I should preface this post by noting that plastic surgery isn’t within the purview of my research. But it most definitely is relevant to the what sorts project — our expert being Cressida Heyes.
So, here is a review of Louis Theroux’s “documentary” on plastic surgery, as practiced in that shrine to superficiality: Los Angeles. The diacritical marks around documentary should alert the reader to the program’s various weaknesses. Anyone familiar with Theroux’s work will likely be aware of his tendency to go ‘native’ in the pursuit of a sensational ‘angle.’ Theroux maintains an ironic air throughout his exposé, but then (somewhat disappointingly) subjects himself to liposuction … presumably to lend a more authentic gloss to his treatment of plastic surgery. (He then continues to exhibit an ironic attitude towards his thorough implication in the object of his inquiry, perhaps to mask his total lack of objectivity).
Nevertheless, what Theroux does succeed in demonstrating is the normative function of the imperative for “perfection”, avowed by each of the surgery addicts whom he interviews. Of course, “perfection” here refers to an extremely bland notion of what counts as beautiful; and many of his interviewees are evidently wounded individuals: from having been called ugly by their step-father, to attempting to recover from a failed relationship. What is striking is the enthusiastic, complete, and totally un-ironic faith that each of these people has in the power of plastic surgery to heal their damaged self-esteem.
Theroux is also able, at a couple of points, to get some revealing statements from the plastic surgeons he interviews: one of whom admits that he contributes to (and depends upon) a cycle of poor self-esteem in women, where he offers a “solution” that also perpetuates the problem. Another, who had chosen plastic surgery over a career in ER, expresses regret for some of his patients’ over-enthusiasm for surgery. In the main, however, the surgeons present themselves as ‘do-gooders’ who, every day, make people happy about themselves—and do so for less money and more expediency than a psychotherapist.
Theroux might have visited, however, some less reputable practitioners than he did, to achieve better balance for his documentary: the surgeons women go to who aspire to, but can’t afford, the plastic surgery of their wealthier neighbors. My sense would be that it’s not a well regulated industry—although others might know more about this than I do.
He also might have spent more time and care interrogating the notions of self that persist throughout the program relatively unchallenged—as well as the question of what it means for a community that such a stylised and homogenous understanding of beauty is given so much social value. For one thing, because the film maker himself underwent surgery (ostensibly for the the purposes of filming the documentary), there was no real alternative offered by the presentation: either in terms of the kinds of positive relationship one might have to one’s body; or different standards of beauty; or different understandings of what constitutes happiness or fulfillment.
Secondly, it was left ambiguous whether a point was being made about a culture specific to Los Angeles—hence, the film would represent a tongue-in-cheek British anthropology of the Americas, by now fairly familiar to the genre. Alternatively, does the point apply more generally to an over-evaluation of the visual, and of a ubiquitous and offensively exclusive visual at that, which is evident in England, Canada, Australia, and Europe, as well as the city that produces much of our visual media.
All in all, Louis Theroux: Under The Knife is by far an inferior production to another of Theroux’s documentaries, The Most Hated Family in America, which looks at homophobic religious zealots who choose to protest America’s tolerance (you heard me) toward gays by picketing the funerals of soldiers deployed to Iraq … but that would be another post.
NB: image by LiveU4, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/liveu4/134980839/.