There is the everyday nastiness baked into reality shows that manipulate cast members into bad-mouthing and backstabbing each other, and then there is The Swan. Rolled out in the wake of ABC’s cosmetic-surgery-happy Extreme Makeover, this abomination from Fox further upped the ante on the makeover show by not only placing its all-female subjects—who were framed as “ugly ducklings” but were really just average-looking women—at the mercy of questionably qualified physical and mental health professionals, but also pitting them against one another in a season-finale beauty pageant. The prize: a modeling contract, of course. Blasted by critics for judging women based on their surgically enhanced appearances, the first season was nonetheless a ratings smash, with the average episode attracting more than 9 million viewers.
The show’s novelty quickly wore off, and it was canceled after just two seasons. But the influence of what feminist media critic Jennifer L. Pozner famously called “the most sadistic reality series” of the aughts persists even now, as perhaps the most extreme example in an ongoing cultural conversation about the rampant misogyny of a genre whose audience leans female. From The Bachelor contestants’ competition to the Real Housewives’ catfights, these depictions have real-world implications; a 2021 study found that teens who watched reality television were more likely to support traditional gender roles within straight relationships. The blatant sexism of The Swan may have been in decline by the pop-feminist 2010s, but the tropes underlying the show remain alive and pernicious in reality’s most enduring franchises. —Judy Berman
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