One of the projects I’m working on this spring is a presentation for the Reality Gendervision conference being held here on the campus of IU Bloomington at the end of April. It involves looking at the former Style Network reality show Ruby as a Southern Gothic text. Reading a reality show through such an established fiction genre may seem odd, but the more investigation I do, the more sense it makes, especially in terms of the show’s relationship with the past.
Temporality is a significant component of Gothic forms, as they reveal in the present what has been repressed from the past. This is often materialized through place, hence the importance of marginal spaces like attics and basements, spaces that store the past. Temporality is also a key element to makeover shows, as the show wrestles between Before-Bodies and After-Bodies–to use Brenda Weber’s terms from Makeover TV–entities that could be figurative as well as literal. As such, the materialization of time is pretty obvious in home makeover shows, through the representation of memory in souvenirs and collections; the style of decor; and the detritus collected over time, often in piles throughout the home.
The weight-loss makeover show has its parallels in style, in terms of clothing and accoutrements that become associated with the past of the individual as well as the culture. However, time also becomes embedded in the body. The fat body becomes a marker not only of the past but also of the excess accumulation of time. The process of weight loss serves not only to deliver the thin body as a marker of the future, but also to enable an excavation and eventual eradication of the problematic past that seems to be obstructing that future.
One example of Ruby involves this mise-en-abime of a room makeover within the show on her body makeover. Home and body are mingled in this makeover by the involvement of her friend Anthony Miller. Then-chair of the fashion department at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Anthony spearheaded a student-designed clothing collection for Ruby in the show’s first season, and Ruby now enlists him to help redesign her bedroom. She needs the renovation due to her weight loss: as she’s moving around more now at a smaller size, she actually needs more space than she did when she was bigger. After surveying her room, Anthony’s primary recommendation is “to edit”: “There’s a whole new you comin’, so that’s where I think you need to look to the future. As you shed pounds, you edit things out of your life.” Anthony’s comment explicitly connects losing pounds and eliding items with leading to Ruby’s future. He encourages her to start with her closet: Ruby’s holding on to old clothes in case she returns to her old size, essentially to her past.
Ruby: This is the hugest one, I think, one of the hugest ones.
Anthony: Mkay. (Takes dress.)
Ruby: What is that face?!
Anthony: (Throws dress aside) That, that’s so dated.
Ruby: That is dated, but you have to realize I didn’t have a choice to be dated!
Anthony: Mkay, well, this isn’t couture. This isn’t gonna get better with age, okay?
I found this simple exchange so provocative because of the relationships it draws between fashion, bodies, and time. The dress is dated, not only because it may be older (Ruby probably wore it a year or more ago, when she weighed over 700 pounds), but also because of the style. Ruby’s response suggests that it was dated even when it was new: it’s not “in style,” not only because it doesn’t represent current fashion, but also because the fat body always already signifies the past. This massively-sized, mass market piece is then further diminished in contrast with couture, a limited production, specially (smaller) sized item whose value starts high and often accrues with time.
This is a little tangential to what I’ll be doing with the Ruby paper but still demonstrates some of the interesting issues related to the show, and connected to the body and time. Also, I felt compelled to post it in part due to the limitations of the archive: most of the show is only available on Netflix. This obviously makes extracting parts difficult and continued access uncertain, the ephemerality and lack of legitimacy of it and other reality shows due in part to the lack of value likewise assigned to its subjects.