OVER*Flow: What’s in a Frame? Paratexts, Performance, and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
Justin Rawlins / University of tulsa


Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Joaquin Phoenix Stars as the Joker in Warner Brother’s Box Office Hit

Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as unemployed clown/aspiring comedian-turned-murderer in Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) has been widely lauded as an awards season frontrunner and has just become the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. Despite its polarized reception, the film’s champions and detractors both frequently agree that Phoenix’s performance is Joker’s most notable—in some cases, its only redeeming—feature.[ (( Some critics at the Venice Film Festival began applauding it before the credits rolled. Other critics have labeled it a plotless amalgamation of GIFs “stuffed with phony philosophy,” conveying “a rare, numbing emptiness.” Zacharek, Stephanie. “Joke Wants to Be a Movie About the Emptiness of Our Culture. Instead, It’s a Prime Example of It.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Time, 31 August 2019, https://time.com/5666055/venice-joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-not-funny/. Accessed 21 October 2019; Brody, Richard. “’Joker’ is a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. New Yorker, 3 October 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/joker-is-a-viewing-experience-of-rare-numbing-emptiness. Accessed 21 October 2019.))] This shared sensibility among otherwise divergent readings points to a latent understanding of screen performance that is mobilized, but not interrogated, in the language used to describe his portrayal of Arthur Fleck/Joker. What can we glean from such consensus? What can it tell us about Phoenix’s acting, and about our understanding of screen performance writ large? By way of an answer, I offer potential lessons we can glean from probing cultural productions related to—but outside of—the film. In these texts, I suggest, we can see Phoenix’s turn in Joker framed to both emphasize his substantial weight loss and conflate it with great acting. Consciously or unconsciously, I follow, these same discourses entangle Phoenix’s received performance with long-entrenched popular cultural understandings of “Method” acting connecting his perceived work in Joker to his other screen labor, to other Jokers, and to the exclusive club of “Method” practitioners.

Despite concerns about audiences’ premature reactions to Joker, the fact is that audience experiences of motion pictures have long been preceded and thus framed by texts emanating from studios, critics, viewers, and other constituencies. These “paratexts”[ ((Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately. New York University Press, 2010, 25.))]—texts that prepare us for other texts—constitute crucial parts of the interpretive landscape within which we make sense of cinema. By approaching Phoenix’s performance through the paratexts that shape popular reception, we become attuned to the various ways audiences are primed to ascribe disproportionate value to physical transformation as a barometer for exceptional acting. Examining a range of paratexts that include the film’s two trailers and its many reviews, an overwhelming emphasis on Phoenix’s emaciated body comes into focus, as does its correlation with prevailing understandings of so-called “Method” acting.


Joker lifts his arms as he dances
Fig. 1. Gun in hand, Arthur lifts his arms as his dances in Joker’s teaser trailer. Like many other moments in Joker’s two trailers and the film itself, the camera lingers on Fleck’s exposed torso and showcases the “strange concavities” made possible by Joaquin Phoenix’s reported 52 pound weight loss. This, and other language about the actor’s “transformation” for the part, have been fixtures in the paratexts orbiting the film.

Joker’s April 3, 2019 teaser trailer—likely audiences’ first exposure to Joker footage—insists on such focus early and often. Ten seconds in, the camera follows the hunched lead, Arthur Fleck, whose slight frame, loose-fitting clothing, and sluggish gait intimate the character’s diminished physical, mental, and social state. Two shots of the topless Phoenix soon follow, revealing his gauntness. The effect is heightened when, for the third time in forty seconds, Arthur’s exposed torso appears. Fleck’s voiceover, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” accompanies the camera’s slow, foreboding approach toward Phoenix’s bare back. Bones push the skin to its breaking point as Arthur strains to stretch his leather clown shoes, producing a sound of twisting flesh that could just as easily be emanating from the man’s body. A later image of him dancing with arms stretched over his head (Fig. 1) again accentuates his skeletal physique, while glimpses of action (primarily running) juxtapose his earlier sluggishness with a flailing freneticism that—though fully clothed—nevertheless showcases the awkward angularity of Fleck’s frame.


Joker's shirtlessness showcases bodily transformation
Fig. 2. Arthur’s shirtlessness continues in the film’s final trailer to showcase Phoenix’s skeletal transformation for the role, a recurring aesthetic of Joker and key facet of Phoenix’s paratextual performance.

The film’s August 28, 2019 final trailer sustains this emphasis, rehashing the shoe-stretching scene from a different angle while retaining its fixation on Phoenix’s wrenching and the audible sound of groaning flesh. Arthur stares into the kitchen sink as his protruding ribs catch the grim fluorescent light (Fig. 2). Soon after, his angular, sunken face reacts to the perceived treachery of late-night host Murray Franklin. Later still, another shirtless Fleck looks up from a hunched position, arms spread wide as if to call further attention to his wasted physique (Fig. 3). As with the first trailer, the final trailer (released on the verge of the film’s triumphant debut at the Venice Film Festival) paired the stark visualizations of Phoenix’s physical transformation with action shots that, even though clothed, further emphasized the centrality of his skeletal state to the character’s motion and psychology.


Joker looks up from unnatural pose in final trailer
Fig. 3. In Joker’s final (second) trailer, Fleck/Phoenix looks up from a pose reminiscent of other similarly unnatural postures that figured prominently in the film and its paratexts. Paratexts suggested that these frequent moments underscored the extremity of both the character’s interiority and the actor’s performance style.

From select screenings in Venice and Toronto to its wide release, critical discourse surrounding Joker has devoted outsized attention to Phoenix’s weight loss, connected it to Fleck’s trauma and mental illness, and suggested it is indicative of the actor’s extraordinary performance style. Allusions to sacrifice, transformation, immersion, mutation, embodiment, commitment, and other superlatives even underwrite otherwise negative assessments of Joker, with Phoenix described as “a virtuosic actor destroying his body” to hold together a film with otherwise fatal shortcomings.[ (( Walsh, Kate. “Controversy aside, ‘Joker’ is all setup, no punchline.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Chicago Tribune, 2 October 2019, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/sns-tns-bc-joker-movie-review-20191002-story.html. Accessed 21 October 2019; Coyle, Jake. “Funny how? In ‘Joker’ a villain turns ‘70s anti-hero.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Associated Press, 2 October 2019, https://apnews.com/f7cd3e5c71e24a6c9a0f71d7db11a9f8. Accessed 21 October 2019; Burr, Ty. “’Joker’: The dark villain rises.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Boston Globe, 2 October 2019. https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/2019/10/02/joker-the-dark-villain-rises/Dc4KhfL0KvBv6cpke7vnIO/story.html. Accessed 21 October 2019.))] Such consistently exceptionalizing discourse has, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to widespread speculation about Phoenix’s award-worthiness distilled in the declaration that “you might as well start engraving his name on the Oscar right now.”[ (( Hammond, Pete. “Joaquin Phoenix Kills It In Dark, Timely DC Origin Movie That Is No Laughing Matter.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Deadline, 31 August 2019, https://deadline.com/video/joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-robert-de-niro-dc-comics-venice-film-festival/. Accessed 21 October 2019.))]

