Last Night's Television - James May's Toy Stories, BBC2; Make Me White, BBC1; Bleach, Nip, Tuck: the White Beauty Myth, Channel 4
No hiding the imperfections
Wednesday 28 October 2009
No doubt Naomi Wolf would blanch at the sinister scheduling that saw Channel 4's
Bleach, Nip, Tuck: the White Beauty Myth clash with BBC 1's
Make Me White last night. The Western beauty hegemony is a serious issue, and there's an interesting programme to be made about it, but unfortunately Bleach, Nip, Tuck wasn't it.
Perhaps your breasts are too big, perhaps they're too small. Too short? Try leg-lengthening, in which a metal rod is inserted into your broken thigh bone and extended by surgeons twisting your leg as if jacking up a car. Sy, our 5ft 2in Malaysian protagonist, was contemplating the procedure, and met with someone who had already been jacked up. Cue a shot of the zombie-like stagger of the recuperating victim. "My dream of being taller is over," explained Sy after the meeting, having decided to keep his legs his own. "Being smarter, stronger and more self-assured is the new dream." I'd give him a pat on the back, but I'm recovering from having my arms shortened.
It's distressing not to be happy with yourself. The aesthetic paragon held up to us all is far from realistic and, yes, it's predominantly white. But Bleach, Nip, Tuck followed people whose desperation to change stemmed from deep-seated insecurities available to people of every race. Sure, they all started off looking less like Victoria Beckham than, say, your average white person, but there are plenty of reasons to go under the knife, apart from a misguided racial-inferiority complex. For a programme whose opening sequence focused on the transmogrification of Michael Jackson, it resolutely didn't address any procedures that are overtly deracialising – that is to say, which Caucasians simply have no need for.
There was no reference, in fact, to the bleaching of the title, presumably because the footage wasn't visceral enough. We saw plenty of penis enlargement, though: it's popular in Malaysia, where the average length and girth is less than that of a white man. Surely, regardless of continent or median range, this operation exists simply because every man wants a bigger penis? The resultant elephant-man nub was proof that size really doesn't matter. But there was little exploration of why or how people's attitudes towards ethnic beauty are influenced. There's a culture of surgery, for example, among both genders, in south-east Asia that doesn't exist in the UK and it's much more acceptable – and the norm – to opt for cosmetic enhancement there. The programme didn't discuss how this may influence a person's decision; that perhaps sometimes it isn't because of ingrained racism, so much as the opportunities that are available within a culture.
You certainly felt the smug opportunism radiating from the surgeons interviewed (apart from the one who had to explain why, according to the averages, his penis wasn't up to scratch), from one who claimed he was "diluting racial boundaries" to create a "better race", to the other who claimed that modifying racial features made living alongside each other easier. I'd find it hard to live in any proximity to him without punching him on the surgically reconstructed nose.
Make Me White, with the broadcaster Anita Rani, on the other hand, was a more sensitive exploration of how ethnic-minority communities feel the need to live up to a white ideal. Its focus on the Indian obsession with light skin took Rani from make-up artists via matriarchs to harmful skin-lightening products, to learn more about the trenchant contempt for darker skin. It's intriguing to see how this has become a motif of Indian culture quite apart from any Western beauty myth, perpetuated as it is by the caste system, by Bollywood and by old wives' tales. There was also less of a reliance on surgery porn and no falling back on countless shots of discarded mammary tissue, steaming in metal dishes like mashed potato covered in strawberry jam.
If cosmetic surgery is indicative of modern moral decline now that we don't have to worry about war or pestilence, then James May was determined to give us something worthwhile to do with ourselves in Toy Stories. The series follows May's attempts to make life-size structures out of extinct playthings, like Plasticine and Lego, or in last night's case, a real-size Spitfire out of Airfix. There's space for affectionate programming like this – you can't beat a war veteran telling a young rascal that they've done well – but let's at least have nostalgia for its own sake, without cloaking it in May's own brand of pointless crazy fun. He managed to cram into an hour not only school children and model aeroplanes, but also crushing a car with a tank and introducing us to his parents. It was oddly diffuse and arbitrary, although charming nevertheless. We all know Airfix to be small, fiddly and boring; May showed it can also be enormous, fiddly and boring. It's proof once more of the adage "size doesn't matter". Not that I'm suggesting for a minute that May should look into penis enlargement.
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