Quick Change Artists: The Extreme Makeover of American Life




Cardenas, Elaine Hanson

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The reality television show, Extreme Makeover (EM), which first aired in December 2002, provides a window on the many currents of change flowing through American life at the millennium. As both a product of the system of flexible accumulation theorized by David Harvey and a vehicle for promoting the aims of the changing economy, EM provides an opportunity for examining the workings and effects of neoliberalism on American culture. Specifically, it reveals the growing instabilities, disruptions and rapid pace that characterize daily life; the collapsing boundaries between work and home life, medicine and entertainment; the reorganization of occupational categories; changing sources of wealth and power along with growing income disparities; and increasing surveillance throughout daily life. Analysis of the show provides insights into the competing influences on consumers as they navigate the tensions between the pleasures and payoffs of consumption, the liberatory potential of reinvention, and perceptions of complacency and false consciousness. Through the interactions of people from widely different social strata--executive producers, surgeons, below-the-line production workers, personal service providers, "craft entrepreneurs," housewives and contestants--the show provides a look at the occupational restructuring of the late 20th century and the shifting roles and opportunities in the culture economy. The creator/executive producer and the surgeons, who possess highly technical, niche skills necessary to the creation of images and symbolic communication, exemplify the new symbolic worker theorized by Drucker and Reich, as well as the emerging creative class. In contrast, the contestants, who fill mostly in-person service jobs, depend on their personalities and looks to improve their chances in multiple and increasingly competitive markets of relationships and jobs. Similarly, the television production workers labor for long hours under sweatshop conditions, with little job security, increasingly vulnerable to new technologies and competition from foreign workers. But all must contend with increased competition, mastering skills of salesmanship and self-promotion through the use of sales pitches, personal narratives, digitized images and personal contacts. Even the surgeons, once protected by the collective strength of the American Society for Plastic Surgery, scramble continuously to redefine the ethical and practical boundaries of their profession, relying on entrepreneurship and individualism to advance. The show reveals that everywhere people, at all levels, are hustling to keep apace of intensified competition through the packaging and branding of themselves and the continuous adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances.



Mass communication, American studies, Gender studies, Cosmetic Surgery, Extreme Makeover, Just-in-Time, Neoliberalism, Reality Television, TV Production