Approaching Joker paratextually allows us to not only draw out these themes but also situate them within a broader constellation of discourses outside of the film itself. In the case of Joaquin Phoenix and Joker, the above-mentioned superlatives about his acting exist alongside other paratexts painting him as enigmatic, difficult, and idiosyncratic. Mercurial behavior, an on-set meltdown, and the sense of overall intensity surrounding the performer and his ascribed acting style collectively link Phoenix’s specific turn as Fleck/Joker to the actor’s earlier performances and his overall star image, as well as those of others explicitly and implicitly identified as “Method” practitioners. References to Heath Ledger and Jared Leto are expected given the character they all portrayed: the Clown Prince of Crime. These comparisons are also particularly loaded with popularly-received notions of “Method” acting. Ledger’s hyper-intensive absorption in his version of the character, which prompted rampant speculation that Method acting may have killed him, bears resemblance to Phoenix’s comparatively muted ferocity, while Leto’s transformation has become the subject of popular derision, an example of Method acting’s supposed excesses and self-importance that have been lampooned for decades.

Paratextually speaking, the “Method” acting attributed (explicitly and implicitly) to Phoenix, Leto, Ledger, and others is not inherent in the film performances themselves but instead emerges out of the interpretive landscapes that surround motion pictures and help us make sense of them. Over the course of decades, such circumstances have given rise to a prevailing understanding of “Method” acting adjacent to—but in other ways very different from—the actual techniques and philosophies of Method and Modern performance.[ (( Baron, Cynthia. Modern Acting: The Lost Chapter of American Film and Theatre. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.))] This Method-adjacent discourse—what I call Methodness—entangles Joaquin Phoenix’s sacrificial weight loss and his intensity, absorption, and inscrutability with the long-entrenched popular reception of Method acting that selectively confers award-worthy prestige. This provokes many additional questions concerning (among other things) how paratexts animate inclusive and exclusive hierarchies of performance, how they inform our priorities in historicizing performance, and what we consciously or unconsciously perpetuate when we continue to traffic in such shared language.



Image Credits:

  1. Joaquin Phoenix Stars as the Joker in Warner Brother’s Box Office Hit
  2. Figure 1 (author’s screen grab)
  3. Figure 2 (author’s screen grab)
  4. Figure 3 (author’s screen grab)


References:




Into the Glow: Glossier’s Emily Weiss and Millennial Entrepreneurism
Elizabeth Affuso / Pitzer College


Mia Chae poses in mirror for selfie at Glossier store

Instagram influencer Mia Chae at the Glossier showroom [ (( @glossier. Instagram post. December 7, 2017. https://www.instagram.com/p/BcaCJdEB7dj/?taken-by=glossier. ))]

Since its launch in 2014, the Glossier makeup and skincare line has been synonymous with a particular type of millennial beauty ideal. With its millennial pink branding — connected to related trends such as #roseallday — Glossier embodies an effortless, dewy sort of beauty seeped in inclusive, commodity feminist logic. The direct-to-consumer brand has grown rapidly with its core millennial base thanks to an arsenal of well-established endorsers in social media spaces producing digital content such as #GetReadyWithMe videos on YouTube and #itgtopshelfie featurettes on Instagram. According to The Cut, “the Glossier aesthetic is sometimes described as makeup for people who are already pretty.” [ (( Amy Larocca. “The Magic Skin of Glossier’s Emily Weiss.” The Cut. January 9, 2018. https://www.thecut.com/2018/01/glossier-emily-weiss.html. ))] This ethos is very much in line with the discourse of flawless and #wokeuplikethis. Though these terms allude to an effortless beauty that just happens, they are also coded as terms that acknowledge work. Of flawless, Parul Seghal has written, “Something interesting happens when a word that suggests action is applied to beauty: It recasts beauty as something that can be done, pulled off — not just possessed. On Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter, when “flawless” is used as praise, it implies a friendly interest in workmanship — in a brow arched just so, in contouring cream ingeniously applied, in effort and experimentation as much as the final effect.” [ (( Parul Sehgal, “How ‘Flawless’ Became a Feminist Declaration,” The New York Times, March 24, 2015. ))] Like flawless and #wokeuplikethis, the Glossier buyer is positioned as a young woman who looks dewy, radiant, and effortlessly beautiful, but who also has a deep knowledge of beauty brands and who puts in the work to maintain her face. As founder Emily Weiss explained in her brand intro, “Glossier begins with YOU, which is why our first products are all about letting your personality shine through…glowy, dewy skin.” [ (( Emily Weiss. “Introducing Glossier.” Into the Gloss. October 2014. https://intothegloss.com/2014/10/emily-weiss-glossier/. ))] The ideal Glossier consumer is thus constructed as a woman who is pretty and interesting.

Often this buyer is also an avid reader of Into the Gloss, Glossier’s sister blog, and has a working knowledge of the important brands and cult products of contemporary beauty culture. In its millennial pitch, Glossier attempts to reproduce at a lower cost an edited collection of products that riff on the cult products aspirationally shilled on Into the Gloss. For example, many celebrities and influencers featured on Into the Gloss tout the benefits of the Biologique Recherche P50 Lotion, an exfoliating product that retails for $67 for 5.1 ounces, while Glossier’s The Solution, a comparable facial toning product is $24 for 4.4 ounces, more than half the price per ounce cheaper. Of course, lower-end dupes are not new in the beauty industry, but what Glossier has successfully achieved is a model in which dupes feel special. From the pink bubble pouches to the phone stickers to the celebrity endorsements, Glossier products feel like the ones you want to have, not a substitution for something you can’t afford.

Instagram photo of sleek Glossier packaging

An example of a Glossier package unboxing from @glossier. The pink bubble pouches that come with every order have become a cult item with consumers repurposing them as makeup bags, pencil cases, and handbag organizers [ (( @glossier. Instagram post. January 5, 2015. https://www.instagram.com/p/xeYxQPvyUG/. ))]

If Into the Gloss provides the location for millennial consumers to learn what types of products they should be using for the most flawless skin—milky cleansers, plumping serums, exfoliating toners—than Glossier comes in to provide these types of products to consumers in a perfectly affordable, Instagram worthy package. The direct-to-consumer branding model thus creates a method whereby if you want to try a product you either have to chance it and order it or rely on your fellow consumers on social networking sites like YouTube or Instagram to review and report back. This structure embraces the crowdsourcing model so prevalent in digital culture, while also modeling a vibrant internet sales strategy for makeup and skincare that has also been pioneered by brands like Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics, moving further and further away from the department store makeup counter of yore.


