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.

Dr. 90210
Dr. Robert Rey

Please feel free to comment.


  • Christopher Lucas

    Dr. 90210 is the latest in the long line of compelling and disturbing body modification shows that worked their way across the entire TV schedule this year. Dr. Hendershot comes closest, I think, to capturing the “magic” of Dr. 90210 when she describes Dr. Rey as “inserting breast implants through the patient’s navel.” Ta-daa! Something about these programs has the scent and shadow of a carnival sideshow. What is Rey if not a handsome Caligari, using bland smiles and nimble fingers to enchant us with medical miracles, making improbable bodies with his unlikely techniques?

    But let’s not undersell the effectivity of magic – if magic is simply an effect unhooked from its cause (representations without originals?) it still produces objects of real desire, distorted or masked as they may be. Rabbits don’t come out of hats, we know, but we do like a nice rabbit stew. Perhaps, as Dr. Hendershot suggests, Dr. 90210 doesn’t traffic in “fantasies of self-improvement,” but is it possible that he is, nonetheless, showing us that miracles happen and better yet, they happen to people like us?

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  • Quick fix

    Dr. 90210 is yet another show in a series of programs advocating the modification of nature’s imperfections, prodding society to believe that there is an ideal woman and she can be found with some choice adjustments. Yes, as Dr. Hendershot says, the modification of the female form to fit the supposed ideal is nothing new, but never has it so blatantly been rubbed in women’s faces. Programs like these can lead women to believe that plastic surgery is something to be expected, making it ok to trade in an undesirable yet natural form for something new and exciting.

    The fact that ‘normal’ women are being incorporated into the process of body modification worries me. It is no secret that women are insecure about there bodies, and by being introduced and desensitized to the processes of breast enhancement, rhinoplasty, and liposuction, I fear that they may seek these methods more and more to cure all their self-confidence woes. If anything, our society latches on to the dogma of the quick fix, and what better way to assert easy control than to go under the knife? Though it is true that not everyone can afford cosmetic surgery, I can see its trend continuing to grow in the future. Though it is disturbing that cosmetic surgery is just another media reality fad, it is even more worrisome that it is splashed across television, making it look common to rip apart your body in order to reach the so-called ideal form.

  • Its not as pretty as you think.

    You’ve just gotta love reality TV. Just like Fox’s COPS glorifies police officers in the line of duty (i.e. you can’t run from the po-lice), E!’s Dr. 90210 glorifies plastic surgery and the doctors who perform it for the viewers at home. Take the ritzy Hollywood setting, for example. When I see palm trees and beautiful houses I think vacation, I think relaxation –not scalpels and bloody gauze. Certainly there are plastic surgery clinics all over the country, yet E! wanted to portray plastic surgery as a definite luxury (necessity?) of the rich and famous. Added in, fantastically, is some good ol’ Californian liberal thinking –where else would you expect to find the boasting recipient of a fresh “Anal Bleaching,” as filmed in one episode? In addition, the cameras roll at Dr. Rey’s beautiful Beverly Hill’s home, capturing the elements of a lavish California lifestyle. ”Flawless” is an adequate adjective to describe the show. Like Hendershot mentions, the tensest moment in possibly the show’s entire history came from a Latina who did not quit smoking pre-op like Dr. Rey had asked. The show even stopped for a commercial break to drive the suspense further. However, her dyspnea quickly faded and everything turned out ok. To further the glorification, visit the website and play the boob-catching game. Hendershot is also correct in that this is an advertisement for Dr. Rey –consider the audience. Airtime is midday, precisely when the employed are at work and the unemployed are not. What kind of unemployed person can usually afford these procedures? Housewives who want to look good for their husbands upon their return home from work.

    Dr. 90210 stays true to life when it portrays both people who need it (the Latina), and the people who don’t. In one episode an adult film star violently demanded a breast-job despite the doctor’s refusal, and another boasted on how plastic her face was while getting Botox injections into her forehead. It reminds me of the addiction people get after their first tattoo; if its already been done, permanently, what’s the harm in another? However addiction isn’t the proper word for some of Dr. 90210’s stars –its obsession. People seem to have become so obsessed with their image that the good old gym and treadmill have been pushed aside for the simplest, fastest method of obtaining the perfect body. Perhaps perfection is what people are looking for in others today. The 12th year amateur bodybuilder Anthony Monetti said he had been turned down by a company making workout videos because his nose was “too big,” despite the rest of him being 215lbs of lean muscle. Either way, Dr. 90210 can make us more self-conscious of our image, or even more content with our own natural look. After watching several shows, one can infer that the pursuit of the perfect body is costly, either by money or individual effort –and is anything but glorious.


