In the far more sensitive age of 2004, before a souring economy and constant exposure to social media hardened our empathy for fellow human beings, the public rejected Fox’s The Swan as horrible and sadistic. For those who don’t remember, the show was a reality TV spin on Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved fairy tale The Ugly Duckling, in which a little bird is ostracized by his flock, until one day he undergoes a brutal series of plastic surgery procedures and put up against other birds who have all received the same treatment. Then he’s told that, yes, he might be a “swan” now, but he still isn’t pretty enough to compete in a beauty pageant, and after being shown that physical appearance is the only measure of self-worth, he finally learns that no amount of work or intense physical pain will ever give him with any, apparently. Then the duckling flies back to his normal life, completely unrecognizable to his family and friends for nothing, and believing deep down that he’ll always be ugly. (The Danes are a morbid people.)
Now that it’s 2013 and we try to drown out-of-work television stars for our amusement, Fox is ready to revive The Swan—this time as a “celebrity special,” in which ostensibly famous women, whose longing to remain on TV far exceeds their ability to fall into water, will have their fading value to society reinforced by the show forcing them to get facelifts if they want anyone to pay them attention. Or, as Fox puts it, “Celebrity Swan will feature female celebrities and will offer these popular women the incredible opportunity to undergo physical, psychological and career changes as cameras follow them through the transformative process. This opportunity will allow these women to come back better than ever, have a second chance at personal and career redemption and re-introduce themselves to their supportive fans in a whole new way,” as a frozen effigy of their former selves, willing to surrender any last vestige of individuality if it means one less lonely hour.
Fox further believes that audiences will find it less controversial since “judging the appearance of celebrities who get plastic surgery, after all, happens in the media every day.” So, at least this time when it comes to the cruel cycle of desperation and shame, there are prizes involved.