A Glossier #GetReadyWithMe video featuring brand CEO Emily Weiss [ (( Glossier. “Get Ready With Me: Weekday Mornings feat. Emily Weiss + Glossier.” YouTube Video. January 28, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8s4qlJLXDuc. ))]

The mastermind of the Glossier/Into the Gloss empire is 33-year-old CEO Emily Weiss. Weiss started Into the Gloss as a blog while working at Vogue in 2010 and quickly built up a cult following for features such as “The Top Shelf,” where celebrities and influencers are photographed in their homes—often their bathrooms—along with their products and a narrative of their beauty routines. Karlie Kloss, Liv Tyler, Naomi Watts, and Tavi Gevinson have been featured among many others since its inception. The routines are always couched in a logic of self-care ritual, and wellness is a big part of how they are imagined, not just by the subjects of “The Top Shelf,” but also by the robust community of commentators who provide suggestions and additional resources in the comments. Additionally, part of the appeal of Glossier is that it is a hugely successful direct-to-consumer internet brand borne out of a blog. This is the epitome of the postfeminist entrepreneurial desire that is so prevalent in contemporary culture, especially in a moment that fetishizes the side hustle for millennial workers.

Tavi Gevinson poses in her bathroom for Into the Gloss

An Into the Gloss “The Top Shelf” featuring actress and Rookie editor Tavi Gevinson [ (( “The Top Shelf: Tavi Gevinson.” Into the Gloss. April 2018. https://intothegloss.com/2018/04/tavi-gevinson-beauty-routine/. ))]

Weiss’s first exposure as an entrepreneurial celebrity came several years before her blog in a three-episode arc on season two of MTV’s The Hills in 2007. In her introduction in “One Big Interruption,” stars Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port are confronted with Weiss, a Vogue intern arrived from New York to embarrass Lauren Conrad with her superior knowledge of flowers and general air of sophistication. Weiss returned in two subsequent episodes, one to model Oscar dresses for a Vogue morning show segment (“Everybody Falls”) and the other to greet Whitney when she interviews for a permanent job at Teen Vogue in New York (“Goodbye for Now”). In all three of these episodes, Emily Weiss’s brunette hair, natural looking makeup, and air of East Coast sophistication stands in sharp contrast to the California blondeness of The Hills girls. She’s the effortless cool girl designed to make Whitney and Lauren seem authentically real in the narrative of reality TV, so that the audience knows that sometimes even reality TV stars feel inferior to their work colleagues. What’s striking about Weiss’s appearance now is how much she has already perfected the Glossier/Into the Gloss aesthetic even as an undergraduate at NYU and her ongoing success is very much in finding a way to package it into a relatable, achievable ideal for millennial women.

Emily Weiss and Lauren Conrad smile in a still from The Hills

Glossier CEO Emily Weiss (left) with Lauren Conrad on The Hills [ (( The Hills: The Complete Second Season. (2007; Hollywood, CA: MTV Networks, 2007), DVD. ))]

Glossier positions its natural, glowy, dewy beauty ideal as part of an empowerment logic for millennial consumers. This labor is part of a postfeminist discourse that Mary Celeste Kearney has noted, “may sound like the effects of straight-up patriarchy, the twist here is, within postfeminist logic, women are doing it for themselves rather than men. That is, we are agentically ‘choosing’ to participate and find pleasure for ourselves in the same consumer-driven, hyperfeminine, glamorized body projects long used to construct us as passive spectacles for the male gaze.” [ (( Mary Celeste Kearney, “Sparkle: luminosity and post-girl power media,” Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, Volume 29, Issue 2 (2015), 265. ))] The vision of Emily Weiss, 30-something CEO, helps drive Glossier’s commodity feminist message, and its girls doing it for themselves entrepreneurial spirit is a core part of the brand’s ideology. Not just in the products, but also in the female influencers and entrepreneurs featured on Into the Gloss and in Glossier’s digital content. A key part of the brand’s success is in the way it embodies the new discourse of self-care as an essential part of success in a 21st Century, neoliberal, 24/7 environment. In the words of Weiss herself, “happy is cool” and Glossier’s success is built on the idea that the best way to project this is via dewy, glowing skin you can purchase. [ (( Weiss. “Introducing Glossier.” ))]

Image Credits:
1. @glossier (author’s screenshot)
2. @glossier (author’s screenshot)
3. Into the Gloss (author’s screenshot)
4. The Hills: The Complete Second Season (author’s screenshot)

Please feel free to comment.




Prime Time Bullies

by: Gareth Palmer / University of Salford

You Are What You Eat

You Are What You Eat‘s Dr. Keith

Lifestyle television is that space where identity is most openly discussed. In programmes ranging from Extreme Makeover to Ten Years Younger our flexible selves are seen to be empowered by experts striving to bring forth ‘the real you.’ This hidden entity is called forth in a range of media including websites, newspapers and countless magazines. Indeed one recent import to the UK is Psychologies, a French magazine whose launch cover invites readers to ‘Rediscover the real you.’

Given that the real you is commonly believed to be in there somewhere it seems reasonable to discuss what methods television recommends for bringing it out.

Two recent television programmes have aggressively sought to strip beyond the surface to find the real you within. In the UK one of Channel Four’s biggest hits is Gillian McKeith’s You Are What You Eat. In the US, NBCs third season of The Biggest Loser was such a ratings winner it disloged prime-time sitcom hours for a week. In both shows the object for treatment is the body. Indeed the shared diagnosis is that within all overweight people a real you can be released by the forces of shame and discipline.

While the transformative device is hardly new to television the sort of rapid physical changes demanded by these programmes are shocking and very possibly not healthy. Each format requires the contestants to make themselves completely obedient because changes have to be quite literally seen to be believed. Thus contestants are chosen partly because of their size and partly because they have the dramatic personalities necessary to make their obedience a difficult but involving struggle. If they can come through this then we can, can’t we? A range of products and web-services help strengthen our conviction to transform and bring out the real you out of recalcitrant misshapen us.

In the UK Dr Gilllian McKeith’s PhD is the subject of much heated debate. But at the core of these discussions are not what McKeith does but her qualifications to do it. It seems that the lessons and indeed the methods of shame are fine as long as one has the correct medical qualifications. This is not merely a moral issue. Since the first series, McKeith has developed a very profitable sideline in Health Foods. Those who believe in the powers of television and have seen her transformations wrought on willing victims may be more willing to pay £5 for the restorative powers of her snacks.

In the US the project is more ambitious. The Biggest Loserhas gone from being a mere television programme to full blown cultural phenomenon. The format has had the distinction of be adapted in Britain, Australia and Israel. The website develops, indeed, makes perpetual the project by inviting a collective effort at slimming down to find the real you via The Biggest Loser clubs. The third series implicated the whole nation by choosing representatives from each state and then photographing ‘before and afters’ (still on the website). This seems to represent an unofficial extension of Bush’s ‘Get Fit’ program designed to energise the nation by getting citizens to ‘take greater responsibility for their future health and welfare.’ This fits into a wider range of new measures described as…

Biggest Loser

Biggest Loser “Before and After”

‘the “tough love” of compassionate conservatism’ through a proliferating network of private and personal trainers (e.g financial planners, home-security experts, smart cars, the Web as customized reference-guide for do-it-youself-ers, professional life-organizers’ on TV, and of course Dr. Phil (Hay and Andrejevic, 2006: 338).

