Pedagogy and Where Sh** Happens in Digital Humanities
Vicki Mayer / Tulane University

MediaNOLA logo

Logo for MediaNOLA: A collaborative project of Tulane University, bringing together students, programmers, and activists

Imagined in the post-Katrina moment as a technology to mediate the authoring and preservation of local cultural memories, MediaNOLA went online in 2008. Although the project had many inspirations and precursors in community media, open access museums and educational portals, as well as crowdsourced preservation projects, it slowly became a tool for online research and classroom pedagogy. [ (( For a history of the project, click here. ))] Students in university classes who were already doing community-based and regional research composed wikis, shot visuals, conducted interviews, digitized archival materials, and organized them in a massive repository for all things New Orleans. The word “media” took on its Latin etymology in the archive, showing users that a culture is made through its people, places, and objects. Users now have access to an interactive database and map of over 3,000 places in the city connected to over 800 wikis that students research, write, and rewrite. The “sell” for students to do this as part of their educational experience was easy as I show in a TEDx talk at my university.

The author’s TEDx talk in November 2012

Anywhere from 50-200 students each year participate through their classes. They learn research and production skills. They publish for the public. In short, they make media.

Making media has long been a driving force within a critical media studies curriculum, [ (( Early luminaries writing on making as part of a critical media studies curriculum included Dee Dee Halleck, Manuel Alvarado, David Sholle, and Cicilia Peruzzo. Thanks to the efforts of Drs. Beretta Smith-Shomade and Bambi Haggins, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies used to offer a day of offsite training in media literacy pedagogy and outreach at a local high school during the annual conference. The organization should bring it back. ))] but in the digital humanities (DH), making tends to take a backseat. My search through the annals of pedagogic discussions related to digital humanities have revealed mostly discussions of the effectivity of massive open online courses (MOOCs), digital repositories, or interactive learning games or platforms. While these questions about the reception of new media are certainly important to understanding the directions and future of education in a digital era, they are limited to what happens when a user confronts an interface on the front-end: the homepage, the maps, the blogs, and the wikis. They largely ignore the questions of student-centered production that happen on the back-end interfaces. For me, though, that’s where sh** really happens.

To probe the crass metaphor a bit further, Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell write that the ubiquitous computing processes in our daily lives already make a mess, both in terms of labor and property regimes. [ (( Dourish, Paul and Genevieve Bell. 2011. Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ))] Indeed MediaNOLA’s back-end is available via a no-doubt ironic URL combining “willdoo” with the name of the proprietary owner of the content management system (CMS). This is the interface site visitors do not see, but students, professors, and tech staffers do in order to enter their contents and see what others have entered. MediaNOLA pays the company to maintain and upgrade the software. The fact that there is a firewall between the front and back interfaces was an early choice made to navigate the potentially bigger mess of open crowdsourcing and direct student inputs into the public sphere. So while we might theorize the labor of programmers and users for MediaNOLA, my primary focus has been on what the students are doing — and that is messy enough.

Backend of CMS loaded behind firewall

Backend of CMS Located Behind a Firewall at Willdoo

There’s a lot to learn about interface literacies through creating MediaNOLA contents. I do this directly in my own classes each semester and indirectly in providing varying levels of support to other classes. That can be by leading workshops or connecting professors with projects I know about, or by managing any number of interns and fellows who get paid or class credit to share their work and show their skills. I each setting, the newbies encounter archiving as a kind of disciplinary practice.

While neither the front- nor back-end work involve major computing knowledge, the various fields for metadata, with their somewhat obscure language, have to be learned. So do the protocols for adding sounds and images. Depending on the field, the aspect ratio is different and the protocol for adding the credits is as well. There are only two bits of code that the wiki requires– one for headers and one for endnotes. These ensure serial numbering in the wiki. But even this small effort involves a new way of reading the interfaces, a process of saving and flipping between the front and back ends of the software. Having worked in video production, I was used to doing this. You edit a bit and then render, then return. But many of my students do not have that familiarity; for them, the simple classifying and coding of stories represents a learning outcome.

