What not to watch

Reviewing the make-over show What Not to Wear smacks slightly of flogging a dead horse. Despite the range of opinion presented in The F Word, even Samara Ginsberg’s mostly complimentary blog entry concedes that Trinny and Susannah’s media and fashion ventures are, at the very least problematic, if not fundamentally objectionable. I agree with Jayne that the problem with T&S’ shows lie at their very core, with their insistence that women should simply get better at playing the “ultimately unwinnable beauty game” with the help of these two sort-of posh yet quite touchy-feely (well, grabby actually) fairy godmothers. Trinny and Susannah’s ‘soft touch’ approach – no liposuction, no dieting, just lots of criticism, a new wardrobe, make up and hair style – is small consolation.

Instead of giving it up once and for all, we’re cajoled into giving in yet again. And yet somehow I too, like Jess McCabe, somehow find the Trinny and Susannah brand “desperately watchable”, with the original What Not To Wear on BBC1 remaining a firm favourite, although the format has been seriously undermined by a bizarre recent choice of presenters. That is, I used to find it watchable until the evening of 18 December 2007.

Trinny suggested that women who work at supermarkets such as Somerfield may have chosen such employment because they don’t care enough about their appearance

As the title suggests, Trinny and Susannah Undress the Nation throws up a series of political issues in addition to gender and sexuality. The focus on individuals in need of their trademark makeover combo of attitudes and appearance – for Trinny and Susannah, the two always go hand in hand – has now been replaced by the broader and far more ambitious endeavour of ‘undressing’ – or exposing in order to transform – the nation. In practice this means that we watch these two fairy godmothers, come media personalities, come businesswomen being chauffeured to places outside greater London to address and redress low self-esteem and its symptom of frumpiness in whole groups of women, who are encouraged to run around naked (an established motif of liberated femininity in the makeover genre) almost without fail for a substantial portion of each episode. Last time I watched the show, the duo targeted the uniforms of the UK workforce, singling out the retail staff of Somerfield as makeover guinea pigs. Two specific occurrences in the first 10 minutes of this episode put an end to my ambivalent tolerance of the show and prompted me to lodge a complaint with Ofcom right away, leaving my lasagne to get cold.

undressnationexerpts.gifThe first thing that forced me to change the channel was a speculation by Trinny on the psychological makeup of women who wear none, or wear it ‘badly’. Trinny suggested that women who work at supermarkets such as Somerfield may have chosen such employment because they don’t care enough about their appearance; in other words, Trinny reasoned, some women seek a convenient disguise in the shapeless uniforms that they are made to wear. I had just about become resigned to the offhand psychological interpretations that expediently interweave low self-esteem with an ignorance of ‘what not to wear’ propagated by Trinny and Susannah. This, though, was something different and more insidious. To completely ignore the economic and social conditions of the retail labour market, and to misinterpret necessity and limited choice as personal preference unconsciously motivated by deep-seated psychological hang-ups, smacks of political conservatism that covers but also exceeds sexual politics. This is conservatism in the ‘let them eat cake’ sense, a kind of ignorant indifference fed by elitist solipsism.

The Trinny and Susannah media phenomenon must continue to be analysed and interrogated not only in terms of sexism, but also in terms of old-fashioned regionalism and classism

The second offence was Susannah’s confusion of the geographical location of the duo’s destination in that episode. Susannah seemed to think that Birmingham was in Sheffield. Considered out of context, this might seem a silly and insignificant momentary lapse, but in conjunction with Trinny’s outrageous suggestion, it starts to make a disturbing kind of classist-regionalist sense.

Could she possibly not know that Birmingham is not in Sheffield, let alone that Sheffield is not a county? I still can’t decide which would be worse, real or simulated ignorance. Either way, why was this lapse not edited out? Are we supposed to laugh at or with Susannah’s ignorance? Is this a joke for the whole nation to enjoy, relishing in yet another celebrity gaffe, or is it postcode humour? Are Brummies supposed to be in on it, or the butt of it? What arrogance inspires this error? However we choose to interpret Susannah’s mistake, I can’t help thinking that its inclusion in the show makes a joke of the reference to ‘the nation’ in the title, one that I do not find especially funny. Having spent a large part of my life living outside my country of ‘origin’, I have come to learn that the acquisition of local knowledge is not merely necessary (and often fun and intellectually stimulating) but also a question of ethics. To choose ignorance is a clear sign of indifference and also of disrespect. Nevertheless, this isn’t about foreigners or integration but about certain persistent, very British social hierarchies. This is geographical cluelessness as reinforcement of class boundaries and affirmation of privilege – not everyone can afford to be ignorant, just as not every woman has the choice whether or not to work at Somerfield.

I won’t blame Ofcom if they don’t respond to my complaint, which they haven’t yet done. After all, they have much bigger fish to fry, as the people of Britain are still being defrauded of their money (possibly earned whilst dressed in unflattering uniforms) in bogus phone-in competitions and vote-takings. I just felt a need to share my indignation with a sympathetic if not uniformly like-minded group audience (that is you, F Word readers and contributors). The Trinny and Susannah media phenomenon must continue to be analysed and interrogated not only in terms of sexism, which is still – as always – going strong, but also in terms of old-fashioned regionalism and classism.

Alexandra M. Kokoli has been until recently a Brighton and Hove resident and is now living and working in Aberdeen, where she is lecturer in critical and contextual studies at Gray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. She is the editor of Feminism Reframed: Reflections on Art and Difference