In both programmes the aim is to teach people to become managed, responsibilized selves. And what better, more validated space could there be for this process than television where all dreams come true?

One crucial new factor is this search for the ‘you’ within is the use of Science. Before its treatments can be recommended television has to prove that it is responsible and so it provides the facts about being overweight which cannot be called into question. And so we hear that anyone slightly overweight has a higher risk of heart disease, anyone with more than 25% body fat is close to obese etc. These statistics are presented as if they were indisputable and indeed they are not disputed: science is facts! With a series of scientifically-validated methods outlined for our approval subjects have no choice but to obey. Because science has ‘proved’ what needs to be done (and is validated every week through televised success stories) all manner of punishments, shames and indignities can be visited on
the individuals.

A second allied justification can be found in how ‘fat’ is made to mean in western culture. As responsibilized selves we have a duty to keep in shape. To be big is not only aesthetically displeasing but it’s also cheating the nation. These days the overweight are most often seen in programming such as talk shows which feature the working class as bodies in need of treatment. An association is made between being overweight and a relaxed attitude to sexual morality and employment. Those who become overweight are defective creatures snubbing the project we should all be involved in–making ourselves streamlined engines for leaner fitter nations.

The work of these prime-time bullies validated by science, endorsed by the new common sense and promoted through every possible channel may yet spawn myriad psychological dangers.

‘Identification with the aggressor and privatization can combine to create an insecure psyche that, in attempts to bolster itself, leans on clichés and common sense to the extent that reflection is impossible and…finding security n closing off dialogue with self and other basic needs’ (Sloan, 1999).

Rose has written of the ‘specialists of psy (who) have emmeshed themselves inextricably with our experience of ourselves.’ The pseudo-science inspiring this breed of programming promote health-through-normalization–another example of the spread of governmentality…

Looking for the real you? Just say no.

Biggest Loser Season 3

Biggest Loser Season 3

Image Credits:
1. You Are What You Eat’s Dr. Keith
2. Biggest Loser “Before and After”
3. Biggest Loser Season 3

Please feel free to comment.




Truth and Beauty

Medical Visuals

Medical Visuals

Over the past decade I have become a most reluctant television star. The camera, as they say, is drawn to me. I only wish I could say that I’ve enjoyed the attention. If you’ve seen my work, you may be surprised to know that I’m actually extremely shy, and still uncomfortable in front of a camera. In fact, judging by the latest round of auditions for American Idol, I’ve come to think that I may be the last surviving American who can imagine living a full life without once appearing on television. And yet it seems to be my destiny to be hounded by people who will go to any lengths — sparing no expense — to see me appear on their TV screens.

Perhaps you’ve seen my work. I don’t like to boast, but I’ve appeared on TV screens from coast to coast, and I’ve been responsible for some truly memorable on-screen moments. It all began with the MRI scan of my lower abdomen in the mid-’90s — an immature work, I’ll admit, but it was early in my career. In fact, I hadn’t really pursued a career at all; like Lana Turner, I was plucked from obscurity by an eagle-eyed talent scout who spotted me slumped on a plastic chair in a San Francisco emergency room. How was I to guess that one day I would be recognized as the most accomplished medical imaging performer of my generation?

I gained confidence slowly — a CT scan of my skull, a couple chest X-rays, a few more casual MRIs. Sure, I was flattered when doctors and technicians praised these early efforts — who wouldn’t be? But I was something of a dilettante, a dabbler in the world of medical imaging. I didn’t really begin to sense my gift until my first encounter with nuclear medical imaging, when I was asked to swallow a “contrast media.” I enjoyed the vaguely Videodrome-esque possibilities in being allowed to eat the media, but quickly learned that barium and radioactive isotopes are not my medium. Still, it wasn’t long until the cameras were inside my body, instead of hovering around me, and I had discovered my calling. In the past ten years my internal organs have logged more screen time than Dr. Phil.

I don’t know what the object of television studies is these days, but my experience with the profession of medical imaging has brought me into contact with an entire world of digital video technology and imagery that is barely mentioned in the literature of television and media studies. Of course, this apparently invisible screen culture hides in plain sight, where it is taken for granted by millions upon millions of people who encounter it every day. Perhaps it’s time to focus a bit more of our attention on the technology, industry, and visualization strategies of medical imaging.

The NBC television network is the most visible face of General Electric, and, like all television networks, its principal task is to create wealth for the company by making and circulating images to a public with an apparently insatiable appetite for images. But NBC is not the only business in the GE corporate empire that trades in images, nor is it even the most valuable. The GE Healthcare division generates twice the annual revenue of NBC, largely by facilitating the production of images that circulate only within the halls and computer networks of the health care industry, where GE is the industry leader in diagnostic medical imaging.

Inside the body, on your TV

Inside the body, on your TV

Medical imaging doesn’t hold the glamour of network TV, but its images are vastly more profitable. Since many of these technologies employ proprietary high-tech hardware and software under exclusive patent to GE, the images carry a hefty price tag even though they have no value in an economy of images recognized by the general public. Instead, images made by scanning and fluoroscopic technologies have a singular, functional value for medical practitioners. When interpreted by a trained specialist, they serve as evidence in an investigation; their value increases along with their proven accuracy. The expense of creating and interpreting these images, while contributing to the skyrocketing cost of health care, makes this a lucrative business for GE, which hopes to maintain its dominance in an industry that appears to be poised for limitless growth, particularly considering the future health care needs of aging, relatively affluent populations.

A recent television commercial in GE’s “imagination at work” campaign portrays GE medical imaging technology not only as one of the company’s many innovative products, but also as an essential contribution to the history of western civilization. The commercial takes just thirty seconds to present a sweeping history of human techniques for making images. The rapidly-edited sequence mixes images of instantly recognizable icons with the technologies used to record them: paintings from a prehistoric cave and an ancient Egyptian tomb, a Renaissance portrait, an image produced by a camera obscura, galloping horses frozen in stride by Edweard Muybridge, an early motion picture camera and the Edison company’s famous filmed “Kiss,” an x-ray of a human hand, a shot of the Earth as seen from the Moon’s surface, ultra-slow-motion footage of a hummingbird in flight, time-lapse footage of a flower in bloom, and a distant galaxy revealed by the Hubble space telescope.

As the images cascade, a narrator makes the case for GE: “To the list of the most extraordinary images ever captured, GE humbly submits … the beating human heart.” The screen fills with a startling, lovely image: a living human heart isolated against a black background, rendered in real-time as a three-dimensional image. Unlike an x-ray or a conventional MRI, this scanned image doesn’t require a leap of imagination or a consultation with a specialist to be legible to the untrained eye; it has the precision and clarity of a motion picture, but also an undeniable beauty – a hint of poetic hyperrealism in the emotionally and symbolically resonant image of a beating heart.