graphic of code & screen grab of a wiki

From student coding into MediaNOLA content

Or does it? DH pioneer Johanna Drucker once observed, “much of what is currently done in digital humanities has the look of automation.” [ (( Drucker, Johanna. 2004. “Speculative Computing: Aesthetic Provocations in Humanities Computing.” In A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell. ))] Information scientists Geri Gay and Helene Hembrooke liken the skills acquisition in digital learning to the just-in-time model of factory production. They suggest this without the slightest bit of irony or critique. Indeed once one achieves the digital skills in MediaNOLA, their application becomes a routine, if not rote, as the producer and the tool synchronize their actions. [ (( I’ve talked about this elsewhere in applying Hans Joas’ theory of ‘creative action’ to the study of production. Mayer, Vicki. 2011. Below the Line: Producers and Production Studies in the New Television Economy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. ))] There is some latitude for randomness and play in creating MediaNOLA, but not so much that students mistake the project for fun over an assignment.

I have no such illusions in this project, in part because of the way MediaNOLA gets used in the liberal arts small classroom setting. In most of its classroom applications, small groups are asked to write, share, rewrite, and then get graded as if this was a research assignment. The process ideally moves between stages of cooperation, in which everyone adds their little sections of knowledge separately, and collaboration, in which they actually have to bring the different bits of data together in a unified way. In its best articulation, students achieve a collective cognition, learning something together that they could not have possibly done on their own.

This learning is not a function of the tool but the way the tool is deployed in what social psychologist Lev Vygotsky theorized was a zone of proximal development. [ (( Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ))] In the class projects, students look to their peers, the Internet, and the functionality of the system to advance their project more than they would have on their own. In the zone, the tool is the most instrumental and thus the most inflexible. Students find that they can make map points or slide shows but they have to figure out workarounds because the machine does not know and is not able to actualize what they want. Learning flexibility with technologies is an important learning outcome that is stressed in informal settings but discouraged in classrooms.

It should be noted perhaps the obvious that MediaNOLA is no magic bullet for achieving learning outcomes. The worst students still make the worst entries. The best students still were most conscientious, checking the research, writing and formatting with the most care. Reflecting on the process, it’s the students in the middle who benefit the most from the process of doing original research and then actualizing it in a public and collective forum. Students have to balance standard procedures with original findings. Very creative students have to temper their impulses to learn how to enter the simplest bits of code or follow the protocols for mapping. While those who are used to following directions now have to narrate the story of place or a person that does not already exist in Wikipedia. Unfortunately in the era of continuous assessment, my high-achieving students tend to be of the latter category. For them, the MediaNOLA project offers them a safe and guided space to create without the angst around achieving an amorphous outcome.

Image of WIKI About Audubon Park

From cooperative to collaborative learning on MediaNOLA

It’s this messier sense of human action as a social process that seems to be missing in understanding what students can do (nay, willdoo) in DH projects. It also means looking at the value of DH through a broader and longer lens, and considering learning beyond a single assignment or the individual student. Seven years in, I’m still learning along with the MediaNOLA students about the potentials and pitfalls of making media and mediating our makings.

Image Credits:
1. Logo for MediaNOLA
2. Backend of CMS Located Behind a Firewall at Willdo (author’s screen grab)
3. From student coding into MediaNOLA content (screen grab with author’s mark-up)
4. From cooperative to collaborative learning on MediaNOLA (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

The Camera Girl: Historical Fragments of a Popular Production Discourse for Brazilian Television
Vicki Mayer / Tulane University

