Reversing roles gives little insight for players

Men as women, women as men: A&E `experiments'

March 01, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Starla becomes Dave with the help of a great haircut and some voice training, while Tye uses hair extensions and false breasts to help him morph into Darcy. Ryan transforms himself into Jordan with the aid of a Brazilian bikini wax, as Ary becomes Julian with a bit of false facial hair and a little something extra in her pants.

This is reality TV taking on gender in a two-hour A&E cable special titled Role Reversal, and for the most part it's engaging and even occasionally illuminating. Unfortunately, it is also terribly reckless in terms of what it allows to happen to one of the participants during this "experiment," and the vague manner in which the producers deal with the matter onscreen.

Using the template from MTV's Real World of moving people into a house filled with cameras, Role Reversal brings four strangers together in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone for two weeks. During that time, they undergo nonpermanentphysical transformations and partake in an intensive training course given by experts who teach them how to act as though they were the opposite gender.

The four participants are: Ary Nunez, a 31-year-old female personal trainer; Starla Muraszka, a 40-year-old female standup comedian; Ryan Tavlin, a 23-year- old male actor; and Tye Macke, a 27-year-old male aspiring playwright. It's a group representative of nothing in the larger society, except people who like to see themselves perform - often in rooms with lots of mirrors - which makes them typical reality TV participants.

Still, by the standards of most reality TV, Role Reversal is relatively high-class stuff - which is to say, it has some socially redeeming value. Most of the value is provided by the team doing the gender training and coaching, led by Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics and best-selling author of books on gender differences in communication such as You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in the Workplace. Other members of the team include a voice coach from Juilliard, a choreographer and a performance artist.

Once the four participants complete their training, they tackle a series of tasks while adhering to their new gender identities. These range from walking down the street and shopping for clothes, to visiting singles bars and holding a job. It's fascinating to watch.

But things start to get complicated for Starla, who, as Dave, visits a shop that sells prosthetic male sexual organs (which both she and Ary wind up wearing). It's only a prelude, though, to what seems to be happening to Starla psychologically as the social experiment ends: She does not want to say goodbye to Dave.

Role Reversal closes with the producers "catching up" with the participants a month after leaving the brownstone - all except Starla.

"We did not have an opportunity for closure with Starla who said she was unable to participate further. We may never know how this process affected her - or Dave," the narrator says.

Then, Dr. Christine Wheeler, a psychotherapist, appears on camera and says, "In the process of Starla becoming Dave, she got dismantled, and it was all the same person."

So much for Starla, as the happy-talk narrator returns, saying, "Ary and Tye are another story. They each had a great experience. ... "

The case of Starla Muraszka highlights one of the worst evils of reality TV - the reckless way it plays with the lives of people desperate to bask for a few moments in the celebrity that being on television offers. And such people will continue to be "dismantled" as long as we keep watching.

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