'The Swan': The Most Ghoulish Reality Show Ever
When we think of makeover reality TV today, feelgood shows like Queer Eye immediately spring to mind; half-hour segments of watching five sweet cheerleaders help people, whether they're biker dads or Cthulhu-esque hockey monsters, figure out their best selves by showing them how to be confident, how to style their hair and how to French tuck their shirts.
But in the ruthless reality TV show era of the early aughts, when the height of "entertainment" was laughing at regular people eating insects or mocking trans women, makeover shows didn't have time for all that genteel positivity. They preferred to just cut to the chase. Even if that meant chasing down people to cut into.
The Swan was a 2004 makeover show on Fox that was equal parts aspirational and gore porn. Every episode, two "ugly ducklings," the show's name for the chronically insecure and often abused women it would prey on, would be picked with the promise of releasing their inner beauty. But The Swan didn't intend on doing this by buying them some nicer clothes and teaching them mindfulness. Instead, they were going to relentlessly cut away at their outer ugliness with plastic surgery until these women looked less like someone else entirely.
After documenting the women's tragic history of mistreatment for not living up to society's beauty standards, the remainder of The Swan was spent proving that, actually, the bullies were right. Half-naked contestants would be put in front of a panel of cosmetic surgeons, beauty experts, and other professional sociopaths while they discussed how to reconstruct their entire bodies like they were figuring out how to renovate a crack den.
In between the dozens of hours of subsequent surgery, the mummified contestants would be kept in complete isolation, locked away in rooms with no TV, phone, or mirrors. To shield them from the eventual body dysmorphic shock, they were counseled by an expert rehabilitation psychologist. No, hang on, I meant to say: an unlicensed therapist from an online university whose sole job was to chip away at whatever shred of self-confidence the surgery hadn't sliced off so that their Stockholm Syndrome would be as ratings-friendly as possible.
This traumatic isolation was done just to heighten the episode's money shot: the post-surgery reveal. After the (physical) scarring had adequately healed, the episode's two victims--sorry, contestants, were guided into an Eyes Wide Shut Illuminati mansion. There, a panel of tuxedoed judges was asked to welcome "the brand new" Swan as curtains hiding a large Victorian mirror would unfurl. At this point, after they realized they were looking at their reflections and not a TV screen showing a slowly melting Barbie doll, the shock would often leave the contestants simultaneously crying and laughing with the kind of manic energy less common in a reality makeover show and more in a Joker origin story.
But the humiliation was far from over. After all, The Swan wasn't just Body Dysmorphia: the reality TV show; it was Body Dysmorphia: the reality TV competition. So, just after these two women were told this is as beautiful as they were ever going to be, their own panel of butchers would decide that one still wasn't beautiful enough. The 'winner' of the episode would then move on to the show's finale, a dystopian beauty pageant where the remaining Swans had to compete for the crown of Miss Mail Order Bride -- though it's really hard to figure out who won since they all look like the same off-brand Barbie but with different colored wigs.
Amazingly, The Swan managed to strike again for a second season despite mass public outrage, obliterating reviews from critics and the reveal that the panels of cosmetic surgeons were allowed to pick victims -- sorry, contestants -- nope, victims, not for how well they could be helped, but how well their cut-up faces would look as advertisements for their businesses. But its true legacy isn't the controversy that a show that mutilated women to adhere to patriarchal beauty standards was ever allowed to exist. It's not even the physical, psychological, and emotional trauma it inflicted on its contestants, all of whom still carry many more scars than the surgical ones. It's that The Swan got 9.1 million viewers per episode.
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Top Image: Fox