Makeover madness

April 12, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- As a rule, I refrain from declaring that some tacky television program signals the end of Western civilization. I mean, every time you think the entertainment moguls have hit rock bottom, they reach for the jackhammer and rat-a-tat-tat a little deeper.

But I'm going out on a limb. The Swan is as bad as it gets. You an almost hear the pitch to the Fox producers: This is Extreme Makeover meets The Apprentice meets Survivor meets ratings! This series takes 17 "ugly ducklings" to the operating room, the gym and the couch and lets them compete for the title of -- ta-da -- swan.

What a way we have come since the 1970s when the motto of the self-help movement was "I'm OK, You're OK." There are still 12-step programs that lead people in the serenity prayer -- accept what they can't change -- but serenity doesn't get you on television. Nowadays even makeover programs are getting makeovers. The straight men who sign up to have the Fab Five transform their wardrobes and facial products seem like absolute slackers.

We are on the second season of Extreme Makeover, where people make a surgical strike on their self-doubt. MTV has a new so-called documentary show -- I Want a Famous Face -- in which young men and women undergo cosmetic surgery to turn themselves into Brad Pitt or Pamela Anderson, thereby transforming self-improvement into self-annihilation.

And now "ugly ducklings" give themselves over to a TV show as if the producers were contractors. The fairy tale premise is that these women can transform life from the outside in, put their self-described "low esteem" under the knife, into the gym and onto the mirror-image of a happy ending.

In the first episode, a team of plastic surgeons, trainers, coaches and dentists labored over Kelly and Rachel in a coordinated effort that would be the envy of anyone who has ever renovated a kitchen. The only life-transforming extreme makeover that television has not presented for your viewing pleasure is a sex-change operation. (Remember, you read it here first.)

I can't help noticing that these human renovation shows have become mass entertainment at exactly the moment when we are having old-fashioned debates about the ethics of those "makeovers" brought to you courtesy of steroids, bioengineering, genetic enhancement and cloning.

While we tune in to see beauties enhanced through liposuction, we are turning against athletes enhanced by steroids. Surgically copying Pamela Anderson's body is offered as a fillip of amusement, but anyone who wanted to clone her would be condemned. In fact, the medical profession expresses few qualms about self-improvement by surgery. But there's endless unease about species improvement by genetic makeovers. (Anyone want to copyright a show called "Eugenics"?)

In the April issue of The Atlantic Monthly, moral philosopher Michael J. Sandel makes an elegant argument for "The Case Against Perfection." One of the dangers of genetic enhancement and engineering, he writes, "is that they represent a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires."

It's a desire that lessens our ability to accept what he calls "the given." Of course, makeovers, even the most extreme, are only skin deep. They don't change the DNA. They may say more about human folly than human nature. But Prometheus had nothing on the Fox producers. The point of The Swan is that people are man-made. And remade. All you need to change your identity is the right producer.

It has always been hard to draw a line between, say, braces or hair dye and a full-scale surgical overhaul from eyelids to thighs. But now we have a collection of show-biz surgeons for whom the only important line is the one on the consent form. Or on the TV contract.

When surgery becomes a spectator event, when medicine morphs into entertainment, we better have professional guidelines that are more than cosmetic.

Ah, but forgive me for confusing ethics and entertainment. That's what happens when you tune in to The Swan and all you get is a turkey.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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