I am pleased to offer you a critique of popular culture which first appeared in the Anniversary 2006 issue of Bitch Magazine -- you can also find a permanent link to this highly recommended magazine if you scroll down on the left here at Orwell's Grave. It is a beautifully written and very funny piece by Julie Pecoraro and serves as a real-life example of Orwellian Newspeak, the inversion of customary meaning. In this case, when Dr. Phil says he wants women "to embrace who they are," he really intends something quite different.
"This year, I am really focused on helping women to be at peace with their body, to embrace who they are and not be trying to measure themselves against these ridiculous stick figures that you see on billboards." And so Dr. Phil, America’s alleged favorite celebrity psychologist, began his fourth season last September amid noble promises of empowerment. By the end of the hour, he said, he hoped women across the country would grow into an acceptance of every bony nook or sagging cranny of their selves. And to drive home this ode to the Body God Gave You, Dr. Phil ended his show by giving away three free boob jobs.
He’s gotta compete with his former patron Oprah, after all. And perhaps due to this effort to match the queen of free stuff gift for gift, Phil’s season premiere was an ADD hour of anorexia, free sneakers, cruel mothers, free cell phones, Paula Abdul, free clothing, Bonnie Raitt, and free boobs.
The show could easily have been pointed in the general direction of poignant, nuanced discussion about our national obsession with physical perfection. Guests included an overweight teenage girl verbally abused by her mother, an anorexic woman who had dropped to 68 pounds, Paula Abdul discussing her battle with bulimia, and, yes, women unhappy with their breasts. But given that the show began with a thousand women dressed in t-shirts that declared their bodily flaws, such as "THUNDER THIGHS" and "JELLY BELLY," rah-rah-ing to every word that bounced from Dr. Phil’s mouth, it was evident that poignant and nuanced was not the intention. With no more than 10 minutes devoted to each guest, it’s no wonder that Dr. Phil never got beyond clichés. But even if he hadn’t said anything new, the message of the show would have been mostly positive – if not empowering, at least not harmful. Then came the breasts.
Viewers met three women whose only complaint in otherwise rosy lives was that their breasts were not what they wanted them to be. One woman had too little. One, after losing 60 pounds, had too much. And one would have had just enough, if it weren’t for the breastfed kiddies. We might have expected Dr. Phil to adhere to his own advice – that a person’s confidence should come from what’s inside of, not hanging off of, said person. Instead, he gave each woman 30 seconds to make her case, stating that if he thought their cause a worthy one he’d send them to a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon free of charge. And apparently they gave such good arguments that Dr. Phil, being the crunchy-on-the-outside-gooey-on-the-inside guy that he is, gave them each a new set of hooters, much to the jubilation of the audience. I’m assuming that there were extensive pre-interviews and that Dr. Phil spent more than 30 seconds listening to the women before giving the gift of saline. But all we saw was Phil declaring that there are right reasons and wrong reasons to surgically alter one’s appearance. (The woman would have been wrong, presumably, to claim that new breasts would make them better people, or change their personality.) Missing from this chat was any discussion, or even mention, of the dangers that come with breast implants. Augmentation was taken as an undeniable good that, if done for the "right" reasons, should be done.
Despite the obvious irony inherent in ending a show about self-esteem with a father-knows-best edict and free grab bags of plastic surgery, most depressing was that there was no hint of possibility that the desire for breast implants might not be adequately explained away by a glib "I want to do this for myself." Might this desire be, at bottom, the result of others’ expectations, the very external standards from which Dr. Phil wants to free us?
As Oprah’s talk-show heir, Dr. Phil has the eyes and ears of millions of women and could easily introduce true critical insight and debate into the discussion. Instead, one minute he disapproves of the fact that "we are a nation that is obsessed with being thin and perfect," and the next he plays into that very obsession, playing fairy godfather to the self-proclaimed "mammary-challenged." Instead of offering some enlightenment on body-image issues, this was just another makeover show substituting surgery for critical discussion, promising superficial fixes for a massive systemic problem.
Okay, Dr. Phil, how’s that workin’ for ya?
[Reprinted with permission of the author who reserves all rights]