Inner Beauty in a Postfeminist Television Landscape?

Whether or not you're a fan of the show, you probably have something to say about TLC's What Not To Wear. "Oh, the makeover show?" you ask. Yes, it's the one where they transform women from 'drab' to 'fab' by throwing out their clothes and helping/forcing them to shop for a new wardrobe.

The same thing probably goes for Orange Is The New Black, Netflix's outstanding new drama. "Oh, the one about the women's prison," you say. Well, I have a lot to say about both--especially because despite a divide in genre and form (reality vs. fiction, episodic vs. serial), much of the content overlaps when it comes to women's inner beauty.

What Not To Wear aired its series finale a few weeks ago, and I'll admit, I binge-watched the entire last season leading up to this finale. I guess I found it hard to resist the temptation to watch what hosts Stacy and Clinton call 'fashion disasters' clean up their look.

But I found myself getting more and more uncomfortable with the premise of WNTW as I went along. The setup--where Stacy and Clinton surprise their contestants with intentionally embarrassing hidden camera footage of them in 'bad' outfits--seemed designed to sabotage and humiliate as much as possible so that the episodes can set up for the narrative of transformation we've come to expect from reality TV. Then, they dump the contestants' entire wardrobe in a trash can, but not before ridiculing it, sometimes before a 360-degree mirror.

(Ok, I admit, some of the outfits are pretty weird...Megumi, right, thinks this is a normal outfit and not a costume)

Finally, Stacy and Clinton take the contestant out shopping and POOF! Two days later she's a changed woman. Or is she? It depends on which context we're using to define changed.

During the finale, Clinton says, "it's really not about the clothes." And to some extent, the show does concentrate on bringing out the confidence, strength, and beauty that these women already have but aren't displaying on the outside, perhaps because some personal demons are hidden under or exacerbated by the bad clothes. My problem is that their vision of beauty is so incredibly narrow. I can't count the number of times the hosts have dressed their 'fashion victims' in the same iteration of jeans, blouse and blazer or flower print dress. Yes, they teach the women to dress for their body type, but does everyone have to dress in some combination of Stacy's trademark "color, pattern, texture and shine"?

More irritating still is the proclamation of transformation and success that the clothes will bring (and they often do). It seems that by adhering to a certain standard of femininity and fashion, these 'remade' women will better navigate their careers and personal lives. Whether this change happens because of a legitimately rediscovered confidence or rather just an easier time conforming to class indicators through clothing (and hair and makeup), who knows, but I'm inclined to say the latter. Maybe I'm just bitter because I hate the pressure of looking 'just right' or having a 'personal style' - why can't my personal style be comfy sweaters and no makeup? I mean, it can be, but maybe not if I want to get ahead in the urban, media-saturated landscape where I live my life.

Rosalind Gill, feminist critic, points out how the fascination with women's bodies in our current postfeminist media culture makes the body into our singular identifier:
"In today's media, possession of a 'sexy body' is presented as women's key (if not sole) source of identity. The body is presented simultaneously as women's source of power and as always unruly, requiring constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline and remodeling (and consumer spending) in order to conform to ever-narrower judgments of female attractiveness." (1)  
Agreed! So, where does television go from here?

The remedy could be something like Orange Is The New Black (yes, I also binge-watched), which takes the same narrative of transformation/facing demons and puts it in a humanistic and complicated light. I'm not saying OITNB doesn't have its own problems of representation (especially queer, class, and racial ones), but it's a start, because the show exists in a woman's space, mostly devoid of the male gaze (with the exception, of course, of 'Pornstache'). The women come in all sizes and colors in their mono-color jumpsuits, so we get to know them through their personalities and actions, not what they're wearing. If there ever were a show about real female inner beauty, this one's it in my opinion. Talk about Sophia - what a gorgeous character, whereas Pennsatucky is portrayed as an ugly person from the inside-->out.

So, what I'm saying is this: I think this narrative of transformation happens in both shows, but in directly opposite manners. The 'way out' to a better place in WNTW is through exterior fashion, but in OITNB on other hand, it's through self-investigation while the inmates endure their sentences, biding their time on good behavior. Depending on how you look at it, both are uplifting stories, but OITNB is just more realistic, in my opinion, because accepting yourself from the inside is much more complex, difficult and ultimately rewarding than just slapping on some new clothes to feel beautiful.

1. Quoted in Rosalind Gill, "Postfeminist media culture : Elements of a sensibility," European Journal of Cultural Studies 2007 10: 147.

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