They want to tax alcopops in the UK. Fair enough. Young people these days have never done a hard night’s drinking in their lives. In my day, all we had was Diamond White, Carlsberg Special Brew and Buckfast. And we were glad of it, I tell you.
Archive for October 27th, 2006
I caught a glimpse of What Not To Wear last night on BBC1, just as one of the presenters spoke of one woman as treading a fine line between a granny and a slapper. It reminded me of something I noticed the last time I was watching it, and I made a few notes.
The aspiring participants for the fashion advice were asked to line up in front of a one-sided mirror, and the presenters commented on them from the other side.
Then, one by one, with the heavily pregnant pauses that are such a staple of today’s TV, the presenters announced, unseen and via microphone, who was leaving. (I can’t remember whether or not the participants were stripped to their underwear. In Look Good Naked, another show on Channel 4, they have a similar line-up where the participants are definitely stripped to their underwear, although there is no mirror.)
The thing about this aspect of the programme(s) is how it appropriates the format of the police line-up where criminal suspects are examined. In this case, the ‘crime’ is a failure to dress comme il faut, or being found in possession of the ‘wrong’ body shape.
In the case of What Not To Wear, the parallels with a modern state’s pursuit of criminals go well beyond the quite obvious example of the line-up. Once I had noticed the line-up technique, it became hard to escape the conclusion that the fact of its explicitness is to serve as a tantalising invitation to the viewer to participate in a far more compelling process than watching a man in his late 30s buying a new pair of trousers.
The whole process depicted on screen entails the following steps, often executed concurrently: background checks, humiliating police line-ups, surveillance operations, strip and search, informants, correction, rehabilitation. The viewer becomes complicit in the process, since most of the shots are from the point of view of what could be a third fashion expert.
In order for the process to be palatable to the viewer, various assurances must be given: the most important of these is the fact -which goes without saying- that the participants have chosen to do this of their own free will, or else they have been nominated by someone who cares deeply for them.
Another assurance given is that the need for them to undergo the procedure is continually checked and authenticated, with plenty of references to past suffering and tribulations, and how much better they are likely to feel once they have acquired a new wardrobe.
The need is further authenticated by the scenes where the family and friends -the show’s necessary informants- testify to the person’s general state of misery.
The justification for the procedure is conferred by the final scenes of tears and joy, where, in contrived scenes of social bliss at the restaurant or even on the doorstep, the family and friends issue their approval to the transformation that has been wrought by the participant’s conviction and rehabilitation, by what one might be tempted to call the fashion police were that term not already freighted with a history of use denoting a certain casual humour.
A common complaint made of these shows is that they exploit people for the purpose of public spectacle and prurient interest. This gets countered by the assertion that people enter these shows of their own free will, so what’s the problem?
The problem is that the programme -which can probably be applied in more than one sense here- is really all about free will. For the programme, it was through exercising their own free will that the participants ended up buying such apparently awful clothes and feeling miserable as a consequence.
For the programme, the participants are only exercising their free will insofar as they have made the decision to surrender it. For the viewer, the dramatic tension of the spectacle comes from finding out just how far they are willing to surrender their free will to the norms of the appointed experts. In the end, the participant is shown as rewarded for the extent of his submission -after the full apparatus at the disposal of the fashion police has been used against them- with the recorded approval of the presenters, friends, family and community.
Of course, the viewer is also rewarded for her complicity, for staying the course in administering the treatment, with the close-up shots of apparent contentment on the faces of the participants, the aforementioned scenes of social bliss, and not least the closing sequence where the participants, suitably garbed and lit, speak of their experiences with a certain detachment.
This final scene serves as a sort of absolution for the viewer: the participants were in on the whole thing too, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of. The programme is over, and everyone has come out on the other side.
Look at this article on BBC News: Blair has ‘actor’ looks. If the pre-invasion Iraqi national news service published a piece quoting an actor saying that Saddam had ‘actor’ looks, onlookers in other countries would talk about the fawning subservience of the press. And they’d probably be right.
As it happens, I think that Osama Bin Laden has ‘actor’ looks. Definitely better-looking than Blair or Bush, but I guess the danger for him is that he might end up getting typecast.
Reading this story about how Scottish criminal gangs are infiltrating call centres, I cannot help but wonder if the gangs are missing a trick in not outsourcing their infiltration operations to Bangalore.