figure 1

Figure 1

fig 2

Figure 2

Wandering the streets of downtown Rio de Janeiro, I stopped at the sight of the vintage cover image of a blonde bombshell and a television camera on the 1953 edition of the magazine Album Televisão (Fig. 1). Produced by the first television station in Brazil, TV-Tupi (1950-1980), the magazine seems to be an annual record of the medium for a mass audience. ((I bought the magazine from the plaza vendor in 2007. Since then, I have not been able to ascertain this magazine’s circulation or how many years it might have been produced. Neither staffers at the Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil nor scholars at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro seem to have any record of this publication, and, sadly, the street vendor I purchased the magazine from no longer sells in the plaza. I have to thank others for giving me their insights and sources for my analysis here, especially Connie Balides, Mauro Porto, João Freire Filho, and Bruno Campanella.)) As such, the color cover is striking. Her playful and erotic pose behind the camera simultaneously poses serious questions about the popularization of the new medium in Brazil. Specifically: How was television represented to a general reading public there? What were the roles of production workers and technologies in its promotion? How do discourses of television’s production challenge the largely consumerist discourses that organized the mass introduction of television in the U.S.? While I cannot possibly answer these questions, I offer these scanned images to the public domain in the hopes that we might consider them as fragments of an alternative way of chronicling popular discourses around the medium at its introduction into a non-U.S. national context. They suggest the importance of television as a national production medium and an industry for a new labor market.

fig 3

Figure 3

Production on the Front Stage

These numerous images and their stories in Album Televisão lay bare the television production apparatus, showing not just the technology behind the magic of transmission, but also the skilled laborers who manipulate these technologies. This seems to challenge a U.S. history of the medium which hid its own artifice through the guarantee of “liveness,” or an uninterrupted access to the real through objective and simultaneous images. ((Many television scholars have written on liveness as a trope for studying early television, including Lynn Spigel, Mimi White, and Jane Feuer.)) Instead, we see the studio set workers and their equipment in the foreground of the photos. Their microphones, camera, and props interrupt the illusion that television brings viewers the unmediated world (Fig. 2). In Album, the “magic” of television, promoted through early American programs, is man-made, attributable to television studio workers who “select…the images that are sent to the receivers” (Fig. 3).

fig 4

Figure 4

fig 5

Figure 5

Similarly, images of the television set in Album lack the viewers’ fantasy of what Raymond Williams famously termed “mobile privatization,” which brought viewers to distant places from the safety of private spaces. Advertisements instead challenge the narratives of domestic transport, familial harmony, and middle-class status that Lynn Spigel has documented as central to U.S. consumer culture. ((The now canonical television texts referenced here are: Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form, 3rd Ed.. New York: Routledge, 2003; and Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Post-War America. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992.)) These television ads feature what seem to be everyday people alongside stars (Fig. 4), and television sets as just one of many middle-class domestic items, such as pianos, blenders, and bicycles (Fig. 5). Not only does an advertisement for living room furniture omit a television set, the modern sofa faces out a window, treating those inside to “more air… light… space,” and a view that extends only as far as their own neighbors (Fig. 6). Whereas U.S. imagery showed a world unified by consumption, the images suggest continued separations between the private lives of its families and the public lives of its workers.

fig 6

Figure 6

fig 7

Figure 7

Meet the New Television Workforce

Indeed, production work and production workers seem to be the main theme connecting the fifty or so pages of the annual. Although Album presents a catalogue of television stars, complete with the soft-lit portraits and idolizing biographies in many fan magazines of the era, the stars here are also workers. In the opening editorial of the magazine, the directing manager for TV-Tupi claims that “overnight, the men of Rádio-Tupi had to grapple with the problem” of launching a television station, a battle from which “only the few triumph.” This rhetoric follows longer trajectories that posit the contradictory importance of technology and labor to the formation of the Brazilian state. Populist and fascist dictator of the 1930s Getúlio Vargas saw broadcast technologies as a way of creating new technologically advanced, but politically pliant Brazilian citizens. Working in concert with the Nazi German state, the Vargas regime introduced television in the Television Exposition in 1939. ((Busetto, Áureo. “Em Busca da Caixa Mágica: O Estado Novo e a Televisão.” Revista Brasileira de História 27, no. 54 (2007) 177-96.)) Held in Rio, the exposition featured principally the transmission of radio producers working on a television set. Furnished by Rádio-Tupi, the workers demonstrated to the exposition visitors the power of both the technology and the Brazilian producers who made aural radio culture into televised images. Although General Electric and Westinghouse would prevail in introducing the actual technology and training for TV-Tupi’s management when it began in 1950 (Fig. 7), the beginnings of Brazilian television seem to be formed in part from their difference from their Northern suppliers – one that valued television, at least in part, as a site for cultural laborers.