Science fiction has promised a chance to peer inside the human body without the need to penetrate flesh, and in this advertisement GE fulfils the promise. In the commercial for GE imaging technology, the physical characteristics of the body — the flesh and bone that are seen as obstacles to diagnosis and treatment — disappear before the penetrating gaze of GE technology. By transforming the body into an image, technology facilitates treatment. What’s striking about the GE commercial, however, is not the instrumental argument in favor of imaging technologies, but that fact that GE makes an essentially aesthetic claim for its new technology: GE has transformed a real human heart into a beautiful image. The question is: why? Why promote diagnostic medical technology by insisting that beauty is truth?

Image Credits:

1. Medical Visuals

2. Inside the body, on your TV

Please feel free to comment.




When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Boy: Transgeneration‘s Meditation on the “Real”

IN ADDITION TO OUR REGULAR COLUMNISTS AND GUEST COLUMNS, FLOW IS ALSO COMMITTED TO PUBLISHING TIMELY ONE-TIME COLUMNS, SUCH AS THE ONE BELOW. THE EDITORS OF FLOW ARE TAKING SUBMISSIONS FOR THIS SECTION. PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CHECK OUT OUR LATEST SUGGESTED CALLS FOR CONTACT INFORMATION.

TransGeneration

TransGeneration

I was sitting on a 42nd street window ledge at the end of a hot New York August afternoon when I looked up and discovered I’d hit the big time. I was on the phone, and my conversation stopped short when I saw the words “Sex Change” on the side of an MTA bus. The ad was in three parts. The middle section was dominated by a simulated sheet of notebook paper featuring a list with three items, “sex change” was accompanied by “financial aid” and “buy books.” A to do list. I looked left, and in bold collegiate type I saw the word TRANS, with the much smaller “generation” below, followed by the tagline: “This fall four students are switching more than their majors.” When I looked to the right, it all came together. The Sundance Channel, in partnership with Logo, MTV’s and Viacom’s new gay-themed cable network, were premiering a documentary series about people (sort-of) like me. The big time.

In the past decade or so, television has slowly embraced a few things gay and, to a much lesser extent, lesbian. By now we are familiar with the rise of Will and Grace, the requisite gay boy and occasional queer girl on The Real World, the fall of Ellen, the pay-cable men and women of Queer as Folk and the L-Word, and the ubiquitous Carson, the blond fashion maven from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I raise this short and somewhat narrow legacy of queers on television in order to highlight a looming claim: that being on TV — being represented as a character, fictional or otherwise — brings marginalized people into the mainstream and can be a pathway to some larger, non-TVland, “acceptance.” Was Transgeneration indicative of an extension of this to things transgender?

Transgeneration follows four college students in the United States over the course of a school year: Raci and Gabbie identify as male to female transsexuals, and T.J. and Lucas were born into female bodies and identify as male. They come from different places and socio-economic backgrounds, a fact of which we are reminded each episode, and attend different colleges — Cal State Los Angeles, University of Colorado at Boulder, Michigan State, and Smith College — but according to the show’s opening sequence, they share “one life-changing transition.” This transition — the focal story of Transgeneration — is rendered a matter of genes and hormones, bodies and minds, the movement from one place on a gender binary to the other, opposite place. The series promo features close-ups of one young person after another addressing the viewer: “When I grow up I want to be a (insert profession),” until the last two — a white person who appears to be male ends the sentence “a girl,” and a white person who appears female and wants to be “a boy.” This is presented as both the show’s captivating oddity, and its primary conceit — that being transgender is no more and no less than being anything else, a doctor, a lawyer, a man, a woman.

Characters from TransGeneration

Characters from TransGeneration

This, of course, presumes that “man” and “woman” are relatively stable categories, even within the expansive picture of who-counts-as-what that is central to Transgeneration’s theme. It also presumes that viewers will know how to identify what is male and female when they see it, thereby allowing them to see the man in Lucas and T.J., or the woman in Raci and Gabbie. This stability of already understood and accepted gender categories may be in part a strategy for making the characters’ movement between them normalized and OK. In the show’s opening episode, Lucas is featured early on in his messy on-campus apartment. The camera scans piles of clothes, scattered papers, and copies of Hustler and Penthouse — twice. Perhaps this is intended to demonstrate the ways in which Lucas is constituting his masculinity. Perhaps it is meant to convey his maleness to a larger, likely non-trans, audience. Maybe it’s a little of both. But it all goes without saying — straight guy porn is, for whatever it’s worth, a sure sign of manhood.

Lucas’ maleness as demonstrated through his mainstream straight porn consumption — and other moments of gendered “realness” established through recognizable gestures, behaviors, and codes — should raise some basic questions: why, how, and for whom do these signs operate? If the four people at the core of Transgeneration are made real in their identities — for themselves, but maybe more strikingly for the show’s cable-TV audience — through acceptable, and thereby legible, gender cues, is it because that’s what it takes for Raci, Gabbie, Lucas, and T.J. themselves to be “accepted,” to be understood as some kind of normal? And how is it that the very power structures which define gender expression, gender roles, and gender policing escape notice almost entirely in the episode by episode establishment of these empathetic and representative trans personalities?

In the spirit of the gay-TV revolution, it seems Transgeneration — backed by the alterna-commercial interests of Sundance and Logo — aims to bring the lives of transgender people to a mainstream public, both queer and straight, in an effort to humanize and make real not only its four main players, but some larger affected community. And while there is no question that many trans-identified people experience exactly the kind of linear narrative proposed by Transgeneration — being born into the wrong body and seeking out a transition that will allow them to live their rest of their lives in the sex or gender with which they identify — many of us do not. In light of this, at least two questions remain (on this topic). If Transgeneration and its promoters are seeking to use television representation in its already questionable role as a means to construct a queerness that is straight-friendly, highly consumable, and a path to social approval, what might that cost trans people, like me, whose realities are not represented in the quest to create a viable “normal” transgender person? What might it take away from other possibilities for change — ones that rely not on normalization and acceptance, but on an expansion of ideas of gender and sexuality beyond the framework of, let’s say, Will and Grace — or Happy Days?

Links:
Transgeneration
The Sundance Channel
LOGO

Image Credits:

1. TransGeneration

2. Characters from TransGeneration

Please feel free to comment.




Boy Soaps: Liberalism Without Women

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

What’s old is new again on television, as prime-time boy soap operas like Everwood, Jack and Bobby, Life As We Know It, Summerland, The Mountain, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and The OC have come to replace girl-centered teen dramas like My So-Called Life, Popular, and Buffy. The new boy-centered soap employs “feminine” generic serial elements to explore male adolescence and relationships between males, often focusing around brothers or fathers & sons. Like their female counterparts, these programs offer more character-based drama than most current network television. The combination of seriality and an adolescent focus make for intense storylines which revolve around self discovery, the development of non-familial relationships, sexual exploration, and life lessons, especially liberal “awakenings”. Indeed, the male creators of these programs are among the most liberal on network television — some are even openly gay. The boy soap is as pleasurable a text for female viewers as television offers today. Yet at the same time, these programs consistently give short shrift to female characters and points of view, putting female viewers in the difficult position of cheering on the sidelines in the one generic field where they had dominated.

