So the show manipulates this suspension in ways such that Gokmanifests not only as sex-less but also as able to facilitate the ‘sexy’ inothers. Accordingly, Gok’s speech is saturated with sexy-boosting phrases(women are ‘too hot to handle’) and while his main target may be women’sself-esteem and body-love, these are clearly accessed through her sexiness;only once she feels good naked – a feeling that explicitly rests upon her ownand others’ recognition of her sexiness – will she feel good clothed. However, while Gok’s suspended sexuality allow the show to conjure thefeminine and the safe – it is necessary that Gok is not overdetermined bythese himself if he is to maintain his position as the expert facilitator. As agay man, he might be presumed to have an affinity with the feminine, butthere are key narrative moments that serve to displace him even as he‘presents’ similitude. Narrative devices as the ‘Gok-Shock’; referring to thewomen on the show as ‘Gokettes’; and the stamping of his name on the veryprocess of transformation: ‘You, my angel, have just been Gokked’, servethis displacement. Although How to Look Good Naked manipulates the Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  13. 13. 482 I N T E R N AT I O N A L journal of C U LT U R A L studies 13(5) cultural alignment of male homosexuality with the feminine in order to move away from a rhetoric of humiliation, Gok’s role as expert affords him a discursive mobility that seems denied to the women he is working ‘on’. This allows Gok to be ‘one of the girls’ when he needs to elicit trust and sympathetic relationships, but we are alert to Gok’s ability to speak to wider audiences; his constant, seemingly juvenile, references to ‘bangers’ and ‘racks’; and his obvious delight in being surrounded by naked, semi- clad women while he casts what could be read as a knowing wink to cam- era, may serve to position Gok as ‘one of the lads’. At the very least, all this affords Gok licence to talk about women’s bod- ies and handle them in ways that could be deemed offensive in other con- texts, and perhaps culturally unimaginable (at least for the present) if the host was a straight man or lesbian. Instead, we are encouraged to regard his comments and practices as childlike fun or tabloid tawdriness, and the direction to not be offended is clearly signalled to the audience by the happy blushes of the recipient. In these ways, while couched within the language of unconditional positive regard and female empowerment, the interper- sonal style and rhetoric adopted by the host serves to militate against these. Indeed the title How to Look Good Naked, in combination with the ‘titil- lating’ nude shots and 1970s chauvinistic language, combine to present a naturalized reproduction of heteronormative socio-political relationships that render both gay men and straight women more palatable to the patri- archal glare. What emerges from our discussion thus far is that a space of the benign, characterized as a refreshing departure from humiliation, involves both a re-inscription of femininity, where women’s self-actualization is framed in terms of ‘feel-good’ heterosexiness, and the one-dimensional writing of gay men as potentially devoted and significantly, sex-less, ‘gay best friends’. Shugart (2003) is among those critical of such representations of homosex- uality, arguing that not only are they consistent with heterosexual male privilege, but also that they serve to extend its reach into areas that would not be permitted to straight men in such an immediate and unproblema- tized way. Any opportunity here to open critical space onto the constructed artifice of hetero-femininity is foreclosed by Gok’s ‘naturalized’ taste and those strong undercurrents of discursive equivalence between gay men and femininity: as such hetero- femininity remains unscathed and unchallenged, returning us to the familiar territory of the makeover show, that of the indi- vidual woman requiring rehabilitation. Concluding remarks We took as our starting point the purported shift from humiliation to the benign as exemplified by the marked contrast between How to Look Good Naked and What Not to Wear. We focused on three main mechanisms: body Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  14. 14. Frith et al. G C’mon girlfriend 483appreciation, synthetic sisterhood and suspended sexuality to argue thatHow to Look Good Naked manipulates existing mediatized constructionsof friendship and homosexuality to (re)produce the host as a ‘gay bestfriend’. As such, Gok is presented in ways that make humiliation unneces-sary and counterproductive as a motivational driver. Instead, he can kindlycoax women into acceptance of, and pride in their bodies as they are. Thisre-valuing of the body may contribute to the positive and apparentlyempowering feel of the show by placing the ‘accepted body’ at odds withprevailing moralistic discourses and practices that stimulate body shame(Tischner and Malson, 2008). In the context of the heightened andunflinching cultural commentary to which women’s bodies are exposed,How to Look Good Naked offers respite and opportunity for a different,less scathing, cultural imagining of the female body, which many wouldwelcome. Moreover, the ‘synthetic sisterhood’ and ethic of care transmittedby the show may serve to increase the ‘cosy’ feeling by offering a differentmoral frame for the makeover and a different mode of identification for theviewer. Whether this alternative moral