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Figure 8


Figure 9

Marking the transition from radio to television, these early television workers infer some of the gender and racial contradictions in the formation of Brazil’s modern cultural workforce. In Album, men and women work in the fledgling industry, but in gendered roles to be sure. Men dominate the serious business of making news and operate the heavy machinery as the “camera boys” (Fig. 8). A lone woman, contrastingly, draws alongside her male colleagues in the art department (Fig. 9). Drawn from radio production, the photos document many people of color who worked in early television, many more than would be visible in subsequent decades. ((TV-Globo would dominate the television production industry by the mid-1960s. Their programming would be notorious for the next two decades for their exclusive use of white talent workers.)) Yet, we also see the legacy embranquecimento, or the state policy of whitening through restrictive immigration laws. Afro-Brazilians who worked in front of the television camera in Album look noticeably “whitened,” their hair straightened and skin powdered. At the same time, the semiotics of a photo accompanying a feature story on the station’s make-up department renders some racial ambivalence as a dark-skinned man shows off his grooming techniques on presumably two actors: one white and one brown (or “moreno”) (Fig. 10). In this multiracial assembly, it seems evident that the passive actors depend on the active (and black) cosmetic artist. In less than a decade, despite the national slogan to achieve “50 years of progress in 5,” these personnel would move back into the shadows of television production. Perhaps my favorite photo in the magazine shows this presciently, as the then-recently deceased radio star Sonia Ketter literally and figuratively “clocks out” of the new market for television workers (Fig. 11).


Figure 10

Fig 11

Figure 11

Towards a History of Early Production Discourses

There is no caption that names the showgirl in the cover image, but what the subsequent pages of Album Televisão make clear is that she is a performer performing production. Yet what this means in terms of television history in 1950s remains to be mined. Brazilian communication scholars have recognized the need to study their own media history in ways that “consider the productive conditions of the media product, both in terms of institutions and their socio-historical contexts.” ((Goulart, Ana Paula and Micael Herschmann. “História da Comunicação no Brasil: Um Campo em Construção.” Comunicação e História: Interfaces e Novas Abordagens. Rio de Janeiro, Mauad, 2008. 22.)) I would add non-Brazilian media scholars bear this burden as well. If showgirl behind the camera seduces us to consider television’s global histories as a production medium and labor market, then she is much more than just a pretty face.

Image Credits:
All images are scanned from the original magazines and are in the public domain.

Reflections on Katrina in Brazil

I think I know where I am. To my university, I am in the Amazon, land of myth and enchanted Edens, in the words of Candace Slater. To Brazilians, I am in Manaus, home to the eighth largest city nationally and the largest free trade zone in the Americas. To residents, called Manuaras, I spend my time in the peripheries of the city, Jorge Teixeira, Sao Jose Operario, and Compensa. Here, I am interviewing workers, mostly women, who work for television set factories. Outsiders to these neighborhoods cannot imagine where I am aside from the usual stereotypes of jungles and Indians or slums and criminals. When Hurricane Katrina flooded my city of New Orleans and occupied the news media here for more than a week, however, insiders no longer understood where I was from.

old world map

Old World Map

I see the satellite image at the cyber-cafe cross the street from the hotel I have called home for the previous month. The swirls of red and green are moving towards a dislocated peninsula somewhere in the United States. The map seems as foreign to me at that moment as the culture of the city I was calling my temporary home.

There’s a hurricane coming, I tell a group of women casually at a sewing collective for unemployed factory workers. It is the Friday pre-Katrina.

Quizzical responses. You get those a lot, no? That’s just a lot of rain, right? They shrug, reminding me of the way longtime New Orleanians have done the same every rainy season.

I try to punctuate the words. No but it’s so big it could destroy the entire city. More shrugs and perhaps an attempt to sympathize. We get a lot of rain too. You should be here from December to June.

“What did she say?” another asks the room.

Some kind of earthquake in her city, responds the first.


