Thursday, June 02, 2005

In Case You Forgot How Sucky High School Was: MTV's MADE

See Heather go from cheerleading princess to rad skater chick on MTV's Made

Not that you can't be both, right?

Not in high school. Or did you forget?

MTV's Made is a televised social experiment which seeks to illustrate / narrate "what happens" when young people try to change. Each episode follows the month-long pilgrimage of a hopeful subject's quest to go from one "social designation" (outcast, jock, girly girl) to another (homecoming queen, intellectual, skater chick). Most of the episodes take place in high school (the level of hell Dante missed) and have a John Hughes inspired arc: even if the subject is not "successful" in their social transformation, the evil people have exposed themselves and the viewer's sympathy are almost always securely with the subject.

But is this another "reality TV" manufactured fantasy? Or is there really hope for social progress within the hallowed hell-walls of high school?

Yes and No.

You've gotta admire the ambition and risk-taking demonstrated by the kids wishing to be "made". In the promos for the series, they say stuff like "I wanna be the best." And they do things that are seem really difficult and uncomfortable -- like talking to kids who are usually mean to them, or wearing a dress made out of duct tape to the homecoming dance. The show might provide the participants with "coaches," but the "work" of changing -- and the risk -- is solely with the subjects. Despite their (paid for by MTV) support networks, they are depicted as facing these challenges alone.

And the amount of resistance some of these kids face as they undertake their various metamorphoses is trully mind boggling: "I guess when you're a skateboarder you don't have to worry about being fat" scoff's one of Heather's friends after Heather informs them that she won't be joining them at the beach during spring break -- she's got to practice skating because her competition is in two weeks. Compare this to the exchange Heather has with seven year old girl (who has been skating for six months) to "just keep trying." And while Heather's so-called "friends" withhold their support and encouragement, when Heather finally musters up the courage to approach the "intimidating" skaters at school, the skater boys are really nice to her. So she does make some new friends along the way. And even though her old friends do show up at the competition, they've shown their true colors and (we hope) Heather is for sure all the wiser.

But some of the shows cut a little too close to the bone. If you are at all sensitive to other people's pain, some of the episodes will undoubtedly make you flinch. Anna, a self-proclaimed nerd admits, "yeah, I've had some pretty tough times. In fourth grade everyone just sort of turned on me, and so I just turned inward." You gotta wonder, is she being helped here or just plain exploited?

And though you'll see all types of people you would never see on The Real World, and you'll be glad to see all those mean kids looking like the assholes they really are, the show -- ultimately -- isn't socially progressive. Despite the fact that the show's title "Made" emphasizes the creative aspects of "performing" one's personality ( thus begging the question who makes you -- You or your classmates? You or your parents? You or your friends?), it doesn't actually challenge the fascistic social hierarchies in which these questions and conflicts arise. And while the program proves that an individual may puncture through or momentarily alter these hierchies, it leaves the masses (high school kids everywhere) high and dry. Much like the days of Carnival, MTV's Made more likely "turns the world (of high school) upside down" than it actually alters anything for the long term.

And the show's structure is particularily frustrating, for it perenially casts the subject as a "nerd" or "outsider" who heroically embarks on a lonely adventure. The show fails to really critique the repressive culture of high school -- basically implicating the subject for their own "outsiderness" -- and affirms the power of the individual over the power of the collective. The message: anyone can be popular if they just really try. Never mind questioning the way the oppressive systemes of said popularity operate, or critiquing the values of a culture that invests so much in an astringent power structure that basically works to keep the people down.

So although Made does reaffirm one's ability to "make" and "remake" herself -- a pretty empowering message, especially in the context of high school -- we wish there was a way to take it a step further and just re-make high school. And although the show does reveal that you can "perform" multiple rules at once -- you can be a nerd and homecoming queen, you can be a princess and a skater chick -- we wish that these kids could just band together and smash the evil social machine that dominates them.

There was, after all, this other show that used to do that.

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