Posted by Pattie on 12/08/2003 10:27:00 PM


It is interesting that Tish blogged about Average Joe today because I've been thinking about reality shows. Since I've been learning more about production of video and film, I've come to realize exactly why reality shows exist. They are cheap to make. Most of the people appearing on camera are not paid for their appearance. Yeah, they win things (or people strangely enough), but they aren't there to make a living. In addition, hand-held, small cameras are a plus and, in fact, help create the "reality" because they look like the videos you make on your vacation. Also, many of them only have one or two cameras instead of the three camera set up of many television productions. Special effects are limited to whatever Final Cut Pro or some other software will provide. In short, Carl and I frequently sit and watch these shows exclaiming to the television (as if it could hear us), "hey, I could do that."

Somewhere along the way, I've gotten hooked on decorator shows. Okay, so there's an interior decorator struggling to get out of me and always has been. I like working with my hands. I like visual arts. I like figuring out how to do something for less money. No one who saw where I lived right now would believe I like to decorate, but I do and I have done so in the past.

But decorator shows are not all created equal and I've been facinated by the differences and what those differences say about society.

First, there are the true decorator shows. They have professional designers who basically create a space with a lot of money and a suburban flare. I find these shows boring. Where is the fun in watching someone else decorate your home? The owner goes away and comes back to find a new room that looks like something out of home and garden (in fact, most of these shows are produced for the Home and Garden Television). It is high-end Levitt town mentality and it is a yawner.

Second there are the competition or conflict-oriented shows. Trading Spaces pits neighbours or friends against each other in a friendly contest to create a criss-cross makeover, usually of one room with a limited budget. While I like the limited budget part and the part where the show's guests actually are involved in the makeover process, I frequently don't like the outcomes and I have a suspicion that many of the people tear down the makeover ten minutes after the camera crews leave, vowing never to talk to their neighbours again.

Makeover Mamas similarly drives me crazy because its all about the in-law conflict. Knowing how well my mom and mom-in-law get along, I find the show is not realistic. I mean our mothers would agree on too many things and the result would be quite painful for me and my husband. Besides, I always have visions of the MTV's claymation celebrity death match when I watch the show.

There are three of these shows that I do like and for three separate reasons.

While You Were Out is always sweet. It is usually about one person giving something to someone they love. A daughter makes over her parents backporch to give them a feeling of having a retirment home. A girfriend creates a backyard paradise for her partner because her partner redecorated the inside of the house. A grandaughter remakes her grandmother's family room as a thank-you for putting her through nursing school. There is no competition on this show. The tension comes from keeping the secret and finishing before the person returns. There are little games based upon how much the giver and the givee know each other, but most of the time the answers are so obvious even I can guess the right one by the end of the show. It is just a feel-good show and I have actually cried at the end when the person is surprised.

Clean Sweep is fun to watch because it is so functional. It adds the dimension of conducting a garage sale in which the members of the household have to come to terms with all the junk they have accumulated. The "makeover" is usually to create a more functional space -- more room, better workspace, etc. There is a certain asterity to the whole thing that makes me think that makeovers can be as much about simplifying your life as making it more attractive. Plus, I live with the King of garage sales (and he found us the $1 microwave to prove it).

But after all is said and done, my most favourite makeover show isn't limited to designing spaces. I love Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. There is the same kind of sweet element that shows up in While You Were Out. Someone, usually not the straight guy, has nominated the guy for a makeover. It is usually because he is at a turning point in his life. There is a lot of functional stuff because much of the advise given is about cooking and grooming. Some of it is a little more oriented to anti-aging techniques than I like, but most of the advice is about accepting your assets than trying to achieve an impossible ideal vision of what one should be.

Much of the show is about looking good as part of changing one's life. Do I believe that a makeover changes a person? Well, yes and no. I think there is something fun about redoing one's physicality in order to mark a change in one's life. I pierced my nose after an incredible weekend retreat which renewed my spirit in 1999 and I got a phoenix tatooed on my arm to mark my receiving a Ph.D. I also like the "coming out" (pun intended) event that is planned as part of the makeover. Not only do these guys get a new look in both body and domicile, but they have a party to show it off. There is a kind of ritual to it all -- a post-modern rite of passage that I enjoy watching.

My favourite to date is the guy who burned his Toupee and showed off his bald head to people who had never seen it (he wore it for 14 years). There is a kind of Goffmanesque "back stage/front stage" to the show where you see the guy preparing for the party and having private moments of accepting the changes made in just one day and then how he presents himself to his friends and family.

But here's the thing I like most about Queer Eye. The fabulous five are rather stereotypical gay men and they camp it up a bit. That would be a drawback if it were done in a vacuum. But the straight guys are at home with the five men primping and playing with their lives. It is the straight guys who break the stereotypes. Most of these guys are not only hetero, they are presented as virile males. They are also often quite family-oriented and obviously presented as "good fathers." Yet there is not one hint of homophobia or prejudice on the part of these guys. The straight guys are often sensitive and make gestures (such as hugging) and statements (such as "I love you guys") that are very un-macho. The show presents a natural interchange between the men that I find refreshing in a world of buddy-movies and shoot-em-up car chases.

Is this reality? I doubt it. But some of it is exactly the way I wish the world could be. I wish we could mark the changes in our lives with a bunch of guys coming over to spread a lot of fun and then everyone could show up and celebrate.