How You Should Live: Experts on TV

This essay concerns the rise of experts in makeover TV (in the UK) and the influences that have occurred as a result. It is not a comprehensive analysis of makeover TV, neither is it an evaluation of experts. It is an investigation into the broader social effects that the programming may cause. This means that although there are many issues concerning sexuality, gender and race, I will not be extensively addressing these, nor will I be taking a left or right political stance. I will attempt to establish how and what the influences of the experts are, and will discuss the merits of such effects. I also assume that TV is accepted as a powerful medium, and that its influence is felt throughout the west. The text I feel is most appropriate for study is ‘How to look good naked’, hereafter referred to as HTLGN. Although only directly feminine makeovers are featured, I believe it to be a useful example as it is a popular and typical makeover show, and readers are expected to understand that it is a representation of the genre, and not an isolated analysis of the specific text. The show also features Gok Wan, who is presenter, narrator and expert of everything in the show, the uber-expert. This applies well to the piece, as will become apparent later. Although I speak very much in the first person, this is due to the personal approach I am taking to the investigation, and the informal tone does not mean that the essay is trivial in any way – in fact, quite the opposite. The aim is to dissect the systems in which makeover TV and its experts operate within, and what wider social influences this may have upon society.


Makeover TV first became popular in the 1990’s and has risen from lowly daytime TV scheduling to the primetime UK TV slots it holds today. Arguments for this sudden increase in popularity are numerous. Firstly, it is noticeably cheaper to produce reality TV for broadcasters, with no need for highly paid actors or elaborate sets. There has also been a wider cultural shift in acceptance of metrosexual and cosmetic culture, which ties in with consumerism. Margaret Thatcher’s reign in the 1980’s also led to an increase of consumerism and more disposable income available for ‘lifestyle synergy’ (Taylor, 2002). Finally and most importantly, a rise in working women meant that women now wanted to watch TV after work, resulting in the shift of (domesticated woman’s) daytime TV to primetime TV. The significance of makeover TV being firmly in mainstream television culture is that there are now more experts on popular TV.

The rise of celebrity culture has coincided with the rise of celebrity experts on TV. The TV expert is a prophet-like oracle for everything from love, marriage, clothing, exercise and diet to child rearing and business. Indeed, ‘TV’s celebrities and experts are now among the most talked about, admired and emulated people in our culture... and are important sources of information to how we should live’ (Kubey, 1990, p196). Experts and those who follow them exist in a system of hierarchy. Within each individual field (in this case how to look good naked etc.) there are the masses, and a handful of people whose experience and knowledge of that field raises them to a higher level within the hierarchy, to the status of the expert. Experts then become the authority and command the ‘right to be listened to’ in society (Kubey, 1990). The dominant class (experts) then create the hegemonic ideology for the subordinate (the public) to follow. Using the Frankfurt school’s hypodermic needle model, the expert-created texts all work in conjunction at various levels in society to reinforce each other, and inter-textually inject the ideology into society (Baylis, 2001)

The experts are actively creating the knowledge. There is no such knowledge that 60’s suits look good in HTLGN, but as Wan thinks they do, then that opinion becomes knowledge, and therefore something for the subordinate to adopt. The expert who has accumulated the experience, in this case Wan in fashion, is seen as a sage in terms of his opinion being highly valued. The subordinate, or ‘un-educated’ then ‘buys’ the accumulated experience from the expert. The viewer may not know anything about suits, let alone 60’s suits. Wan then ‘sells’ the information that 60’s suits are good and the audience will accept the knowledge. Essentially however, the expert actually only has his own interpretation of the information. Wan does not teach of his knowledge of 60’s suits, but his interpretation of the meaning. The audience buy Wan’s experience and meaning, which in this case is not the objective truth about the suit, but the interpretation that they look good. In actuality this knowledge, so often devotedly heralded by the audience as plain fact, merely derives from a particular perspective, a specific mode of many possible interpretations - that of the expert. In this sense, it is only Wan’s understanding of 60’s suits that is regarded as knowledge, and can therefore be assumed to be only awareness, not knowledge. (Fodor, 1994, p37)

The audience (and makeover client) will only accept this awareness or innovation if they have a vague prior awareness of the field, know how to apply the innovation and respect the hierarchy system outlined previously (that being the division of power between the expert and the subordinate) (Lierman, 1993). Interestingly, ‘why’ is unnecessary for adoption, although there are circumstances in which confirmation is required for the legitimisation of the dominant knowledge, something elaborated upon later when I discuss the ‘expert gaze’.

