Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Look and ‘The Twilight Zone’

The Ethics Scoreboard tries not to belabor the obvious. Every corporate scandal doesn’t get coverage here, because there is little need to explain why some things are wrong. Thus it has refrained all year from commenting on the warped and damaging values promoted by the T.V. show “The Swan,” which takes relatively normal-looking women and subjects them to extensive plastic surgery before having them compete in a beauty pageant, to be judged according to how fetching they look in slinky low-cut gowns and bathing suits. The show has been roundly excoriated by television critics and social commentators alike, and its ratings have been dropping precipitously, indicating that “The Swan” may not be around much longer.

But the latest (the second) installment of “The Swan” included a particularly disturbing feature with special ethical implications. I didn’t notice it the first time around, perhaps because I was busy recoiling in horror from the fact that the show had eerie similarities to an old “Twilight Zone” episode (“Number Twelve Looks Just Like You”) in which an independent and average looking teenaged girl is bullied and confused into submitting to a societally mandated cosmetic transformation process that leaves her looking and thinking exactly like her blonde, gorgeous and vacuous best friend.

As each beautified, implanted, lipo-sucked, coifed, and curvaceous “Swan” contestant swiveled her way to the end of the runway, the image of her former self appeared to be standing next to her, looking pale, paunchy and miserable, with stringy unkempt hair, dressed in some kind of unflattering undergarment that emphasized every bulge and asymmetric feature. The figure looked longingly over at the surgically transformed woman she had become, and then it came.

The Look.

Each of the Swan contestants was directed to look to the right where her “Before” image was digitally inserted for the TV audience. The Look varied slightly from a dismissive snub to a haughty laugh to an outright sneer, but the message of The Look was always the same: “I’m better than you. You’re a loser. You’re ugly, and I’m beautiful, and I never want to see you again.” The Look was contempt.

The Look, of course, is what all of these women had suffered from thinner, bustier, smoother and sexier women for most of their adult lives, and perhaps before. Women who happened to be blessed with favorable and popular physical features because of genetics, good luck, abundant free time or financial resources, felt that this somehow entitled them to denigrate others and make them feel inferior. This is The Look that spreads anorexia and bulimia, that makes women vulnerable to psychological manipulation by the media and Madison Avenue, that feeds depression, alcoholism, drug abuse and emotional illness. Once victims of it, the newly svelte, comely and voluptuous Swan contestants might have been expected to reject The Look, to realize that their medically enhanced appearances hadn’t made them better people, and that they had an obligation to avoid spreading a state of mind that threatens to turn America into that precinct in the Twilight Zone where conformity, mindless beauty and perfect abs are the measures of self-worth.

But no. The surgery did not make the Swan wannabes better people; it made them worse: shallow, superficial, disrespectful, vain, insensitive and cruel. Suddenly conventionally beautiful, they couldn’t wait to assert their superiority over those women who look like they once looked, whose faces and figures reflected a life with priorities that do not start with what they see in the mirror.

The Swans had become beautiful jerks, promoting the unethical values of narcissistic jerkism to millions of Americans.

Perhaps, like the effects of the make-over, this toxic psychological state will fade over time. Still, the effect The Look has had on girls and women across America (even a low-rated show like “The Swan” reaches millions) may last quite a bit longer. And if the values promoted by shows like this and our beauty and celebrity obsessed culture aren’t assailed widely, credibly, persuasively, and soon, we may be seeing The Look more and more as time goes by. And one day, all of us just might embrace the concept that beauty, and not kindness, courage, creativity, dedication, or anything else, is what matters most.

“Portrait of a young lady in love…with herself. Improbable? Perhaps. But in an age of plastic surgery, body building, and an infinity of cosmetics, let us hesitate to say impossible. These and other strange blessings may be waiting in the future…which, after all, is The Twilight Zone.”

Rod Serling, at the Conclusion of “Number Twelve Looks Just You,” January 24, 1964



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