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April 27, 2004

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Everyone who I have read or talked to about Fox's new reality show, The Swan, has been so horrified by the idea that they're unwilling to watch it. This goes for everyone from my girlfriend to Salon's Heather Havrilesky, both noted reality TV junkies. Anyone who has had anything to say publicly on this show—aside from a few strident fans on the show's bulletin board—has been totally disgusted by it.

Given the propensity of reality TV shows to create symphonies of insecurity and manipulation, The Swan shouldn't be much worse than, say, Extreme Makeover or America's Top Model. In fact, it's really just an attempt to improve on Extreme Makeover, adding a competitive aspect—a beauty pageant—to the hardcore body manipulation, which it should have had in the first place. And yet The Swan is 10 times worse, and it only gets more so if you watch it.

Extreme Makeover was kind of clinical; it didn't dwell with such apparent glee on the surgery as The Swan does. The plastic surgeons and dentists that Fox has found talk with frankness, detail, and a craftsman's pleasure about the Herculean alterations they plan to make on the contestants' bodies. There's one contestant's "cankles," calves that do not fully transition into ankles and, you know, look sexy. Everyone seems to get some kind of breast augmentation, like getting the oil done along with the transmission. Or the six liposuction treatments that one poor woman gets.

For a show about beauty, The Swan does not shy away from depicting the surgery and its aftermath in gruesome detail. It lingers on the physicality of plastic surgery and the hideous pain that follows having vast swaths of your body sucked out with a sophisticated vacuum. The contestants are shown getting hauled around in wheelchairs, wrapped up like extreme burn victims and mumbling from the pain. The Swan starts to emerge as heinous pornography—the central and most vivid part of the episode is the surgical procedure. It's supposed to seem whiz-bang, but the hellishness of cutting someone's thigh open and filtering out half of it lies in stark and awkward contrast to the doctors' smooth manner in the operating room. We're supposed to be impressed by the sophistication of the procedure, but its medieval nature is what leaves an impression.

That all the women are cut up so as to be remade in the form of aging hookers so that they "can be loved again"—in the words of one contestant—only adds to the pornographic feel of the show. If you're curious but don't want to watch the show, you can see their mug shots online. Tight smiles and freakishly lifted eyes are apparently the form of beauty the plastic surgeons hold highest. The goal of the transformation is no less futurist than the technoscientific process—the contestant's natural imperfections (or signifying details depending on how you look at it) are smoothed away on an assembly line being tested to replenish the dive bars of Los Angeles.

What further distinguishes The Swan from its competition is its wedding of physical torture to psychological manipulation. The mansion where the women live—alone, as far as the show suggests—has no mirrors or reflective surfaces, so the women cannot see the radical changes being made to their body until they are complete. For a show that hires therapists to buttress their psyche, it seems like an excessive trip to lay on someone, particularly while we're watching them fall apart. When one woman starts breaking down in therapy about her husband's infidelity while wrapped in gauze tape like a babushka, it's almost too much to take, as if the show's entire artistic project was to stretch the limits of the human ability to cope with pain.

And that's ultimately what the show is about: pain as much as beauty. Even the intro talks about their "sacrifice," and shows a doctor warning that one of the women "could go into an emotional tailspin." And the women, in the one episode I watched, were obviously chosen for their emotional instability and the extent to how devastated they were by the most common problems that people face: getting made fun of by their peers (in junior high), concerns of infidelity, a fear of not being loved, the desire to be desired.

The Swan is a crazed blend of fetish porn, marrying physical and emotional anguish to fantasies of control. One of my friends once pointed out that the whole undercurrent to the Coors Twins, Hef's twins, the Doublemint girls, and other such male dreams is a devaluation of the individual, literalizing the objectification of sex through the implication of cloning. The generic ideal aimed for by the show's hired guns gives the participants a mechanized look, botched only by the genetics that God punished them with. Though they'd obviously lack for business, the surgeons act as if they'd be happier if everyone looked a bit more alike, or if they could have just designed the damn contestants in the first place. Cross that with the show's literal progression from pain to pleasure and you have The Swan, an S&M version of the American obsession with self-improvement, and further evidence of the fear and loathing at the heart of the American dream.