Since returning from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, I’ve primarily been working on my presentation for the Reality Gendervision conference. This is the presentation on the Style Network’s makeover serial Ruby; I wrote some early insights here in February. I had hoped to post more on the work before now, but it became one of those all-consuming projects where each new source led to another so I was constantly finding new information that was slightly reshaping the project. As I’m coming closer to completion of the presentation, I thought I’d post on the evolution of the project and solicit some feedback before the presentation is done.
The idea to examine Ruby came from my list of prospective additions to the book project once my dissertation is done. Ruby seemed like a good representative as a reality star that would match the characteristics of my other celebrity case studies, including Kirstie Alley, Queen Latifah, and Melissa McCarthy. When preparing the proposal, I began by looking at the show as a melodrama but quickly realized it functioned more closely to the Gothic, specifically the Southern Gothic due to setting and characterization. I prepared the initial proposal accordingly, thinking it might be interesting to see how this traditionally fiction literary form impacts a nonfiction reality television program, but further research made me realize that both Ruby and the makeover show were more deeply entrenched in the Gothic than I would have initially thought, primarily due to the role of the return of the repressed. As such, I rewrote the abstract to better reflect the new direction of my argument in the presentation. The revised abstract is below. Further feedback and resources are appreciated.
“The Fat Girl in the Basement: The Strain of the Gothic in Style Network’s Ruby”
As Brenda Weber explains in Makeover TV, the makeover show functions through “(ill)logics” (7), a complex articulation of seemingly contradictory cultural forms conjoined for a singular purpose: to convert Before-Bodies into After-Bodies, abject into subject. The Gothic is among the disparate elements structuring the makeover’s (ill)logics. Elements of the Gothic exist in most makeover shows, particularly in spectacles of abjection and the return of the repressed, a recurring problem from the past that must be resolved before the subject can advance through their transformation and into their future. However, the episodic nature of most makeover shows halts further regressions, and thus prevents the Gothic from pervading more of the show.
The Style Network’s Ruby provides a case study of what happens when the Gothic takes possession of the makeover show. The program covered the “weight-loss journey” of Ruby Gettinger, a Savannah, Georgia, native who goes from over 500 pounds to nearly 300 during the show’s four-season run from 2008 to 2011. Promoted as a makeover show, the extended excavation of Ruby’s past through the serial form releases a “strain” of the Gothic that ultimately overtakes the makeover’s (ill)logics and topples its teleological trajectory. This “strain” functions in three ways: 1) as a version of the genre in reality TV; 2) as a diagnostic of cultural pathologies, especially aberrance in size and sexuality; and 3) as a tension that wrestles with the makeover show’s neoliberal tendencies, alternately undermining and upholding its tenets of regulated self management.
This presentation will thus argue that in Ruby, the strain of the Gothic points to the recurrence of continued, unresolved issues in American culture, particularly for those who remain on the country’s cultural margins. As such, the Gothic reveals the flaws in the quick fixes proffered by both the makeover and neoliberalism. Also, moving from fiction to nonfiction forms demonstrates how the Gothic functions as much in reality as in fantasy, and how genre likewise serves as a tool for confronting the complications of actuality, of life beyond the cultural text.
I found a few gems to share as well. At the front of that list is Helen Wheatley’s Gothic Television, which was profoundly helpful in revealing the many ways that the Gothic functions in the televisual. Although I won’t publish the presentation to the blog, I’m happy to share by email with anyone interested. I’ll also try to post a follow-up after the conference, depending on feedback and potential future directions for the work.
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.