Monday I am at the offices for a local newspaper looking at archive photos for my project. In my selections, workers smile through empty TV cabinets on the assembly line. They will reproduce well, I think to myself. Images seem to cajole us into thinking that we can understand a context anonymously. A journalist asks if he can do a short article on me and Katrina.

“What is a levee?” the novice writer asks.

“It’s like a dam, but it looks like a big hill that protects the city from water.” I don’t know how to translate this word.

Sounds very advanced.

“I’m afraid it won’t work and people will die.”

Are you sure that people will die or just afraid people will die? He is trying to clarify my meaning, but he can’t understand. He faces the computer screen as he types and retypes my words. “But you have no family there.”

“But I have my friends, my work, my house,” I justify.

I went back to the cyber-cafe. Two more levees broke and the city has been filling with water all day.

Tuesday morning the newspaper story takes about one-fifth of a page inside. There is a profile shot of me, tan and smiling, like the women behind the TV cabinets. The article read, “She had no family here.” His notes meant that I was not really from there.


The beginning of the week and New Orleans news now dominates Brazilian media over reports of widespread government corruption. Our hurricanes are different, repeat several observers to me. Despite the lack of all communications in the city, Brazilians become completely fluent in the details of Furacao Katreeennaa. The cyber-cafe owner explains the topography of New Orleans to me and the problems with budgetary funding for the levee system. The sewing group recites to me the differences between a Category 4 and a Category 5 storm. Meanwhile it has not rained in the Amazon for months, causing the most dire drought there in 60 years.

In contrast, I continue to be hopelessly ignorant. Four nights and counting, I’m watching CNN (I can’t watch this in Portuguese). I gasp at what I think I recognize. I know that intersection, that building, that neighborhood. But what about my street? My apartment? I have to struggle not to fill the void in my head with the reports of looting, mayhem, and death. This happens every hour as the same images are re-broadcast. I want to save the outdated satellite images of my building from Google Earth as a momento.


Still Brazilians “know” that the U.S. is rich.

“How are you doing?” asks a concerned university professor here at the federal campus.

“I think we may have lost everything,” I sigh.

“Oh but the insurance will pay.”

“I don’t have insurance.”

“Then the government will just give it all back to you.”

The prime-time telenovela passing on the television now is America. Set in against a colorful yet gleaming Miami skyline, the Americans that Brazilians imagine continue to be blessed with easy fame and fortune. Even when the furacao came into the storyline, it brought gentle rain and a light breeze.


Thursday I go to a city-sponsored fair where the sewing group sells their crafts. They have not sold anything today and middle-class people sniff at the prices. The woman that everyone refers to as the happy one, talks to me for the first time since I met her three weeks ago.

“I lost my house last April. We were sleeping when the rains eroded the wall holding it. I’ll never forget the noise. Pieces of the house started falling down the hill. I left with the kids but my husband was trapped in a part where the roof collapsed. The room was filling with water. When my cousin came, he broke through the metal and gashed his foot. When we got to my husband, the water was up to his neck. We survived.”

“And your house?” I ask.

“We lost everything. We live with my mother.”

I take inventory of the luxuries I have in my hotel room: hot water, cable television, and an air conditioning unit. I am not from Miami, nor from Manaus.


New Orleans Under Water

New Orleans Under Water

For me, news bytes become ironic ways of seeing similarities and differences between two cultures that misunderstand each other. On Friday both Manaus and New Orleans are 36-degrees Celsius with over 80 percent humidity. In the former, 80 percent of the city was without water after a power generator that fed the water company had to be shut off. In the latter, 80 percent of the city was under water according to the Mayor. This means that in both cities, bodies are dirty and thirsty. I roll the blue anti-malarial pills around in my hand after a CNN reporter cites the possibility of malaria in Louisiana. Here, the papers cite the highest incidences of malarial deaths in eight years. And I have not even been bitten.

Before the hurricane, I made a class presentation to a university extension class in the periphery. In the question period, a returning student asked what it was like to come from a developed country to an underdeveloped country.

“I don’t like those terms,” I parried in my best professorial voice. Some have called Brazil “Belinda,” part-Belgium, part-India. I think that in some ways Manaus is very developed. To demonstrate, I asked them how many of them owned cell phones. All hands in the classroom of working class people rose affirmatively.

