Embarrassing Bodies: Public Sphere or Spectacle?
Faye Davies / Birmingham City University
In 2007 the UK’s Channel Four commissioned Embarrassing Illnesses which was later re-named Embarrassing Bodies. The show is produced by independent production company, ‘Maverick’ and has been a rating success for Channel 4 for the four years of its run so far. Simply put, patients present themselves to one of the show’s three doctors – the examination and treatment of a particular affliction is shown on camera, and the medical problem is solved. In the meantime we are treated to camera shots of the most intimate parts of anatomy and, sometimes, gory treatment.
In production terms it is clear to see that the audiences are being encouraged in their education about diseases and conditions, and also being encouraged to seek help for a variety of problems; albeit in front of a national audience. There is also the question of what else draws an audience into such a show. It seems that there is a dichotomy between the success of the show and the fact that week after week there are graphic depictions of operations and investigations we are persuaded to squint and squirm our way through as an audience.
So, how can we make sense of this through an initial consideration of cultural theory?
On a positive note, Embarrassing Bodies brings critical information into the public sphere; doctors and patients discuss issues. The multiplatform nature of the show has meant that this particular version of the public sphere has extended outside of the television flow and online where there is a far greater interaction between the discursive hierarchy of doctor and patient. In this sense the show has embraced the notion of online community – offering a safe, approachable, easily accessible and private space for the audience and website users to view important information and ask questions in a moderated medical environment. This is also reflected in the content of the show – as problems are solved and conditions clearly explained through graphic stills and narratives.
This is a very particular version of the public sphere and one already related to ‘reality television’. Dominique Mehl outlines many of the personal concerns that are represented by individuals on screen can be appropriated by those watching1. This posits the idea that the Embarrassing Bodies audience can potentially either empathize as they have suffered a condition or take on board the advice and treatment options as they currently suffer from a disorder. The very construction of the show aids in this, with patients seen in a one to one (and seemingly private environment) and the initial investigations being as unglamorous and normalised as any dreaded visit to the doctors surgery. Mehl claims that,
“Implementing the move from the particular to the general is a trick, which implies tacit collaboration between producer and guest. However the symbolic nature of the testifying is only really accomplished in the act of reception. It is through the intervention of the reader, the listener, the television spectator that the move from ‘me’ to ‘us’ is brought about. Private evidence accedes to debate in the public sphere when the spectator can say: ‘I have experienced, am experiencing or perhaps will experience, or those close to me have experienced, experience or will experience the same thing. And this is why this interests me.'”2
Such reality shows offer a level of identification for the viewer and the individual lying on the examination bed becomes a symbol for a story, rather than an individual. If the reader deconstructs the text in this way then part of the producers need is also fulfilled; we shouldn’t forget that Channel 4 is still a public service broadcaster in the UK and as such is obligated to provide public focused programming.
But what of those audiences who are healthy and condition free, or aren’t attracted to this aspect of the show? How can this show complete on the level of ‘entertainment’ and not be dull, boring and medicalised? What else may appeal to audiences in terms of the grotesque and voyeuristic? The popularity of the show raises a key question for consideration, and Sam Wollaston of the UK’s Guardian Newspaper succinctly encapsulates this with his review of a recent episode:
“Maybe it does do something towards getting rid of the embarrassment and shame of these conditions. Encourages us to do something about them, and to examine our vulvas etc. That has to be a good thing. But it simply isn’t very nice to watch. I don’t want David’s itchy red anus on my 42in high definition television. Or Brenda’s non-vagina. Or Brian’s big purple nose getting doner-kebabbed. It’s horrid, all of it.”3
To a ‘nit’ infestation:
To a large labia:
In these instances ‘spectacle’ can be considered a central aspect of the genre of reality television and is certainly central to Embarrassing Bodies. This sense of spectacle is not one that can be considered an enormous newsworthy event such as the death of Princess Diana or September 11th but is instead an alternative use of the concept. Frances Bonner claims such medical procedures are a ‘spectacle within ordinary television’4. This aspect of the show is a distinct draw to a viewer when an individual who appears as ordinary as the viewer undertakes a serious, invasive or relatively rare procedure. In this instance the viewer does not have an ‘immediate or even long-term need of the information’5 but instead the viewer is drawn in by the affect or shock of the visceral or intimate content.
It’s therefore possible to suggest that Embarrassing Bodies appeals to the audience for two very distinct reasons. The first is a sense of spectacle and to some extent the mirrors ‘make-over’ shows such as The Swan in entertainment and shock value. But what is also prevalent is the maintenance of the discourse of medical information through a personalised narrative around the participant that can enhance a sense of public sphere via the multiplatform nature of the show. This then steers the show being purely rhetorically shocking and in keeping with the public service ethos of the broadcasting institution of Channel 4. In this sense Embarrassing Bodies is not only useful and entertaining to its audience but also indicative of a production grounded in public service television that also has to exist with a competitive and commercial industry context.
1. Daily Mail
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- Mehl, Dominique (2005) ‘The Public on the Television Screen: Towards a Public Sphere of Exhibition’ IN Livingstone, Sonia (ed) (2005) Audiences and Publics: When Cultural Engagement Matters for the Public Sphere London: Intellect. [↩]
- Mehl, Dominique (2005) ‘The Public on the Television Screen: Towards a Public Sphere of Exhibition’ IN Livingstone, Sonia (ed) (2005) Audiences and Publics: When Cultural Engagement Matters for the Public Sphere London: Intellect. 80. [↩]
- Wollaston, Sam (2011) TV review: Embarrassing Bodies; Little England: An aggravated anus and a vanishing vagina made this a bad day at the orifice (London: Guardian Media Group). [↩]
- Bonner, Francis (2005) ‘Looking Inside: Showing Medical Operations on Ordinary Television’ IN King, Geoff (ed) (2005) The Spectacle of the Real: From Hollywood to ‘Reality’ TV and Beyond. Bristol: Intellect. 106. [↩]
- Bonner, Francis (2005) ‘Looking Inside: Showing Medical Operations on Ordinary Television’ IN King, Geoff (ed) (2005) The Spectacle of the Real: From Hollywood to ‘Reality’ TV and Beyond. Bristol: Intellect. 107. [↩]