"The Swan" credo: There's power in the blood

Swan_bookPardon me while I rant for a minute.

I was reading my newspaper the other day and hit a story that just made me sick. I don’t watch a lot of commercial television and, somehow, I had missed one of the hot shows in the tornado of “reality TV” programming. I refer to “The Swan,” from those cultural conservatives at Fox.

Years ago, I saw a bumper sticker — I think it was from Feminists For Life — with this slogan: “Better lives for men through surgery on women.” That’s what I thought of as I read the Washington Post report by Kathy Blumenstock entitled “Yet again, contestants flock to Swan for `life transformation.’ ”

So, you ask, is this really a “religion story”? From my perspective — hell yes.

This show performs miracles in the lives of women, helps them exorcize their inner demons through secular forms of confession and produces transformations that could only be called “born again” experiences. Oh, there’s lots of ritual cutting involved, too. Blood must be shed, if you want a new life. Here’s the opening of the story:

Rachel Love-Fraser, crowned The Swan last season on Fox’s combination reality show-beauty pageant, has some advice for this season’s swans: Surrender to the process.

“You can’t be resistant to change,” she said. “That is what you are there to do. People say they want to make a change, but there is no magic wand. The entire group that they have assembled is not going to change your life. Some people can be given the world and still can’t change. It’s up to you.”

Love-Fraser should know. She totally remodeled her life and her looks — thanks largely to the show’s litany of “life transformation” options. In addition to fitness training, nutritional guidance and therapy, Love-Fraser also opted for a nose job, lip enhancement, liposuction, a chin implant, a brow lift and a breast lift.

The change isn’t skin deep, you see. But, in the end, the goal is a kind of post-feminist leap into a super-hot self image that — truth be told — just doesn’t happen without a face and a body that can cut it in the post-Sex and the City marketplace. It’s not about plastic surgery. But how do you achieve this miracle without it?

Nely Galan, the “Ugly Duckling” fan who created the show, defends “The Swan” with one overwhelming statistical reality — 500,000 women applied to be on the sequel. How can old-fashioned people argue with that? It’s marketplace morality.

Galan said the common denominator for participants is that they feel stuck in their lives, wishing for change but unsure how to achieve it. “Most people don’t have the resources to know what to do. …

“But I am saying, pick whatever you want. If you want to become a vegan, knock yourself out. If you’ve had a bunch of kids and your stomach sags, it’s not a big deal if you want help with that. Life is really short and really hard for women, and whatever is going to make you feel better about yourself, do it.”

I wonder if many female journalists are watching this show and, if so, are they (a) thrilled, (b) mortified or (c) sincerely interested in the realities that would cause women to yearn for this kind of religious experience. What is the message to young girls?

I hope journalists get interested and manage to convince their editors — male and female — to take a look.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.relapsedcatholic.com Kathy Shaidle

    Marge Simpson: “FOX turned into a soft porn channel so slowly I barely noticed!”

    I’m obsessed with notions of Beauty with a capital B, image, identity, transformation. So I’m an avid viewer (not the same as being a fan) of Extreme Makeover, etc. Women are obsessed with their looks because men are. “Man watches. Woman watches herself being watched.”

    It doesn’t matter that “we’ve come a long way baby”. We tsked over Marcia Clark’s bad perm during the OJ trial, not her skills as a lawyer. Martha gets jail time and as she walks out of court we nudge each other: “When did she get so fat?!”

    As long as men want to marry women who look like After pictures, many of us, even midget sized, middle aged me, will try our best to accomodate them (even though we’d never admit such a thing to each other). And men can protest that they

    “hate all that makeup” and so forth. But actions speak louder than words.

  • http://wyclif.net/lollardy/ Daniel Stoddart

    “If you’ve had a bunch of kids and your stomach sags…”

    What an American thing to say. We live in a country where 35 year old women, after two kids, expect to be as slim and weightless as they were when they were in high school. This is insane: the definition of insane being “not adjusted to reality.”

  • Patti

    As a youth minister, I wholeheartedly agree with tmatt’s assesment of the unholy nature of these “transformations.” This sort of program only serves to further the cultural-sexual demands upon feminity – I find it degrading to the image of God with which each of us is stamped. The fact that 500,000 women felt “ugly” and desperate enough to apply does nothing to confirm is “rightness”, imo, it only makes it a sad affirmation of badly twisted cultural norms.

  • Andy Crouch

    It is religion, and it is diabolical. If (at least) 500,000 people didn’t take it seriously it would also be hilarious–see the excerpt from Nely Galan’s book at http://www.harpercollins.com/catalog/excerpt_xml.asp?isbn=0060763361 :

    # # #

    As a television producer, I am trained to research anything. So, I performed research on my most important topic: me.

    # # #

    And just wait until you see where she went to do her research!

    This is American religion in its purest form…

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    Terry, rant all you want to on this topic; I couldn’t agree more.

    It is ironic to me that we look in mirrors or at pictures of ourselves and long to look just like everyone else. Is this the story behind the story? A desire for conformity that is so strong we will all alter our bodies to look alike? Maybe then we won’t have to deal with differences in thought or belief, either.

    I read a birthday card not long ago that goes like this: “Wine, cheese, women; some things are just better with age.” Yet, until women claim this and men consistently applaud them for doing so, we are stuck with surgery for transformation. (Good images, BTW.)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Here is a clip from that handbook for would-be Swans that Andy mentioned. I’m still mad.


    A few years ago, I reread Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling story with my son. I was amazed at how well it captured this experience of being flawed in a world obsessed with perfection. Of course, we women don’t just wake up one day to find that we have become what we always dreamed; like the ugly duckling, we sometimes need assistance. That is why I created the television show The Swan — to help other women who are stuck. The show follows eighteen “ugly ducklings” throughout their four month commitment to self-transformation. During this time, they receive therapy, life coaching, fitness training, diet counseling and, yes, plastic surgery. Their transformations are amazing, but don’t think what you’re about to embark on is any less powerful. You have in front of you the very workbook I developed for my own transformation — into the original Swan.

    Becoming a Swan requires faith. And I don’t mean religion. I mean the faith that you’ll be taken care of in the universe if you do your work.

    Welcome to The Swan Curriculum.

    Nely Galán

    June 2004

    Los Angeles, California

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    “Becoming a Swan requires faith. And I don’t mean religion. I mean the faith that you’ll be taken care of in the universe if you do your work.”

    Sounds like religion to me.

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