A week later, though, I get the response that the student was expecting. The continuous blog for the New Orleans newspaper reports that my city has lost all modern communications, electricity, and potable water. New Orleans has become a Third World city.

Image Credits:

1. Old World Map

2. New Orleans Under Water

Please feel free to comment.

Bussing the News

by: Vicki Mayer / Tulane University

Tulane Bus

Tulane Bus

I rode a bus of urban legend and it was the number 22. Every morning for the past two years I saw the familiar faces of the cleaning workers, a nurse, a sales employee, and several retirees coming from the indigent care clinic near my house. I said “Mornin'” to the retirees and “Hola” to the cleaners. It was a mobile, social space that travels down the road of the past night’s television news.

I heard about the U.S. Army’s capture of Saddam Hussein there, but I heard it in “bus speak.”
“Did you see Saddam last night?”
“Uh huh, he looked terrible.”
“Praise God we got him.”
“Now they can bring the troops home.”

Three women bantered in turn. The rest looked on. Sometimes, in moments of discord, another might jump in. But this was safe territory. Everyone wanted the war to end.

“Now you know Saddam wanted to be captured,” clucked one elderly woman. Plastic bags of supplies for the day sat at her feet.
“That man had no more fight left,” responded the nurse on her way to monitor her homebound patients.
“He could have been home free if he wanted,” backed up the saleswoman. She wore a sweater set that matched her shoes.
“He had all the gold and money.”
“He had no fight left.”
“I think he was in Syria. That’s why they couldn’t find him.”
“But he came back. He didn’t have to.”
“He had all the riches.”
“That’s what happened after he saw his son die.”
“They killed him and showed him dead on national TV.”
“Yes he was home free.”
“But when a father sees his son die, he has to go home.”
“He needed to be in his homeland.”
“He lost the fight.”

Amidst the atrocities and strategies of war, Saddam was still a willful father. What kind of man could watch his dead son on TV? What kind of head of household could not want to be home when this happened? In a city that averages the murder of one young Black male per day, these women, all African American, all mothers, saw Saddam in a different light. Yes, he may have done bad things, but he’s still someone’s dad.

Conversation rolled on the bus. When a local kid made it to the finals of this year’s American Idol,the riders followed his every note. He was a good boy, talented, sang for his Church, worked hard, a real pride, but — damn — couldn’t he have picked a better tune? Those of us who saw the show balanced critiques against encouragement. After all, he was large Black man in a field of petite pop girls and swarthy bubble gum boys. He had nothing going for him to make it to the final round. The day after he was voted out of the contest, none of us said we knew it.



Of course, gossip was not always so supportive. After the tsunami, some of the faithful created their own waves.

“That thing hit like five countries it said on the news.”
“All Muslim.”
“That’s what they get for terrorism.”
“They weren’t terrorists. They were poor people like you and me.”
“Tsunami didn’t hit us.”
“God was sending a message.”

Between the Amens and ahems, the rhythms of bus speak rarely replicated the television messages verbatim. Speakers struggled after the larger questions behind news events. Why did this happen? How does it relate to us? These questions could be answered empathetically or ethnocentrically, but they always revealed issues within the community: poverty, religion, crime, and power. When I taught news analysis in a college classroom shortly after my bus ride, these interpretations no longer resonated. They were left on the bus, or in the bar, or at the church dinners where the television bards met their town criers.

* This piece is dedicated to Mr. Jerry and Mr. Malcom. With over sixty years of service between them, their morning rides will be missed.

ABC News forum
Tsunami disaster forum

Image Credits
1. Tulane Bus
2. Street

Please feel free to comment.

Extreme Health Care

by: Vicki Mayer / Tulane University

Extreme Makeover

Extreme Makeover examples

Cramming into the middle seat on a hurried morning flight from Sacramento to L.A., I didn’t know I would sit next to a potentially famous TV star — and a first-time flier.