The reasons for this shift are multiple, but would certainly include the rise to prominence of gay television producers in the 1990s, most prominently Alan Ball of HBO’s Six Feet Under and Kevin Williamson of the WB’s Dawson’s Creek, who were given their first highly publicized opportunities to create television series after they had penned hit movies. Although a welcome change, this development also reflects continuing male industrial dominance, even on smaller networks and subscription channels (straight female and lesbian producers have remained rare, especially as the creators of programs). The consuming power of a white, liberal, educated audience (what television scholar Ron Becker has referred to as “SLUMPIES”) has also helped ensure a loyal gay and gay-friendly viewing community, which is perhaps most evident in the broad popularity of homoerotic “slash” readings of television texts by very vocal and influential internet television communities. At the same time, the general political and industrial shift to the right has resulted in less explicitly feminist or lesbian television texts like Buffy getting the green light; instead, risky behavior and moral heroism have become almost exclusively (white) boy territory, which is more socially acceptable.

Some key characteristics of the genre:

Boy/Boy Focus: Male relationships form the core of these programs and are privileged within the text: father/son on Everwood; brother/brother on The OC, Jack and Bobby, One Tree Hill, Summerland, and The Mountain; and male friendship on Life As We Know It and Smallville, the latter of which focuses on future enemies Clark Kent and Lex Luther, both of whom also have difficult relationships with their daddies. There is very little consistent female solidarity anywhere on these programs, and when it does it exist it is generally constructed as a support or reaction to the central male characters and relationships, i.e. Lana and Mrs. Kent worry about Clark on Smallville.

Gendered Character Growth: While men can be feminine on these programs, women cannot be masculine. Boys are scholars and weepers, leaders and followers. A women who exhibits more masculine qualities is invariably regarded as shrill, cold and dysfunctional. Christine Lahti’s professor mom Grace McCallister on Jack and Bobby is a self-identified feminist, and, as Entertainment Weekly recently noted, the most unlikeable character on the program who “embarrasses herself” with her didacticism and must be taught “lessons in tolerance and motherhood”–in other words, how to be feminine. Such lessons are only necessary for older women, as none of the younger girls seem to have a problem being feminine. They do, however, seem to have a problem being anything else and are often criminally underwritten. Because boys are allowed such a broad range of emotions and girls are not, the girls seem stunted, stuck in an adolescence in which they don’t seem to learn or develop. On-line viewers have complained about the vapidity of Smallville‘s Lana Lang for years, but producers decided that they were simply jealous of Lana’s beauty.

Homoeroticism: The traditional female-targeted soap promotes men as objects for female consumption, but the teen boy soap takes such objectification up a notch. The WB’s stable of gorgeous former male models offer a degree of youthful beauty and athleticism that is unsurpassed; combined with melodramatic adolescent yearning, the homoerotic content is hardly subtle. Indeed, these programs are “slash-friendly” texts in which producers often deliberately insert gay innuendo to reward viewers (reaching its apotheosis in the first season of Smallville). Most prominent among “slashed” relationships are Seth/Ryan on The OC, Jack and anyone on Jack and Bobby, Dr. Brown and Dr. Abbott on The OC, and, of course, Clark/Lex. Because female relationships are not as developed or given as much screen-time, girl-slash is much less possible, and the characters’ feminine passivity, lack of sexual desire (see below) and narrow emotional range also make erotic “sparkage” much less likely. In addition, the girls are rarely presented as the models of desirability the boys are: Amy’s best friend on Everwood, the starry-eyed and childlike Hannah, is mousy and wears glasses — the nadir of television sexuality and a definite slash-killer.

Gay Inclusiveness: These boy soapers frequently include “out” gay characters or references. Both The OC and Jack and Bobby have featured recurring gay characters and episodes devoted to “outing” and its consequences. Gay identity and gay relationships are taken very seriously: when a boy develops a crush on Jack in Jack and Bobby and tells him about it (“I love you”), the show makes clear that the boy has “outed” himself as gay. The boy, in fact, is so depressed and frustrated by the realization of his homosexuality that he commits suicide. The portrayal of gay identity assumes a fixed gay/straight binary where men don’t experiment, making the show safe for straight boys to watch without feeling anxious. Lesbianism, however, is not taken nearly as seriously; when girls kiss other girls on these soaps, they’re dabbling, experimenting, or “acting out.” Marissa on The OC kissed a girl because she’s rebelling against her mother (the same reason she had an affair with the gardener) — the fact that the kiss occurred during February sweeps also says much about the cynicism at work here. Long-term lesbianism doesn’t exist, and girls don’t struggle with their feelings for other girls the way boys do.

Sexual Desire and Practice: Refreshingly, teens do have sex on these shows, which generally has kept them out of the Parents Television Council’s good graces. However, the treatment reaffirms essentialist traditions, at least for girls: Boys want sex (and sometimes relationships), girls want relationships. These girls seem to have almost no sexual desire for anyone; they view sex as simply a stepping stone in cementing a relationship. And once they have sex, like Amy and Ephram do on Everwood, they don’t seem to need to ever do it again. When women do feel sexual desire, they’re pathologized (unless, of course, they’re married). Inevitably, these desiring unmarried women are past a certain age and, as we know, they’re “desperate,” leading them to make unhealthy sexual choices that lead to personal and professional chaos. Indeed, desire often directly undermines their professional well being: high school teacher Monica Young sleeps with her student on Life As We Know It; Grace McCallister has an affair with her graduate student. Former political radical Rebecca (Kim Delaney) threatens Sandy and Kirsten’s perfect marriage on The OC because apparently, in her 20 years of being “on the run”, she hasn’t had one relationship and is, therefore, desperate.

Reproduction: While the characters do have sex, it inevitably causes more trouble than it seems to be worth. Even though condoms are faithfully used, a pregnancy almost always occurs (although surprisingly, no one ever seems to get an STD). While the dramatic value of an accidental pregnancy is a soap opera standard, the frequency with which pregnancy seems to occur on these programs suggests that the Bush Administration may be right and condoms shouldn’t be trusted. The message seems to be either don’t have sex or don’t have sex with girls (given these boys, the latter seems a much more likely outcome). Pregnancy is viewed here through the eyes of the male heroes, and it clearly has the potential to ruin their entire lives: The OC‘s Ryan moves back to Chino to be with his pregnant girlfriend, Everwood‘s Ephram (spoiler ahead!) misses his Julliard audition once he learns he fathered a child. The women’s reactions to pregnancy are marginalized, since most are supporting characters who leave the show after their wombs have served their dramatic purpose. Abortion is bravely presented by producers as an option, but it is portrayed very negatively, usually in a “closed” episode where it can be dealt with quickly, the offending girl banished, and the ensuing male trauma resolved. Pregnancy, after all, is a man’s crisis.

