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.