Back to index of Nerve 19 - Winter 2011

Life-transforming interventions; opportunities to go to the ball; the possibility of sudden wealth; the discovery of impressive ancestors; virtue rewarded and villains brought to book: all these dramas are enacted daily. The TV industry knows our deep-seated needs.

Modern Fairy Tales

By Sandra Gibson
Illustration by Zoé S Hji-Christoforou

The makeover programme has reached a new extreme. Early shows championed thrift – the make-do-and-mend fairies recycling paint, fabric and MDF from your garage. Today’s version cuts to the emotional chase: tearful offspring, grateful for a mother’s devotion, organise the transformation of her house. The high-ho team does the whole damn lot in sixty minutes.

For those not enjoying such transformative ecstasy, Kim and Aggie, whose potent combination of critical parent, music hall innuendo and downright fairy-godmotherliness converts slatterns to the path of righteous hygiene and harmony, give the audience double satisfaction. The smugness of knowing your house isn’t as gross as those scientifically–proven filthy houses, plus the pleasure of the universe being set to order is irresistible.

But how long can you suspend disbelief? Will that teenage 49 year-old relinquish the power he has to annoy his wife and re-cycle those under-the-bed pizza boxes? He might. But his snake’ll be back in the bath the minute Kim and Aggie arrive at their next fumigation.

And while you’re brandishing the anti-bacterial and unearthing the detritus of decades of careless materialism you might find noble ancestors or cash in your attic: the opportunity to transform base metal into gold at the car booty. This will tide you over until the lottery jackpot creates your rural idyll as demonstrated by Jamie in his garden full of organic courgettes. Or you could be a secret millionaire, do-gooding on that discreet medium: TV.

Speaking of chefs you can enter Master Chef’s gladiatorial arena featuring epic music and Spaghetti Western shots of the time-bereft heroes and heroines. Why not let Delia reassure you that you can still be a domestic deity even if you don’t make your own thrice-fried thingies? Just open a jar or two. Why not let flawless siren Sophie Dahl lure you into the Pureland of Chocolate? Why not combine competitiveness with almost-certain humiliation plus the chance to be famous? Enter the Big Brother House. Afterwards invite the public to watch your life: riding horses with pink saddles and sighing over the paparazzi you forgot you encouraged. Or you could even die.

Achieving the perfect home and lifestyle seem fairly easy compared with the problematic body we all seem to inhabit. Original personal makeovers involved the replacement of the baggy tracksuit with a posh frock. Abracadabra - you shall go to the ball! But things became more visceral. The latest style experts expose the hideous contents of your wardrobe and force you to throw things out: a ritual humiliation and sacrifice essential for transformation to take place. To the applause of millions, today’s debutante throws off her clothes to ride a white horse, Godiva-style, across the advertising hoardings of Britain.

I suddenly understood why every girl is inch-thicked in glamorously theatrical make-up. Prince Charming could arrive with a full-length mirror or TV camera at any moment…

But my article has a serious point to make. Folk tales, like folk music, reflect the values of the society from which they arise. In this Age of Entitlement, we have the democratisation of wealth and fame: the potential of the fairy-wand exists in the (slender) promise of the lottery and in the instant audience-access provided by social networking. We are bombarded with adverts telling us how many settees we need or promising us that owning a certain car will guarantee traffic-free roads; we are assailed by images that prescribe how we should look - celebs inform us that they were back in their size zeros ten minutes after giving birth - and reassured that we can change any part of our body. We can all be princes and princesses. All it takes is cash on top of a foundation of self-loathing. Then we’ll be happy.

And we’re worth it, aren’t we?

The anomaly is that if the beauty industry has increased or created these feelings of self-loathing it also provides the answer. We have the pathos of young girls covering up their individual looks in order to become clones of whoever is the current visual role-model and receiving vouchers for cosmetic surgery on their eighteenth birthday. Surely this is sadder and more worryingly extreme than our innate human need for happy endings.

One of the most telling images of our times is the sight of the young woman in her big fat gypsy wedding dress: a gorgeous, extravagant, expensive confection. It symbolises her family’s wealth but renders her almost immobile. And isn’t this what our age of consumer entitlement has done to us? We are incapacitated by the weight of our unsatisfied desires and by the burden of our consumption.

Printer friendly page

Sorry Comments Closed

Comments are closed on this article