Friday, 18 July 2008

Gok Wan - the lesser of 2 evils?

The original ugly sisters of the TV makeover Trinny and Susannah recently strayed from their What Not to Wear template and presented a program called Great British Body. The premis of the show was admirable enough – encouraging members of the public to bear all in a quest to re-educate people about body image – but I can’t help thinking it was all rather insincere, just like the show that brought them notoriety. What Not to Wear pretended to be an exercise in restoring women’s self-esteem, but I always found the tactics they employed quite odd, and their methodology misguided. It’s important for women to feel good about themselves, but forgive me if I’m wrong: having your wobbly bits groped and cinched in by two virtual strangers might not be the best way to achieve the end goal. There’s no denying the pair’s brashness and after a while, hearing them tell women they’ve got ‘great tits’ and ‘fabulous arses’ is more creepy than revolutionary. The general processes of the show was so formulaic it was always difficult to identify any individuality by the time Trinny and Susannah were finished with them. Invariably it went a little something like this: friends and family shop unwitting subject to Trinny and Susannah for crimes against fashion; Trinny and Susannah throw away/set fire to said subject’s entire wardrobe, express disgust at the state of things, force them into a multi-angled Auschwitz of a mirror to address their cellulite/post-baby bulge/love handles; subject is educated about how to dress – basically wear a belt and don’t mix black with brights; Trinny and Susannah send protégée into bustling high street to fend for themselves; protégée traipses round shops, red in the face, terrified of picking up something that might be ‘hideous’; they inevitably pick up something ‘hideous’ and Def Con One and Two in high heels sprint into the fitting rooms to wrench anything without a V neck out of the naughty pupil’s arms; crisis averted, ugly duckling emerges a swan and thank god! They are virtually unrecognisable, mission accomplished. It’s true that most of the women that go through this process do come away with a happier demeanour, but who’s to say that this couldn’t have been solved in another way? How is trussing women up in ‘miracle underwear’ and strapping a belts round their waist any different to lacing them into a corset, of which the right to not wear was ardently fought for? As with all prime time entertainment shows of this ilk, there is a strict formula to follow which I believe makes them unsuitable vehicles to truly be able to make any significant, non-insipid comment about body image and self worth.

That said, I do feel there is a scale against which the worth/harm of these shows can be measured because we have to be realistic – they’re always going to be part of TV schedules. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge women dressing up and I admit I can get a boost from making the effort with my appearance and a rather unsavoury attachment to Chanel lippy). What worries me about the increasing amount of self-improvement going on within the realms of light entertainment is the very fact it is being condensed and packaged up as just that: entertainment. These shows last at most for an hour, and you get the feeling that even if the issues they appear to dissect aren’t resolved by the closing titles, we would still be told that they were. Feelings of low self esteem and deeply rooted insecurities are not actually easily ‘fixed’ and their underlying causes, being myriad, are very difficult to correctly identify. Serious afflictions such as Body Dismorphic Disorder can’t be cured with a designer handbag or an empire line frock, and its irresponsible to package up these programs as solutions to emotional issues. It’s all fine and well to suggest we make the best of ourselves, but why is only one way to do this ever presented in the media? Advertisers have also been quick to cotton on to this – Dove promotes being happy with the body you’ve got…unless that entails having dry skin which would presumably be one step too far; Loreal reasserts that we’re ‘worth it’ – but worth what? Worth not letting our hair and make-up go to the dogs apparently. Happiness is now inextricably linked to outer perfection, and a very prescribed idea of what that is. It was only a matter of time before some producer got the bright idea of introducing cosmetic surgery to the mix. Shows like 10 Years Younger and Extreme Makeover are – in my humble opinion – at the far end (the bad end) of the aforementioned scale. The configurement of ‘beauty’ they promote is completely skewed and result in the absolute absence of any notion of individuality. At the end of these shows the (primarily middle aged) women are physically unrecognisable. Not even taking into account the effect this must have on their children, what is this telling viewers? That mutiliation of one’s body is OK, because the pursuit of perfect features, hair, teeth and nails is more important? Losing your identity is a small price to pay to look ‘good’, conforming to the established model of physical superiority is what’s important – who cares if your body mass is 80% silicon and acrylic? I despair at shows like this that brush over invasive surgery and gruelling physical strain, not to mention the jaw-dropping costs involved, in order package up the end result as a fairytale solution to the trials of getting older.

This brings me to man of the hour, androgynous former stylist and presenter a la mode: Gok Wan. If Extreme Makeover is at one end of the scale, his show would surely be at the other (with Trinny and Susannah loitering somewhere in the middle). How to Look Good Naked drew up the blueprint I think T & S were trying to replicate with Great British Body, promoting the same idea of inner happiness coming from taking pride in one’s appearance. I have to admit, Wan is a difficult one for me as he’s an intrinsically likeable character which immediately differentiates his offering from What Not to Wear. From the off, his tactics are ‘how to’ as opposed to their more fascist ‘how NOT to’, and his more gentle approach has won him fans the nation over. But is Gok Wan a co-conspirator in the plan to sell aesthetics as psychological DIY or is he doing something different? I genuinely believe that Wan takes more care than most with the raw materials he’s given – only a small proportion of the show is attributed to dressing ‘well' (whatever that means) and he does seem to genuinely believe in what he’s doing. His well publicised past weight problems as well as his homosexual status seem to lend him an air of ‘I’ve been there’ – he’s accessible and unthreatening to women and men alike…and – unusually for a TV personality – he actually seems quite, well, nice (it took a lot to write that). One feature of Wan’s show is to organise a sort of naked ‘line up’ of women against who Gok’s guest has to pit herself depending on what hang up she suffers. Where would she put herself in the order of ‘biggest thighs’, or ‘largest bum’? What could come off quite badly as judging one woman’s body against another actually serves to illuminate the woman on their unfounded insecurities as she is more often than not wildly over exaggerating her flaws.

That’s not to say I don’t have my gripes with How To Look Good Naked. At the end of the day, Wan still sends his ‘normal’ girls down a catwalk otherwise flanked with gazelle like models, and he does to a certain extent buy into cosmetic enhancement (though via the counter and not the scalpel). Let’s face it, if Wan advocated the idea that we don’t have to change ANY aesthetic, there wouldn’t be much potential for an hour long show, but ultimately I think he really does mean well. That this programme is handled sensitively is its main virtue. TV still has a way to go until the link between outer appearance and inner identity is dismantled (or at least afforded less impetus) but Gok Wan is at least heading in the right direction.