framing is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ thanthe ‘tough love’ offered by Trinny and Susannah is not a straightforwardquestion. In presenting an ethic of care How to Look Good Naked mightinvite women to have a different relationship to their bodies, and viewersto have a different relationship to the contestant. But if both programmesultimately serve to reinforce and re-articulate the scopic economy, it couldbe argued that Trinny and Susannah are more honest in their approach ofbullying women into looking good so that they can get ahead, while Gok ismore underhand in his plea to look good to feel good. A further cautionary note concerns the potential of the show to rewriteor re-present women’s bodies. While a range of bodies are paraded andacclaimed in ways not usually seen, the ‘authentic’ body is framed in highlyspecific ways. The naked body in the show is always a sexy body, draped insensual settings or harnessed to consumer displays of sexy lingerie. Theempowering keynote is that authentic femininity is sexy and is realized onlyin processes of exchange in the heteronormative scopic economy (hence the‘reveals’ are public). Furthermore, the show explicitly works to restore women as ‘good’ con-sumers. Bauman (2007) notes how exclusion is now based on our relationsto consumption; immorality is related to faulty/excessive consumption andto non-consumption. If women perceive themselves as beyond or excludedfrom positive aspects of the scopic economy, then they place themselves asout of reach of companies like L’Oreal, whose advertising depends on therecognition of worth. Gok invites women to re-engage with beautificationthrough consumer products ‘because you’re worth it’, while the makeovertransforms her value into something that is visible both to herself and toothers. Therefore the benign offers a seemingly harmless and enjoyablejourney of transformation through the re-valuing of women’s bodies, whichinvites them to reinvest in the scopic economy. Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  15. 15. 484 I N T E R N AT I O N A L journal of C U LT U R A L studies 13(5) In addition, the programme’s focus on the self-esteem and confidence of the women reinforces individualist framings of body problems and solu- tions, which squeeze out questions as to why women should feel ‘bad’ about their bodies and lives. We further argue that this individualism does little to shake normative constructions that shackle femininity to family and relationships. As Hazleden (2003: 42) argues of self-help more gener- ally, transformation is not a selfish endeavour, but manifests as an ‘ethical thing to take on, not only for the sake of the self, but for one’s partner and for wider society’. That the reveal offers a ‘feel good’ moment for the par- ticipant’s family and friends, as well as the audience, indicates the positiv- ity born of a renewed viability in scopic economies that are necessarily undermining. The benign, therefore, offers a new site in which this cultural work is done, one that is perhaps more palatable to audiences with liberal sensibilities, but that nonetheless deals in sets of cultural representation crucial to the formation of common-sense understandings of context- divorced individualism. While we have unpacked the ways in which the benign is produced, it is important that we are also critical about the ways in which the contrast between humiliation and the benign has been presented. Headlines such as ‘Why Britain fell out of love with Trinny and Susannah’ (The Guardian, 20 August 2008) mask a gendered dimension that surrounds the occupa- tion of ‘expert’ in the makeover show, and indicates the vulnerability of women who, even with class privilege, dare to claim an authority within the scopic economy. Trinny and Susannah have frequently faced media criticism of a profoundly personal nature, much of which is directed at their own clothing and looks. Skeggs (1997, 2004) is among those who have charted the ways such criticism regulates the borders of heteronora- mativity, effectively curbing women’s mobility by inscribing hegemonic constructions onto the body and its dispositions. In thinking about the makeover show, we suggest that, while they present as experts in taste and style, modelling looks to which other women should aspire, Trinny and Susannah are nonetheless necessarily defined by the very economies in which they trade, and thus, even with the defence afforded by class privi- lege, they are victims of the very policing strategies intended to keep women ‘in their place’. In contrast, there is no expectation that Gok will model style in a way that would encourage emulation by women, and there is no sense in which he could be regarded as a competitor for heterosexual male approval. In sum, there is no need for him to be put in his place: his gender privilege necessarily dis-places him, allowing his own body and looks to escape censure, thus safeguarding his claim to be an ‘expert’. This displacement, alongside the approval of the body as-is, synthetic sister- hood and suspended sexuality, conjures and constitutes the space of the benign. If, as Cooke (2007) claims, ‘Gok doesn’t do humiliation’, we would argue it’s because he doesn’t have to. Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  16. 