“Fashioning Ladies and Taming Tramps: Reality TV, Manner Makeovers and Gendered Refinement/Rehabilitation — Karen Tice”
Today at 3:30 p.m.
2239 Lane Hall

Working class girl with poor manners and crude speech is scooped up off the street by wealthy and refined professor. This handsome professor, through lessons on etiquette and grooming, transforms the sorry girl (who just happens to have remarkably high cheekbones) into a lady. They both have a tasteful and happy “ever after.” So goes the plot of the iconic film “My Fair Lady” (1964) starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.

This storyline is constantly revisited. American culture is enthralled with new starts: the rise from rags to riches, the ugly duckling transforming into a swan, hard work and resourcefulness breeding success. It’s the American Dream. Perhaps no medium has latched onto this cultural trope more than reality television. On TV shows like VH1’s “Charm School,” WE’s “American Princess” and TLC’s “What Not to Wear,” D-list celebrity personalities such as Mo’Nique and Paul Burrell (the late Princess Diana’s butler) serve as “experts” on propriety while women are tamed and trained through a series of challenges and tasks until a winner emerges. Some shows include grammar and speaking lessons, while others feature lessons on things like fine wine and cricket.

Karen Tice, a professor at the University of Kentucky, will lecture today on the pop-culture phenomenon of the makeover reality show and the implications such shows hold for gender, class and race issues.

Tice explained that since 2000, there has been at least 100 reality shows produced about making over our bodies, behaviors and wardrobes. She refers to the shows as important “cultural artifacts” because they not only possess a multi-ethnic cast, but also a diverse and sizable audience. Tice’s lecture will explain how we may view this type of programming as important social lessons instructing their audience on how to be a proper man or woman in the modern era. In uncertain economic times, Tice believes that these messages are even more relevant.

“Given our financial chaos, there is a message of self-help, self-mastery,” Tice said. “If you can refine your life in terms of dress, body or social savvy then that can be your personal safety net.”

Makeover shows play to an audience that is versed in Perez Hilton and tabloid covers that are constantly displaying images of female celebrities as they engage in wild or reckless behavior (i.e. Britney Spears), just so that we can build them back up again and they can go back to winning VMAs. Male stars don’t seem to be up to such subjugation. David Duchovny just checked himself into rehab for sexual addiction and hardly a judgmental word was said. If the same had happened to a female celebrity, the tabloids would have been all over it.

“Charm School” brings audiences a group of badly behaved women described on the show’s site as “so nasty, vicious and rough-around-the-edges that even Flavor Flav didn’t want them.” The women are dressed up in prep school attire — short plaid skirts and navy blazers — and taught to behave properly.

“These shows are about tightening boot straps and bra straps. It’s controlling and restraining,” Tice repeated on multiple occasions.

“Hair may be pulled. Spit may fly. Fists may land. But one thing is for sure, when these ladies stab each other in the back – it will be with the proper utensil,” the promotional site teases audiences. Tice believes that these makeover shows send mixed messages to audiences. While they push propriety, they conversely allow the kind of toxic behaviors that they discourage — fighting, drinking and general cattiness.

“That’s where the drama is,” Tice said. “It’s very important to sort of critically evaluate what our messages and the kinds of silences — what’s being left out of the story… I’m just weary of propriety shows that provide easy solutions and ignore the structural problems of gender, race, class and ethnicity.”

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