  • I guess I expected too much.

    While I find it deplorable that women subject themselves to this form of image slavery, what I find more shocking is that the American public subjects itself to this form of television. Personally I’ve seen more breast augmentation operations that I ever thought I would have, and yet a genre with so shallow goals and no rewarding viewing experience is growing not dying. The early ones I saw on MTV and the like seemed to have a message, a moral at the end. They showed the reality of the process, an emotional before and after rather than mere physical. After seeing numerous determined teenage girls emerge from the operating room teary-eyed and in utter despair, as if the surgeon had liposuctioned their soul while ballooning them up. The way MTV framed the shows always seemed to have an undertone of “Are you SURE this is what you want?” The public just doesn’t learn its lesson however. There is no shortage of people lined up at the clinic, and there is no shortage of viewers of the new desensitized shameless display of women being cut up to look pretty. I guess I am merely appalled at the fact that after exposure to such graphic images and brutal pain and regret followed by shallow “I can make more money as a stripper now” glee, women still ask to be on the operating table, with cameras rolling no less. It’s one thing for TV to show us this behavior, but in the case of plastic surgery, it seems that the medium is going so far as to endorse it.

  • who decides what is beautiful?

    The media continues to shape society’s idea of beauty and in turn it uses these images to appeal to the dominant audience. However, who is the media aiming to please? The most prevalent images reflect the dominant discourse of beauty and therefore women who do not resemble such images are marginalized. The media aims to appeal to the dominant audience and their ideals and therefore reinforces the power of the dominant group to shape society. The dominant discourse of beauty becomes the norm and those who are unable to fit these standards become the other.

  • Please give me a web site to where i can get that body corsett.

  • Hendershot made a crucial mistake if she considers herself a feminist. The fact is who are we to judge what a woman decides to do to her body, remember Roe VS. Wade. So first we tell women not to judge each other’s bodies or our own, but then isn’t Hendershot judging women’s bodies in this article. The fact is we have free will to do what we want with our bodies. The media is definitely not helping and it does increase the pressure for women to measure up to a certain standard. However, generally a women with confidence, knows who she is, and has strengthened her self-worth are not victims of the media. This is a cultural and historical problem more than the latest media fads fault. It is not fair to sacrifice a value, women should have control over their own bodies, to make a criticism of the media that challenges the choices women have made and paint them as victims. A little contradictory. The fact is I refused to be editor for this author based on what I considered was a lack of integrity on her part and if you have seen her submitted photos with the original article, she reduced herself to shock value. Too shameless for me. And for doing this, I was laughed at and ridiculed and basically taken out of the editor role by the Flow Staff and certain Senior members at the time who refused to understand my unwillingness to contribute to what I considered conflicting with my core values (not because my opinion of it being wrong). What about freedom of speech they argued. Sure, I’m all for it but hey I am not suppressing her opinion; she can take it anywhere she wants for publishing. I was more concerned about the photos, along with article was cheap, I thought we should have some standards in place. Censorship is one thing (honestly, did she say anything we haven’t already heard?) and a standard of quality is another. Especially since students had great, profound articles that could have been published instead.

  • As I recall this incident, Kelli, you were encouraged (by me) to engage with Hendershot’s arguments in much the same way as you do in the first part of your response. Because Flow has always been designed to encourage conversations among scholars who may not share the same philosophical perspectives, this seemed a wonderful opportunity to engage. Instead, you refused. I do not recall anyone mocking you for your views, although I do recall being frustrated with your unwillingness to stand behind your position in public (as Hendershot was clearly willing to do). I also have a problem with reductionist attack strategies that accuse another scholar of lacking integrity. This closes down conversation before it begins. Perhaps I am replicating the same strategy again here, but I will keep encouraging you to do exactly what you did do in the first part of your response.

  • Wow very interesting post topic. Im considering anal bleaching for the first time and this really helped me make a good decision. Thanks :)

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