Experts in society and particularly in makeover programmes always identify a problem, before providing a solution themselves. (Lundquist et al., 2000). Freire suggests in his ‘culture of silence’ theory that the clients (subordinate) have ‘empty bank accounts’, which is seen as a problem. The expert then fills the bank account with his/her knowledge, thus addressing the needs of the client, solving the problem (Freire, 1972). In HTLGN, Wan declares himself as ‘Madame Butterfly... your fairy godmother’, the saviour to the client’s problems.

The increase in popularity of makeover TV matches the rise in the amount of ordinary people on TV. The focus has changed from more distant or epic topic to more mundane, everyday features on TV. This has been termed the ‘ordinarisation of TV’ (Brunsdon, et al., 2001, p53). The advice from experts is also of a more ordinary nature, and usually regards knowledge referring to the domestic or the everyday. Lifestyle TV hooks onto the ordinary rhythms, practices and sites of everyday life, in terms of both content and influence (Taylor, 2002). Indeed, the very term ‘lifestyle specialist’ in BBC’s Spendaholics connotes an ‘expert of the everyday’. This shift from more scientific-based expertise on TV to the domestic is also marked by a change from practical advice to aesthetic ‘makeover’ advice.

The rise of the aesthetic-based expert has been remarkable. Although the expertise required is more awareness than scientific-based knowledge as described earlier, the two are considered to be at least equal on TV. It is not unusual for the two types of experts to be working side-by-side on a makeover TV show. Wan works alongside a manufacturing expert in HTLGN and in BBC’s Changing Rooms, it is not unusual for aesthetic designer Llewelyn-Bowen to work alongside practical carpenter Handy Andy.

The importance of aesthetics is considered so great in makeover TV for a reason, as in western culture (including the UK) aesthetics are an indicator of the self. In the era of mass media, culture is in part about the relationship between identities represented in media discourse (through experts) and how people identify both themselves and members of other social groups. People make a serious investment in using cultural form as a means to actively express their identity and attempt to both differentiate themselves from others and imitate those that they consider to be ‘good’. The idea of lifestyle as a new social form (as a result of makeover TV, among others) becomes the primary identity marker. Ultimately, aesthetics have become the primary identity marker in the UK, which further explain the success of makeover TV (Lewis, 2007). ‘Looking good makes you feel good’ (Gok Wan).

The concept of ‘presentation of the self’ becoming the real self (determined by identity) is evident in makeover TV. Not only does this idea of aesthetics concern clothing and image of the self, but also of extensions of the self. This includes the home (Home Front), the garden (Ground Force), the car (Pimp My Ride UK) and others. A makeover of aesthetics becomes a makeover of the self. In HTLGN, the client’s husband, home and workplace are revealed, which shows the audience the full aesthetic presentation (and therefore the identity) of the client. The different presentations of each attribute of the self have now become responsibilities by which one is judged by others. This explains why Jenny is told to wear sexual clothes in HTLGN to say ‘hello boys’, even though she is happily married, as sexual clothing is seen as a ‘good’ identity marker.

This concept does not address audiences as passive, but rather active adopters of this notion. Individuals are aware that identities are made, not ascribed. People learn what is good from makeover TV and subsequently aim to achieve it. ‘Individuals must produce, stage and cobble together their biographies themselves’ (Beck, 1996, p3). This is termed the reflexive self (Lewis, 2007, p286). There is never a finished stage, but a never-ending task of self betterment. Indeed, experts not only preach their knowledge, but also the awareness of how to be better at self-management. The experts on makeover TV are teaching what good taste is (or what they classify as good taste), and how the client can acquire it. Bad hair is indentified as a problem (or social irresponsibility) with the self as it is not good taste, and then the individual can become a better person, by bettering their taste.

This focus on continual self-betterment or the reflexive self actually means that people are less classified by gender, sexuality or race than ever before, but are actually better people by being better consumers. This is evident in HTLGN, where the client begins as a ‘bad consumer’ and then the narrative takes places and subsequently transforms the client to a ‘good consumer’. Clients (and audiences) are taught to be consumer-savvy, which links to the concepts of the reflexive self and the teaching of good taste. HTLGN compares products and teaches the viewer how to judge (and buy) them. This heavy focus on consumerism is tied in with systems of capitalism. As experts are creating new knowledge, they are creating new needs. No-one knew they needed a new suit (had a problem) until Gok Wan stated that 60’s suits looked good. The only way to address the need is by purchasing a new suit, in order to become a better person. So capitalism creates desires as well as fulfilling them. This is reflected in western capitalist society, where wealth and consumer know-how are strong indicators of status, ‘We are rewarded for consumption, not production’ (Lowenthal, 1961, p111). Furthermore, the idea of reflexive selfhood and continuous self-betterment through consumerism is exemplified by the quote ‘We are never satisfied. We are always told about the essentials we need for a better and happier life... nowadays very few behave as if consumption is not at the apex of their concerns’ (Kubey, 1990, p197). TV tells us that a worthwhile life is measured in terms of how many desirable objects we own. Gaining complex skills are unnecessary to achieve this, due to the presence of experts on TV. A good example of this could be when Wan says ‘I’ve got everything you need to know about bras’.

