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Fetish factor

The degradation of beautiful women has become a staple of network television.

By KATHLEEN OCHSHORN
Published April 17, 2005

During the upcoming Passover Seder, 10 drops of wine will be poured to recall the plagues visited upon Egypt, including frogs, lice, boils, locusts and the death of the firstborn. Somehow, this season, I'm reminded of the plagues visited on us by evening television. Perhaps like those Egyptians, we're guilty of a few things, though we seem to invite the punishment into our living rooms.

Was there ever a time for more despair, especially in the depiction of young women? American evenings are routinely littered with the images of sexually assaulted, tortured young women, partially clothed, and eventually laid out in zip bags for the autopsy. And last week, NBC aired a Miss USA Fear Factor as a warmup for the pageant, a double bill of slime and stilettos, with the promise that the girls "clean up well."

On Fear Factor, the first plague the handful of willing, bathing suit-clad contestants subjected themselves to was a 40-foot-long, high-pressure blast of water shooting out of a kind of metal balance beam suspended high above a pool. Then they squirmed on their backs through a coffin-like tank of water, fumbling with locks, while 55-gallon vats of fish guts, fish oil and eventually live worms were poured down upon their bellies and loins. Finally, the three remaining contestants each climbed on the exterior of a large metal cage suspended from a helicopter flying over open water, while attempting to detach a series of flags. The first and last events were designed to guarantee that the young women would get dunked. They were competing for $25,000 - and a matching sum to their favorite charity - as a kind of wholesome cherry atop an unseemly sundae. An acrobatic young woman from Washington, D.C., with a law degree no less, survived to win the title of Miss USA Fear Factor.

Reality TV and beauty pageants are nothing new, but this combo cocktail does raise a few issues:

What must women put themselves through to be appealing? Why the fetish for women coated in worms? Truly, S&M is evening fare, and women are the dish of choice, as contestants or dead bodies on crime shows such as CSI.

Seen through the lens of Fear Factor, the Miss USA contest took on a surreal glow. Those expensive and expansive porcelain smiles, those amazingly hemispherical poufy breasts! Being beautiful is hard work, requiring a certain investment. Swirling around in swimsuits, evening gowns and skyscraper heels, the finalists fought their way to this finish line, too. Each of the four losing semifinalists had to gush and smile as a bouquet of roses was thrust into her arms and she was rushed off the stage. Miss North Carolina was crowned, ushering in her golden year as "a role model for women all over the country."

The beauty contest reminded me that the retro values endure. Women are still eager to be objectified if the price is right. But the contests seem increasingly unnatural, the undercurrent a twisted concerto of modification, mortification and eating disorder.

But both programs reflect increasingly bizarre, competing aspects of our culture: the hyperfeminization of fashion and beauty and the prurient appeal of the debasement and torment of young women.

On the fashion and beauty front, you need only to go to a shoe department to get a sense of the return of the frilly, bejeweled, bowed, pastel styles of bygone eras; or the five-inch heels, complete with ankle straps guaranteed to cut off circulation.

Can real people walk in these floppy or high-flown contraptions? Not very far, and eventually to the foot doctor.

I'm reminded of seeing my 9-month-old daughter struggle to learn to crawl in the pretty dress that her knees kept catching. Is there method in this madness?

And then we have cable news anchors, whose short, tight skirts are designed to boost ratings and whose very full lips deliver devastating news of slaughter and famine through high gloss. Or the crime show investigators dressed in jeans or scant tops, while their male co-workers look more professional.

But the fetishizing of sexual assault, torture and death on evening crime programs and increasingly on the evening news is a far more disturbing trend. Women are often the victims laid out for autopsies on CSI. Their scraps of underwear are fodder for newfangled scientific analysis. And unfortunately, the recent coverage of the Jessica Lunsford case had a ghoulish aspect, with news shows promising more details before they broke for commercials.

The Fear Factor/Miss USA extravaganza is really a part of a trend. Women are as distant and suspect on the pageant pedestal as in a worm-infested bikini. As a society we are uneasy about female sexuality, and a certain price must be paid. Unfortunately, the staged reality of Fear Factor is merging with other depictions of women, and with more exposure, the bizarre becomes the norm for the American public.

Kathleen Ochshorn is chair of English and writing at the University of Tampa, where she also edits fiction for Tampa Review.

[Last modified April 17, 2005, 00:25:16]

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