TCS Daily

A Conservative Case for "The Swan"

By John Coleman - May 28, 2004 12:00 AM

For generations the story of the ugly duckling has reassured children and preteens unnerved by pimples, horn-rimmed glasses and retarded development. In every ugly duckling, parents reveal, may lie a beautiful swan. The promise of transformation provides hope to those down on their physical appearance and reassurance to the young; but as reality T.V. has provided a metamorphosis of its own, the ageless story of "The Ugly Duckling" has emerged from its pop-culture cocoon as Fox's makeover series "The Swan."

Billed by the network as "The most unusual competition ever devised," "The Swan," which recently aired its season finale, has divided a reality T.V. audience with a seemingly insatiable appetite for shame and degradation. Even as viewers have applauded the debauchery and superficiality of shows like "The Bachelor," "Average Joe," and "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé," a suddenly moralistic America has (while privately flocking) publicly doubted the appropriateness of a program that promises to take women from "flab to fab" through rounds of plastic surgery and brutal workout regimens only to parade them about in a network-sponsored beauty pageant complete with swimsuits and lingerie in the two-hour season finale.

However, even as most right-wing pundits have rightly mocked the superficiality and degradation of reality television's most radical offering, one has to wonder: Is there a conservative case for "The Swan"?

If nothing else, the women of "The Swan" possessed an enviable dedication and discipline. Over the course of several months they were separated from their families (most were mothers and wives), endured plastic surgery so gruesome that war veterans and rodeo cowboys were cringing from their BarcaLoungers, and, through habituation and psychological support, derived the focus to maintain pro-athlete-like exercise routines.

They were not always strong or graceful -- facing their futures with agonizing depression and tearful doubt -- but they persisted. Senator John McCain noted recently in his book Why Courage Matters that courage "is much more than mental toughness or 'grace under pressure,' as Hemingway defined it." It is the "decision to face the pressure at all...(P. 87)" And the women of "The Swan," while not exactly courageous, certainly displayed the fortitude to endure pain for an almost unimaginable ideal. Through willpower and science, they fulfilled every ugly duckling's childhood fantasy.

They also showcased an undeniable desire for the magnanimity of Aristotle in a culture with a Homeric appreciation for physical beauty. As one contestant, Marnie, paraded her newfound figure in a skin-tight evening gown the announcer proclaimed that she had "Seized control of her own destiny." She had "pulled out of her depression, and powered her way to the pageant." For these women, the transformation was not only successful, but, by all accounts, personally fulfilling.

Most, if not all, of the contestants finished their four month voyage with physical appeal to spare; and their motivation was the same -- glory. Despite the claims of the show, this was not about helping those with self-esteem problems find solace; it was about helping them find fame and infamy (while turning a tidy profit among 18-43-year-olds). Everyone desires the beauty and acclaim of Achilles. In "The Swan," competitors were granted the opportunity to attain that fame (or infamy), and, through willpower, they seized it.

This culminated finally, in a type of virtue. These women worked hard, they sacrificed, and they achieved their ideal -- as misplaced as that ideal may have been. But the impact of this televised orgy of self-obsession may, ultimately, be conservative.

These women are not inherently evil for placing their physical beauty above their moral character -- they were responding to us. As a society obsessed with Britney Spears and Brad Pitt, lingerie and easy romance, we have elevated the physical above the moral, the superficial above the Good, and the result has been an obsession with "The Ugly Duckling" and the newfound ability, truly, of that duckling to transform almost magically into a swan. These women took the virtues of our society, and pursued them at all costs.

But in watching "The Swan," one is struck by the fact that this superficial standard cannot hold. Societies prize only that which is rare. If alchemy had succeeded in transforming lead to gold, the value of lead would have increased even as the value of gold fell.

In a modern age in which biotechnology, plastic surgery, and dietary science can readily transform any ugly duckling into a Helen of Troy, can beauty, truly, continue to command so high a price? Virginia Postrel has argued that the aesthetic obsession of our age connotes a renaissance in appreciation for physical appearance -- in essence, we can now be both "smart and pretty."

But in an age in which beauty is only as rarified as the cash-flow and momentary discipline to attain it, isn't it possible that we are on the cusp of a devaluation of the superficial and a revaluation of those lonely virtues which cannot be attained through plastic surgery or genetic manipulation -- courage, love, compassion, wisdom, patience, kindness, selflessness, and gentleness? Isn't it possible that technology, lamented endlessly by the critics of modernity, might actually usher in the end of our obsession with superficiality?

To conservatives, the (unintended) message of "The Swan" is this: physical beauty is cheap. Lean hips and beautiful lips are no longer rarified. But in an America mad for physical appeal, perhaps the most rare, wonderful, and enviable virtues are those our modern age has for so long forgotten.

At the culmination of Monday night's program, the announcer noted that this competition was not just for those few ugly ducklings who were physically transformed, but for all those in the viewing audience who likewise, were changed.

Perhaps, after all, she was right.

John Coleman is a freelance writer and the assistant director of a fellowship program in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at


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