The scenarios I sketched above are not unusual; indeed, the whole basis for the development of slash fiction writing by women stemmed, in large part, from the lack of strong female characters and relationships on television. It is this very familiarity which makes the boy soap seem to me like a step back (or perhaps “sideways”?), even when producer intentions towards women are clearly honorable.

Please feel free to comment.




Transform Me, Please…

by: Tara McPherson / University of Southern California

After Botox

Discovery website – After Botox

I’m feeling my age these days. My toddler’s been wrestling with a cold for weeks, setting off a seemingly endless cycle of sick boy, sick dad, sick mom, as we tag team viruses with the 20+ other wee ones in our preschool set. And the semester’s just kicked in, amping daily life up to full-frantic pace, with seminar prep, admission cycles, budget planning (a perk of life as division chair), and another turn on the committees-of-the-week ride. And then there’s the email. Always the email. Ironically, I’m teaching a grad course this spring on fashion, beauty, and media culture. Can’t say I’m feeling all that expert on such topics right now. I’m lucky to shower these days.

So, I have to confess that the chance to ‘look ten years younger’ in ten days has its appeal. That’s the promise hawked by one of the seemingly countless ‘makeover’ shows dotting the televisual landscape today, the appropriately-titled 10 Years Younger on TLC. Avoiding the nip + tuck techniques of The Swan or other surgically-enhanced shows, this kinder, gentler series promises a non-invasive path to a renewed and youthful self.

But, just as I’m getting lured in, ready to submit my own application online, something (besides standing in mid L.A. in a big glass box while passing strangers guess my age) gives me pause. I already work a lot, with my job bleeding into domestic space via email, phone line, and fax. Even my TV watching is pretty much always tied to work, particularly this past fall while I was serving as a juror for the AFI television awards. While life in the university has probably always made separating work and play difficult, the technological landscape of post-fordism makes the blur feel complete. I’m going to resist the TV’s siren call to add working on myself to the equation and instead ponder why transformation has become such a powerful media lure today.

Of course, the promise of transformation via the commodity is not strictly a 21st century phenomenon. Media culture has been tightly tied to beauty culture since the birth of advertising, and it’s hard to think the history of Hollywood without recognizing the role the silver screen played in perpetuating precise ideas of glamour and fashion. Certainly, the proliferation of screens across the late 20th century – from televisions to computers to new mobile devices – participates in and extends these legacies and logics.

Vanessa Before and After on 10 Years Younger

Vanessa before and after on 10 Years Younger

But today’s makeovers are different too, and these differences matter. As Heather Hendershot recently noted in an article for Flow, today’s promises of transformation frequently penetrate the body, sculpting flesh and figuring it as increasingly mutable, changeable, and porous. The ‘transformations’ featured on shows ranging from Extreme Makeover to Plastic Surgery Beverly Hills (and on their attendant websites) highlight malleability to a new degree. Sure, specific products – from Botox to DaVinci veneers – are featured and made familiar. But this is about more than just selling procedures and pharmaceuticals.

Bodies become one with the bitstream, as easily morphed as a Photoshop file. Beauty is no longer a surface phenomenon, with the exterior reworked to match a ‘beautiful’ interior through a careful consumption of products. The inside and outside now collapse and blur, all up for reconfiguring and all requiring hard work. Thus the focus on many of these series on process itself; while the ‘reveal’ is still important, the shows narrate the labor involved in transformation in a manner quite different from earlier makeover tales. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ are still key, but the in-between expands.

New technologies of vision help underwrite the collapse of inside and out, making visible the interior of the body in new ways, but such a collapse is not just the effect of new representations on the surface of our screens. Rather, the very forms of electronic culture (and, especially, of digital culture) help naturalize this process, shifting our understandings of what constitutes the self and working in tight feedback loops with shifting modes of economic production and emergent media ecologies.

Various theorists and economists have noted a shift in the workings of capital, beginning in the 1960s and accelerating through the past several decades, a shift marked by a turn from factory production models toward an information economy. Western economies have moved toward flexible patterns of production, economies of scope (small batch production of a wide variety of products), service and knowledge industries in which computerization figures as a major development, and a new priority on consumption that targets highly differentiated niche markets.

A key factor in this shift to post-fordism is the emergence of data processing in which workers and machines are figured as equal relays in electronic circuits of information. Computers, moreover, contribute to a temporal and spatial decentralization of work that involves the overflow of labor beyond the eight-hour day or the confines of the office. There’s a space-time compression in which the boundaries between labor and leisure, work and home, bleed together. The internet in many ways crystallizes this shift, making it manifest, as work follows us home and shopping follows us to work.

Swan Logo

The Swan logo

The recent explosion in transformation TV situates television firmly within electronic culture, narrating recombination across our very bodies and homes, underwriting a continuum that runs from the extreme surgery shows to the seemingly tamer worlds of What Not To Wear and Trading Spaces. Electronic forms are complexly situated within the workings of capital. Thus, the bleed between product and information, between work and leisure, between old and new bodies can be seen as skilling us for the new modes of living demanded by post-fordist economies, modes that require a new relationship to our very corporeal selves.

But, if electronic culture is teaching us volumes about transforming selves, perhaps it is also teaching us something about other modes of change and transformation, pushing electronic culture into spaces of hope and possibility. Can we push this logic further, envisioning new recombinatory modes of living or even new labor movements? If electronic culture insists that everything is malleable, why stop with the self? Why not transform the very structures of capital? Just thinking about it makes me feel ten years younger.

Further Reading
Alliez, Eric, and Michel Feher. “The Luster of Capital.” Zone, no. 1/2 (1987): 314-59.

Recent Flow Articles of Interest
Heather Hendershot, “The Boob Tube”

Links
10 Years Younger
Extreme Makeover
The Swan
Trading Spaces
What Not To Wear

Image credits:

1. Botox injection image: The Discovery website offers details on Botox

2. Two images of same woman: Vanessa’s before and after on 10 Years Younger

3. The Swan logo

Please feel free to comment.




The Boob Tube

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College CUNY

“It’s like Jell-O on springs!” Jack Lemmon declares as he ogles Marilyn Monroe’s fleshy derriere in Some Like It Hot (1959). Lemmon himself is in drag, and watching this film recently for the umpteenth time, I am struck again by its strange combination of heterosexual prurience and queer exuberance. I am also struck by Monroe’s plumpness. She is roughly the size that Renee Zellweger beefs up to to play the “fat” Bridget Jones. A few days later I watch John Boorman’s science fiction bizarre-athon Zardoz (1974), in which Charlotte Rampling’s A-cup breasts frequently escape the confines of their futuristic macramé top. Amazing, I think, that thirty years ago a woman with small breasts could be represented in the media as sexually attractive.