16. Frith et al. G C’mon girlfriend 485Notes1 We recognize that the positioning of this programme as ‘benign’ in rela- tion to its competitors, which have been labelled as bullying and humili- ating, may be somewhat unique to the UK context. In other words, humiliation may operate as a mechanism for transformation in the UK context but not in other cultural milieus. Both the format for How to Look Good Naked and What Not to Wear have been sold around the world, but the narratives of these programmes, and the ways in which they are responded to and positioned by local media may be very different. The UK is now a global leader in format exports, generating 53 per cent of all exported format hours in the worldwide market (UK Trade and Investment, 2008). The popularity of How to Look Good Naked in the UK would have undoubtedly have influenced its sales overseas and the ‘nice-ness’ of the show forms part of the way it is advertised on Channel 4’s website, which claims that the show ‘aims to debunk the body-fascist myths of per- fection perpetrated by the fashion, beauty and advertising industries’ (see: guide/series-1).2 This article makes no presumptions about how diverse audiences may read the programme, but rather seeks to explore the programme as a cultural artefact.3 All extracts from How to Look Good Naked are taken from series 4, show 5 date (first broadcast 6 May 2008) unless otherwise stated.4 In psychological studies using the silhouette measure, participants are pre- sented with figure-line drawing depicting a series of body shapes from the very thin to the obese. Participants are typically asked to indicate which figure best represents their actual body shape, and which figure best repre- sents their ‘ideal’ body shape. The difference between these is taken as a measure of the individual’s body dissatisfaction – see Grogan (1999) for an overview of this approach.5 We are not suggesting that this is an accurate reflection of the nature of women’s friendships, rather that it is a popular cultural representation of such relationships.ReferencesAvalos, L., T.L. Tylka and N. Wood-Barcalow (2005) ‘The Body Appreciation Scale: Development and Psychometric Properties’, Body Image 2: 285–97.Bauman, Z. (2007) Consuming Life. Oxford: Polity Press.Banet-Weiser, S. and L. Portwood-Stacer (2006) ‘I Just Want to Be Me Again! Beauty Pageants, Reality Television and Post-feminism’, Feminist Theory 7(2): 255–72. Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
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  19. 19. 488 I N T E R N AT I O N A L journal of C U LT U R A L studies 13(5) Shugart, H.A. (2003) ‘Reinventing Privilege: The New (Gay) Man in Contemporary Popular Media’, Critical Studies in Media Communication 20(1): 69–91. Skeggs, B. (1997) Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable. London: Sage. Skeggs, B. (1999) ‘Matter out of Space: Visibility and Sexualities in Leisure Spaces’, Leisure Studies 18: 213–32. Skeggs, B. (2001) ‘The Toilet Paper: Femininity, Class and Misrecognition’, Women’s Studies International Forum 24(2–3): 295–307. Skeggs, B. (2004) Class, Self, Culture. London: Routledge. Talbot, M. (1995) ‘A Synthetic Sisterhood: False Friends in a Teenage Magazine’, in K. Hall and M. Buholtz (eds) Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self, pp. 174–99. London: Routledge. Talbot, M. (2007) Media Discourse: Representation and Interaction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Taylor, L. (2002) ‘From Ways of Life to Lifestyle: The Ordinari-ization of British Gardening Lifestyle Television’, European Journal of Communication 17(4): 479–93. Tischner, I. and H. Malson (2008) ‘Exploring the Politics of Women’s In/visible “Large” Bodies’, Feminism & Psychology 18(2): 260–7. UK Trade and Investment (2008) ‘TV Industry Review’, in ‘Creative and Media Overview’, URL (consulted May 2010): Woods, H. and B. Skeggs (2004) ‘Notes on Ethical Scenarios of Self on British Reality TV’, Feminist Media Studies 4(2): 205–8. G HANNAH FRITH is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Brighton, England. She has written numerous articles on body image and embodiment and is editor (with Sarah Riley, Maree Burns, Pirkko Markula, and Sally Wiggins) of Critical Bodies: Representations, Identities and Practices of Weight and Body Management (Palgrave, 2007). She is engaged in projects exploring the mediatization of death, building resilience in children and constructions of sexuality. Address: School of Applied Social Science, University of Brighton, Mayfield House, Falmer BN1 9PH, UK. [email:] G G JAYNE RAISBOROUGH is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Brighton. She has edited (with Julie Scott Jones) Risk, Identities and the Everyday (Ashgate, 2007). Her research interests gravitate around the contextualization of identity formation and cultural representations. She has published in the areas of serious leisure, feminist theory, risk and (with Matt Adams) cultural representations of class and fair trade. Address: School of Applied Social Science, University of Brighton, Mayfield House, Falmer BN1 9PH, UK. [email:] G Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010
  20. 20. Frith et al. G C’mon girlfriend 489G ORLY KLEIN is Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Brighton.Her research interests centre on cultural memory, face transplants andthe transformation of visual identities, and the cultural representationsof refugees and asylum seekers. Address: School of Applied SocialScience, University of Brighton, Mayfield House, Falmer BN1 9PH, UK.[email:] G Downloaded from at University of Sydney on December 12, 2010