Should We Watch ‘Bridalplasty’?

Allyson Donovan, a contestant on "Bridalplasty"

Should we watch Bridalplasty, the new E! reality TV show that pits brides to be against each other to win cosmetic procedures and, for the lucky winner, a $100,000 “Dream Wedding”?  Philadelphia Magazine suggested the show be banned.  The Review Chimp called it the

most extraordinarily entertaining soul-selling-competition-for-extremely-needy-and/or-shallow-minded-attention-grabbing-spotlight-whores.

Without a doubt the show is awful.  It is hosted by former Miss USA winner and minor TV celeb Shanna Moakler and the surgeon is Terry Dubrow, whom viewers might recognize from his days on The Swan, an equally stomach-churning cosmetic surgery/beauty-competition without the whole wedding day thrown in.

The 12 brides-to-be are united in feeling ugly and wanting to feel “perfect” for their “perfect” wedding day.  The contestants (ten white, two black, all but one in their twenties) are all of the working class sort as well.  They are a receptionist and a bartender and unemployed.  Their lack of cultural and financial capital becomes clear in certain competitions, like whether or not champagne is “quality” or not.

Because of the culture and economy in which we reside, these women and their fiances believe that going under the knife will result in not just a more beautiful bride, but a more beautiful future.  Sadly, five of the 12 contestants have already been cut from the show and doomed to imperfection; the rest continue to compete for nose jobs, liposuction and implants until only one is left standing, awaiting her groom for the most perfectly dramatic “reveal” scene at the altar.

Of course the contestants are not alone in their belief that cosmetic surgery can lead to a better future.  According to the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS), approval for cosmetic surgery is a at an all time high.  And spending on cosmetic procedures has increased 147 percent in the past 13 years. Based on interviews I conducted with cosmetic-surgery patients for my recent book, nearly all of them said that they believed cosmetic surgery would pay off with a more secure future (either in terms of romantic security or job security).

But I am guessing that most of the viewers of the show are watching not because we imagine ourselves as just like the contestants, but because we see them as freaks.  Like any freak-show spectators, we separate ourselves from the monsters we see before us—and thereby normalize our own lives.

But I actually believe freak shows are important cultural texts and do in fact deserve our attention.  Surely a reality TV show that unites some of the most compelling ideologies of our time—romance, market competition, and technological progress—is worth paying attention to.  As disability theorist Rosemarie Garland argues,

The freak show made more than freaks:  it fashioned as well the self-governed, iterable subject of democracy—the American cultural self.  Parading at once as entertainment and education the institutionalized social process of enfreakment united and validated the disparate throngs positioned as viewer.”

In other words, Bridalplasty is not about the sad, sad women waiting to have their lives transformed by the magic of cosmetic surgery and the fairy tale that a perfect wedding will lead to a happily ever after.  Bridalplasty is about us, the viewers, who by watching reaffirm our subjectivity as engaged in Romance, Perfection, and Consumption, but in a way that is “good” and “pure” and “wholesome.”  In other words, by watching Bridalplasty we reaffirm our belief that love is not all you need, that beauty prevails, and that only the lucky ones will “win.”

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