Quick Change: The Extreme Makeover of American Life

Elaine Cardenas

Advisor: Dina M. Copelman, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Paul Smith, Hugh Gusterson

Johnson Center, B
April 10, 2013, 03:00 PM to 12:00 PM


The reality television show, Extreme Makeover (EM), which first aired in December 2001, provides a window on the many currents of change flowing through American life at the millennium.  As both a product of the turn to a system of flexible accumulation theorized by David Harvey and a vehicle for promoting the aims of the changing economy, EM provides an opportunity for examining the workings of neoliberalism and its effects on American culture—specifically, the growing instabilities, disruptions and rapid pace that characterize daily life; the reorganization of occupational categories; changing sources of wealth and power along with growing income disparities; and increasing surveillance throughout daily life, coupled with greater legal restrictions on what can be said publicly.  The show (which has been off the air since 2007) presented makeovers in a context of freedom and choice, offering cosmetic surgery as a solution to isolation and longing for social connection and a “life changed forever.” Analysis of the show provides insights into the competing influences on consumers as they navigate the tensions between the pleasures and payoffs of consumption, the liberatory potential of reinvention, and perceptions of complacency and false consciousness. In the end, the contestants’ transformations appear modest and transitory, their lives little changed, while the producer, who owns the intellectual property, and the surgeons, with their specialized expertise, grow wealthier.  The concept for the show, re-saleable through formats, and the syndication and international sale of episodes worldwide generate the real wealth, just as the massive amounts of personal data collected from applicants and contestants comprise a goldmine of marketing information about potential television audiences.   At the same time that EM incorporates surveillance, exposing contestants in private moments at home and in the recovery room, it also restricts what they can say publicly about the experience through non-disclosure agreements similar to the contracts production workers sign, which limit what they can say, revealing some of the disciplinary techniques arising from and contributing to postmodern life.  Through the interactions of people from widely different social strata—executive producers, surgeons, low-level production workers, personal service providers, “craft entrepreneurs,” housewives and contestants—the show provides a look at the occupational restructuring of the late 20th century and the shifting roles and opportunities in the culture economy.[1]  The creator/executive producer and the surgeons, who possess highly technical, niche skills necessary to the creation of images and symbolic communication, exemplify the new symbolic worker theorized by Drucker and Reich, as well as the emerging creative class.  In contrast, the contestants, who fill mostly in-person service jobs, depend on their personalities and looks to improve their chances in multiple and increasingly competitive markets of relationships and jobs.  Similarly, the low level television production workers labor for long hours under sweatshop conditions, with little job security, increasingly vulnerable to new technologies and competition from foreign workers.   But all must contend with increased competition, mastering skills of salesmanship and self-promotion through the use of sales pitches, personal narratives, digitized images and personal contacts.  The surgeons, once protected by the collective strength of the American Society for Plastic Surgery, scramble continuously to redefine the ethical and practical boundaries of their profession, relying on entrepreneurship and individualism to advance.  Whereas deregulation and technological advances have created new opportunities for small production companies, they have also transformed the television industry, increasing competition, circumventing union protections and promoting an underclass of low-paid workers, with little job security, who work in sweatshop conditions while the producers amass wealth over many years through residuals and other fees from the sale of concepts, formats, international rights and syndication.  What the show reveals is that everywhere people, at all levels, are hustling to keep apace of intensified competition through the packaging and branding of themselves and the continuous adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances.  It reveals changes in social strata that privilege the more technologically skilled and those in control of images at the expense of in-person and production workers.  While building on the cherished American mythos of new beginnings and achievement through hard work, the show exposes the replacement of praexis with a growing dependence on luck, faith and the magical interventions of fairytales and folklore.

[1] Angela McRobbie uses the term “craft entrepreneurialism” when referring to young workers in creative industries such as fashion (Culture 72)