Interestingly, the institution of TV sits well inside capitalism (except perhaps the BBC). HTLGN is produced by channel 4, a company funded by advertising. Adverts themselves adhere to the notion of new demand created by new discontent. Like makeover TV, adverts make us ‘chase after a vague and constantly changing constellation of attitudes’ (Chaney 2001 p86). The shows themselves are directly linked to consumerism, with product testing prevalent, and sales of a ‘chofa’ increasing by 4000% after being featured on Queer Eye (Lewis, 2007, p302).
To recap, we have established that creation of the self occurs through the presentation of the self. This is fuelled by goals of presentation set by experts on makeover TV. The reflexive self is also continuous self-management, and has its roots firmly entwined with consumerism. Makeover TV is about being a better consumer.

The higher people in society’s hierarchy (the experts) create the ‘rules’ for a reason, according to Plato. His ‘noble lie’ theory indicates that most people do not know what is best for them, therefore only the experts should know the objective truth, and have full freedom (Jackson, 2001). As touched upon earlier, the experts not only create the knowledge but create the norm. This norm, or ‘good taste’ as previously described, is clearly set out in pop culture. Of course HTLGN cannot possibly create the norm in isolation, but using the hypodermic needle model again, the norm is created through experts across many formats, including makeover programming. So the dominant class are establishing what is normal, and therefore what is abnormal (or bad taste). People create their identities in accordance to this norm, which is a norm of at least a middle class nature. Although multiple types of good taste (norm) can exist, for example with homosexual clothing; camp or butch styles are both often accepted as normal, only one class of norm is accepted. Although more regional accents of a lower class connotation are featured on TV, which dents this claim, I still believe that the norm created is middle class, something to aspire to but not out of reach. It is a case of being what is good, but normal. ‘Rather than strive to be something awesome or distant, they increasingly strive to be one of the neighbours, or very slightly better’ (Chaney, 2002 p109). The 60’s suits are no better than sports trousers, but the cultural capital of the suits mean that they are ‘better’ and are therefore the norm, albeit a petit-bourgeoisie norm (Bordieu, 1984).

By this same logic, deviants from the socially accepted norm need a makeover to change them from abnormal to normal, as is the case with HTLGN. The improvements made are not real improvements, but changes that can be viewed by others that move them closer to the norm. Gramsci suggests that the continual reinforcing of what the norm is creates a false sense of objective truth. The norm is assumed to be ‘common sense’, and people do not question that it may not be actually worse than deviant ideas (Gramsci quoted in Baylis, 2001). In HTLGN, Wan utters ‘This will make your boobs look a bit bigger’ as if bigger means better. In UK society, this is generally accepted as the norm, but may not necessarily be actually better. The norm is constantly developing, which results in the constantly changing identities. People tune in to makeover TV to update their understanding of the norm, as to make their reflexive self better (or closer to the norm).

Moreover, this notion of constantly aspiring to be the norm in order to better the self results in the impression that people are making active choices in the everyday aesthetics of their lives. Decision-making ability is central to lifestyle. I would counter this, and suggest that even though people are making decisions in order to get closer to the norm, the choices they make are pointless. If everybody’s goal is to achieve a norm of some description, then nobody is making actual real decisions or using any real creativity. Our culture, like any other has already been structured so as to pre-empt or limit options, leaving most of us with only the illusion of having made a decision (Adorno, 1975). If there is only one ‘correct’ set of norms, and deviation will result in social rejection, then perhaps this idea of ‘false-choices’ is the Marx idea of ‘opiate of the masses’. People do not complain or revolt over their or lack of freedom or creativity because they are led to believe that they are making decisions (Marx quoted in McLellan, 1978). Religion and war as the opiate of the masses has developed to mass-media and social norms. Ordinary comforts are formed out of everyday life and lifestyle.

