Society: Plain Jane

Ahh, MTV. The first popular music video channel. It brought a fledgling art form into the homes of those lucky enough to afford it, creating groundbreaking, surreal shows that weren’t afraid to push whatever envelope was there at the time. Once iconic and somewhat solitary, with the countless music channels that sprouted up in the dawn of digital television, MTV has rapidly descended into unpleasantness.

Little if any music is played these days, and rather than the creative satirical jibes at celebrity culture that made it’s former incarnation successful, so-called ‘Music Television’ now settles with endless re-runs of Cribs (which is truly scraping the C-list barrel) and a succession of steadily grimmer ‘reality’ shows.

You thought My Super Sweet 16 was bad? Kids as young as thirteen are appearing on it these days. Sure, there is a degree of enjoyment in watching spoilt teenagers go on an eye-swiveling rampage before being ‘surprised’ with a gleaming Mercedes, but the enjoyment is extremely short lived as pretty soon you balk at the knowledge that yes, these people exist.

Then there’s the much discussed Teen Mom and the maddening I Used To Be Fat, in which tubby, lonely teenagers get harangued by an over-exuberant personal trainer until they drop staggering amounts of weight. Alongside this there are, of course, the obligatory scenes of weeping and shouting and sweatily working out until eventually the teenager emerges, pleased with their new shape and new found confidence. While the show promotes healthy eating and maintaining a steady exercise regime, to me it still appears a tad exploitative.

Most overweight teenagers don’t have the money or time to spend on an expensive personal trainer with blindingly white teeth and a curiously static face. While it is aspirational to improve your health, the speedy results and almost instant gratification demonstrated on this programme are almost impossible to achieve in reality. It plays on a common insecurity and innate voyeurism to lures audiences in.

While I can almost see a silver lining to I Used To Be Fat, the main offender in MTV’s current roster has to be Plain Jane. There is nothing to like about this show. With a blurb that promises to ‘transform ordinary, awkward and forgettable ‘Plain Janes’ into sexy, confident woment from the inside out’, with a view to impressing their chosen crush – usually a hapless, bemused fellow with floppy hair who blithely goes along with the format of the show.  Our insecure ‘Jane’ is shepherded through the spectacle by ‘British Fashion Expert’ Louise Roe and her neuroscientist chum, the chiseled and slightly sinister Dr. Jack.

‘Neuroscience!?’ you exclaim, ‘it can’t be all bad!’

Yes, friends, it can. Jack’s presence is absolutely surplus to requirements and no amount of snazzy graphics of synaptic gaps firing can disguise this.

A step beyond Gok Wan’s dubious How to Look Good Naked, which attempts the odd bit of cod psychology along with his standard ‘bit chubby? Wear a waist belt!’ advice, Plain Jane has one mission and one mission only – to turn it’s punter into the kind of girl who wears heels to the supermarket and accosts you by the sliced ham in an attempt to secure your number.

This is done in spectacular fashion, with the most hackneyed of devices employed for maximum audience cringing.  These include the time honored earpiece dispensing the ‘expert’s’ live advice as they observe their subject attempting to communicate with various actors in obviously false circumstances (little effort is made to hide the artificiality of these situations – indeed if that many male models were shopping in the same branch of Asda as me with nobody else around I would be just slightly wary).

The makeover consists mainly of froofing the girl’s hair, putting her in an uncomfortable looking dress and, in classic teen movie style removing her glasses before the ’fashion expert’ throws her hands to the skies with glee upon observing the miracles she has wrought.

Are your fists aptly clenched yet? It gets worse. Each episode culminates in an excruciating date with the Jane’s desired man, usually in a rather suspect environment – an empty cinema, for example, with one solitary candlelit dinner in front of the screen. Upon seeing the transformed Jane, hapless man-friend mouths a somewhat patronizing ‘wow’ and pulls out her chair. The teenagers then chat awkwardly, punctuated with silences so palpable the embarrassment almost flies through the screen. The couple walk off into the sunset, and as the credits roll it is invariably revealed that they ‘dated for two weeks then decided to remain friends.’ Nice one,  Roe. Back to the drawing board.

While this is an essentially harmless and air headed show, to me it says a great deal about how society’s views towards women in the public eye have changed very little since the initial outcry of the damaging effect of the media on vulnerable teenage girls, and the hard work of feminist movements to encourage aspirations other than finding ‘the perfect guy.’

I don’t wish to fully mount my soapbox here, but a programme promoting snaring a boy through changing who you are both inside and out is pretty irresponsible and slightly sickening. It encourages that  cruel teenage mentality that to be of worth, you need to be deemed generically attractive and wield your boyfriend like a badge of honour, as he too might wish to wield you.

Similarly to I Used To Be Fat, the smiling faces of the once ‘Plain Janes’ are heartening after their makeovers, but in reinforcing the belief that ‘improving’ your appearance makes you happy, the programme reinforces all the insecurities and hang-ups that go with it. The logical end-point to ‘innocent’ makeover shows such as this are the further sickening The Swan, and Extreme Makeover, in which contestants receive multiple cosmetic surgeries within the space of several weeks.

Extreme Makeover has even been accused of being responsible for a suicide following a decision to not allow a participant to go through with the surgery despite already completing part of the process (the part in which doctors, friends and family are encouraged to make disparaging remarks about their appearance before the operations). For more on this please read Gawker’s Reality Kills and ring your hands in righteous fury.

The media should exercise a degree of social responsibility over programmes such as these. Self-improvement is one thing, but labelling girls ‘Plain Janes’ and ‘ugly’ in comparison to a somewhat warped idea of beauty is absolutely disgusting, contributing an ever-growing issue in today’s society.

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