“I’m nervous,” she confessed. Her bag didn’t fit in the overhead. “I’ve never been in a plane before,” she added, continuing, “I’ve never been to L.A.” Peeved and pre-caffeinated, I stared down the SkyMall catalog as she climbed over me to reach the window. I only began to wonder about her mid-take-off, her hand fastened in a death-grip on my armrest, when she revealed, “But it’s already worth it, even if I don’t get picked.”

“Sue Ellen” was a semi-finalist for ABC’s Extreme Makeover. Like its rivals The Swan (Fox) and I Want a Famous Face (MTV), Extreme Makeover‘s website promises to make every woman’s “fairy-tale fantasies come true.”

For Sue Ellen, this was basic health care.

In the age of primary coverage cutbacks, medical mismanagements, and shrinking access to specialists in rural America, Extreme Makeover was her last hope. “I got to do this show now or I’m going to lose them,” she explained. “I don’t want to lose my teeth. I like to smile at people when I meet them and be friendly. I don’t think I could do that without teeth.” Listening, I couldn’t help but glance down from her brown saucer eyes. Sue Ellen’s cracked upper lip didn’t quite cover her incisors. Dry and yellowed, her teeth added a decade to an otherwise youthful 43-year-old’s face.

She always had bad teeth. Diagnosed with a protein deficiency and weak gums, she needed braces early on to prevent the horizontal growth in her mouth, but her parents couldn’t afford it. “They fought about the price,” she lamented. “I was supposed to be a mother not a model.”

Sue Ellen became a mother, and a janitor, but she could never save enough money for the dentist. Her daughter got pneumonia and her husband, a tree climber and pruner, had heart problems. “He had to get a stint in his heart, which was $15,000, so we’re paying that off.” Health insurance did not cover that bill, and she suspected he would need another stint soon. Most recently, he broke his knee cap on the job, making him homebound. Dental surgery, another uncovered procedure, had to wait.

She pushed around the free but inedible airline peanuts on her tray before unwrapping the foil on her own pre-cut sandwich morsels.

Extreme Makeover

Extreme Makeover

“If I don’t get dentures soon, they’ll have to pull everything because my gums won’t hold anything anymore.” She licked her teeth as she talked, an effect of constant air exposure. “I thought you get dentures when you’re old, but now they say I’m almost too old.” Her condition led to frequent infections and several trips to a health clinic where she owed $500 for each of the five root canals she had. Dentures would cost $125,000, more than she could afford even with another mortgage on their home. “But I don’t want to be toothless,” she fretted.

Enter Extreme Makeover: the show that has offered their guests implants, lipo, facial peels, Lasik eyes, and a new tan to boot. Sue Ellen’s daughter sent a postcard to the reality show recruiters. Out of 10,000 applicants from Northern California alone, Sue Ellen was one of six to go to L.A. “They told me one of the doctors saw something they liked, and now they have to shop me around so they can sell me to the other doctors.” Already she found out that, along with the dentures, she would be a likely candidate for a nose and boob job, eye tucks, and a face peel — “the one where they scrub your skin off.” She said she didn’t care about all the rest. “As long as my teeth get done, they can do whatever.”

ABC told her she could get up to $200,000 in free health and beauty care, but she said she already felt like a winner. She was flying. For the next three days, she would ride in a limousine, stay in a Beverly Hills hotel, eat on a $40 per diem, and visit a dozen doctors to assess if her needs were extreme enough. She also hoped she would see the Hollywood sign.

As the plane touched down, she shared her biggest worry about the competition. “They took a video of me already and said I have to elaborate my answers more. But that would mean showing my teeth more and I don’t even smile anymore.”

Dumbly, I smiled.

My middle-class friends grin when they inform me that people who go on make-over shows are superficial and just want celebrity status. The Extreme Makeover website supports this storyline, featuring a fashion tips list as “News You Can Use” and a bevy of plastic surgery propaganda.

Yet the infrequent flier may have been closer to the truth, when she said, “If I had good health insurance, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

Image Credits:
1. Extreme Makeover examples
2. Extreme Makeover

Extreme Makeover
Cosmetic surgery message board
Cosmetic Surgery, Physiognomy, and the Erasure of Visual Differences

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