This system of pseudo-decisions and lifestyle is firmly held in place by an idea developed by Michel Foucault. Based on the Panopticon prison, Foucault suggests that everybody is always being judged, or at least under the constant threat that they might be being observed. (Foucault, 1975) As exemplified by the Panopticon; the guards can see all the inmates, but the inmates cannot see the guard. So the guard may be looking at an individual convict, but they may not. The inmate will never know. This results in the creation of docile bodies through the feeling of omnipresent surveillance. I have adapted this theory to the culture of makeover TV. The ‘expert gaze’ operates in a similar manner. When people consume pop culture (via experts), they are determining what the dominant norm is, as outlined earlier. After establishing this, they subconsciously judge everybody else, with these norms as a basis for comparison. If they see somebody massively deviating from the norms, they will behave somewhat differently than to someone who is adhering to the norms of society. Reversely, they become aware that they should be complying with these norms themselves. Therefore, they are under threat from omnipresent surveillance. The individual becomes not only the inmate but the guard too. They are the expert and the client. Society is always potentially judging the individual, through domestic space, clothing or any aesthetic symbol.

The expert gaze can be seen in HTLGN, when members of the public in the street are questioned on how good the client looks (how close they are to the norm). Friends and family are also featured in talking to the camera, which almost creates a public sphere in which everyone (the audience) and the client’s peers are all gossiping and discussing how ‘good’ the client is.

It is important to note that even rebellion is a norm, experts being replaced by icons such rebellious rock bands for example, although this is not directly linked with what this essay is concerned with. Also, aesthetics are not the only avenue which is regulated by a norm, as social etiquette and others is also regulated by society, although it is nearly always concerned with presentation. Unfortunately, word constraints and my particular focus on Makeover TV (and its obsession with aesthetics) mean that some aspects of this theory can be only be elaborated upon further in another piece.

Theodore Adorno has a fairly all-encompassing viewpoint on most of the notions put forward in this essay, and I have adapted them to match my specific ideas to a greater degree. Adorno states that audiences and therefore the public are made more submissive through the easy pleasures made available through mass media (everyday pleasures). The false sense of choice or ‘psuedo-individualisation’ is created through the consumption of pop-culture. The system (as previously outlined) creates false needs, which can only be sated through consumerism, benefitting the creators of the ideology (institution via experts). The dominant benefit from the subordinate through the creation of this hegemonic ideology, by keeping the subordinate submissive, and by promoting consumerism. The consumerism ultimately results in profits for the institutions (the ideology-creating dominant). Adorno argues that this is unfair on the masses. He states that the true needs of an individual to achieve genuine happiness are creativity and freedom.

I counter this claim and say that in western (therefore Christian) society, ideals may be different. In the Bible, the book of Genesis there is a story about the garden of Eden. It is about a place of no creativity or freedom, but infinite happiness. A snake convinces the garden’s two inhabitants that eating a special apple will result in complete freedom for both of them. They will be ale to see objective truth for what it really was. Adam chose to eat the apple, and God punished him by making him labour for survival. Thus, freedom was granted - but at cost to happiness and comfort. The world of blissful ignorance was dead (Riches, 2000).

I am not questioning any aspect of Christianity, I am merely stating that the Christian west, much of which is governed by religious laws and leaders has a fundamental belief in ‘ignorance is bliss’. It is similar to the question ‘if you could take a drug to make you happy, would you?’, which is another example of sacrificing free choice for happiness. Now, the parallels with everything I have described in this essay are evident. Even though only the dominant hegemonic powers have true freedom, does it mean that the masses are unhappy? By only having pseudo-individualisation, do people really have no comfort in their lives? While I appreciate that the comparison is fairly drastic, and that modern culture is more of a balance between the two extremes (free choice vs. Mindlessness), It is interesting that the system is seen as so terrible by Adorno. To further criticise Adorno, I would note that he does not offer any viable alternative, no system that would address the problems he highlights. He is of left wing disposition, and a Marxist – a system that certainly does not combat some of the debates surrounding freedom and happiness. In reference to the earlier idea from Plato, people are do not know what is best for themselves. Ignorance is better for their happiness. Adorno’s idea of freedom for all is essentially anarchy.

Unfortunately my position is not to suggest whether people should take the happiness pill or not, rather it is to highlight the mechanics and outcomes of the current system in the west, and illustrate the similarities between the foundations of western society and the foundations of western society’s main religion. I believe the question is unanswerable, or at least would require a longer word permit than I have been granted.

To summarise, makeover TV and its experts are one component of many that establishes dominant hegemony of what is ‘the norm’. This norm is what people aspire to, and in effect is the creator of identities in society through pseudo-individualism, with presentation being the basis of judgement and comparison. This is both a result and a catalyst of capitalism, and works as a deep-seated and pervasive force within the public sphere, as well as being a prevailing component within the economic domain. While Adorno and others argue that this is massively beneficial for the dominant and largely detrimental for the subordinate, I would propose that happiness may still have a place within this system. Finally, after reading this and other texts, people can be made aware of the systems in place. Once aware, surely people can make their own minds up if they want to take the happiness pill? And indeed, some do.

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