Remembering “The Swan”
Satire Alert: This is not a satire.
At a dinner party we attended recently, some friends were imagining outlandish premises for so-called “reality TV.” One young man proposed a “Hunger Games”-type show, in which attractive people wearing few clothes would be set loose in an unfamiliar woods, where “hunters” would track and “kill” them with paintball rifles. Another guy, laughing uproariously, suggested a program in which homely regular people, with the help of make-up artists and stylists, were transformed into celebrity-worthy stunners.
We had to remind him: already been done.
It’s been almost 15 years, but a version of that concept was once on television. Only worse.
It was called “The Swan,” as in, what ugly ducklings become. The premise of the show: 16 imperfect women – “average,” was, I believe, the euphemism heard on promotional voice-overs – hampered by big noses, crooked teeth, and paunchy bellies, undergo extensive cosmetic surgery at the hands of a team of expert scalpel artists; then, newly slimmed and streamlined, they compete in a Miss America-type beauty pageant.
My first thought when I saw the promo (which I hardly need mention aired on the Fox network) was that Western Civilization was finally breathing its death knell. One of the show’s gimmicks was that the contestants couldn’t look in a mirror for three months; their first glimpse of themselves was recorded for posterity and the voyeuristic indulgence of Fox’s viewers. In one preview, all the women sobbed, presumably from happiness, when they first saw their new visage. You get the idea.
Upon initial consideration, “The Swan” seemed to be a freak show of the worst kind, brought to you by the same people who’ve presented elaborately faked weddings and midget dating. It’s cynical, vulgar, and exploitative, and, like all good obscenity, appealed to our most prurient interests.
But then, after sitting through a number of commercials for clothes, skin care products, and cell phones, I realized that “The Swan” is actually a brilliant critique of American culture, and whomever came up with the idea for this Homely Becomes Beautiful contest is probably some sort of thinker on a level of cleverness just below Thomas Edison and slightly above the progenitors of “The Bachelorette.”
“The Swan” effortlessly lampoons our society’s obsession with physical attractiveness. It eloquently illustrates what happens to a culture in which appearance is the barometer of worth. Our advertisements – indeed our entire ethos of consumption – are predicated on we the buyers being dissatisfied with our looks, our smells, our magnetism. All media constantly remind us that we’re not yet good enough – but if we work at it and embody the values displayed by successful winners like, say, Jennifer Lopez and Justin Timberlake, we too may enjoy the fruits of triumph. (You know, like having countless admirers wanting to be our sex partners.) The contestants on “The Swan” were not so different from us; they were just physically less appealing (or maybe not). Their transformative journey from anonymous “nobody” into glamorous “somebody” is the American Legend writ large. It’s a story we all attempt to author in our own ways. But few of us resort to plastic surgery and prime time exhibitionism to achieve our goals. “The Swan” contestants were the bravest of us losers, and, Christ-like, they suffered in order that our dreams of fabulousness might someday be realized.
Seen as just another cheap ploy to sell products, remembering “The Swan” will cause low-grade nausea and persistent shame. But read as a poetic damnation of America’s inexorable descent into hopelessness, it must be recognized as a work of genius.