One could come up with countless other examples to illustrate a rather obvious fact: cultural standards of the ideal female body are historically variable. No big news here. Like the 19th century woman in her bone-and-viscera-crunching corset, today’s idealized female body can only be attained through technological mediation. While one could point to Pamela Anderson and numerous other TV stars as representative of today’s technologically mediated female body, I would like to hone in on one particular television program, the E! channel’s Dr. 90210, which graphically illustrates the possibility of achieving the impossible body.

Women of the 1950s wore girdles, and women of the 1960s dieted like crazy to attain their Twiggy shapes. Today’s actresses and models (and a handful of the rich and less famous) have the bottom halves of the 1960s and the top half of the 1950s. They are, in other words, slim and stacked, a virtual biological impossibility. This body shape requires rigorous diet and exercise regimes, but it also requires the surgeon’s knife and liposuction pump to suck out the bottom and inflate the top. This is exactly what plastic surgeon Dr. Rey does to white, affluent female bodies on the reality show Dr. 90210.

Dr. Rey’s specialty is inserting breast implants through the patient’s navel, and on most shows women get implants, though Rey also performs nose jobs and other procedures. The thin dramatic tension underpinning the show hinges on the fact that Dr. Rey spends all day in the office using his knives to “empower” women by making them more self-confident about their looks, while at home he is insensitive towards his pregnant wife Haley and overly invested in his Tae Kwon Do practice. Forced to join his wife in shopping for baby supplies, Rey is side-tracked by a beautiful bra in a store window, which he admires for being both fashionable and (unlike him!) “very supportive.” Haley exclaims that not only does she own the very same bra, but she happens to be wearing it that very minute. As she repeatedly gestures to her own chest (itself notably larger than what viewers have seen in the home video footage taken of her several years earlier), Dr. Rey remains fixated on the dummy on the other side of the glass.

Dr. 90210 obviously functions as an advertisement for Rey, and the E! website provides a link to Rey’s practice. Here, dozens of before and after shots are available, mostly of boob jobs. Most shots are straight-forward, with a clinical, mug shot kind of aesthetic. We see small breasts transformed into big boobs. [Fig. 1] (Note: Figures 1, 2, and 3 contain nudity) A much smaller number of images show reconstructed breasts: women with Poland syndrome (two very differently sized breasts) are given symmetrical breasts. And saline implants then transform these breasts into porn star sized jugs. [Fig. 2] The third kind of representation of breasts pictures the models whom Rey has operated on, their after shots showing them in magazine images. Here, we see the only person of color on the website, an African-American woman. Her after shot reveals her in a pornographic posture on the cover of Black Men magazine. [Fig. 3]

Unlike on Rey’s website, on the show nipples are digitally scrambled. This seems a bit silly, since the program regularly shows the body on the operating table, about as naked as it could be. What’s more naked than having your clothes off? Having your skin off! Perhaps inspired by the CSI franchise, with its persistent visual penetration of the body, plastic surgery shows (a growing genre, of which Dr. 90210 is only one example) are not shy about showing bleeding, penetrated bodies. Notwithstanding the coyly scrambled nipples, there is a pornographic show-all dimension to Dr. 90210‘s representation of the body. What is lacking, however, is pornography’s sense of humor and giddy transgression of societal norms. Dr. 90210 shows everything: the naked body, then the naked body with surgical Magic Marker maps drawn on it, then the surgically invaded body, and then the post-operative, quivering and vomiting body. Instead of offering voyeuristic pleasure, though, the show’s images of nude and penetrated bodies are stunningly unerotic. Who knew that naked bodies could be so damn boring?

One episode, however, breaks from the boring pattern and ups the dramatic ante. This show reveals that Dr. Rey is from Brazil, and that his mother worked as a janitor to help him pay for medical school. Charity plastic surgery is Rey’s big chance to give something back to the poor; someday, he tearfully confesses, he will leave Beverly Hills behind and return to his people. (Knowing that Dr. Rey has a SAG card, as per his website, one cannot help but wonder how carefully rehearsed this scene was.) The doctor’s volunteer work is at a clinic in a Latino neighborhood, and in this episode he helps a poor Latina with a unique problem: she has four breasts. He instructs her to quit smoking to prepare for the removal operation, but she doesn’t, and suffers for it on the operating table, as her breathing becomes labored and increasingly desperate. Rey explains how dangerous it is when patients do not obey their doctors. Not allowed to stay in the hospital, the post-op patient is carted to a “recovery center” (which looks suspiciously like a motel) and then returned to her trailer home. This poor Latina has served her function, which was to show Dr. Rey’s largesse, while also portraying a rare moment of surgical imperilment, a rarity on a program that consistently ignores the dangers of plastic surgery. It appears that the only time things go wrong is when patients misbehave. Notably, this charity patient is the only woman on the show with truly “wrong” breasts. The other women want to have their “normal” breasts augmented (or, in one unique instance, reduced).

Of course, the idea of any body being normal or natural becomes increasingly fraught the more one views Dr. 90210. While it may be tempting to wax nostalgic about Jayne Mansfield’s decidedly non-anorexic chest, or Emma Peel’s more modest cleavage, mediated breasts were no more “natural” before the recent explosion of televisual plastic surgery. What is unique today is not the cultural regulation of what constitutes the desirable breast but rather the fact that the increasing number of TV representations of enhanced breasts reveals the process behind the cultural construction. We didn’t watch sitcom girls throw up and take diet pills on 1960s TV, whereas today the process of bodily construction is played out before our very eyes. And since — with the exception of an occasional mole removal from a supermodel — the plastic surgeons of reality TV work their magic on “normal” women, not real stars, the patients can only afford so much plastic surgery. Though the uplifting, therapeutic message offered is that any woman can achieve her bodily dreams, Dr. 90210 stops short of the full body Frankenstein-like reconstruction of The Swan. The result is women with big boobs but bodies that otherwise look fairly average, marked with cellulite, dimples, and wrinkles.

We are completely missing the point if we condemn Dr. 90210 for offering women unrealistic, oppressive body images that will give them low self-esteem, the standard liberal feminist argument. All any female viewer has to do is look down a few inches to realize the distance between TV’s surgical cantaloupes and her own comparatively modest rack. Even the amply endowed woman will not find a televisual mirror, for TV’s completely round, enormous, man-made breast held upright at sternum level has nothing in common with the large breasts provided by genetics. (Consider Chesty Morgan’s 73 inch endowments in Doris Wishman’s Deadly Weapons.) What Dr. 90210‘s images of surgical breast enhancement actually offer viewers, contrary to the show’s intentions, are not fantasies of self-improvement but representations for which there is no original. How appropriate, then, that E! Online offers Dr. 90210 fans a videogame called Ka-boob!, which requires moving a character back and forth to catch falling implants [Fig. 4], with California iconography – palm trees and a Beverly Hills sign – in the stylized background. The tongue-in-check introduction invites us to “meet the docs who put the boob back in the boob tube.” The Dr. 90210 boob is ultimately a lot like California, as per Gertrude Stein. In spite of its abundant excess, there is no there there.

Links
Dr. 90210
Dr. Robert Rey

Please feel free to comment.