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Bio-logics of Bodily Transformation: Biomedicine and Makeover TV


This dissertation began as an attempt to understand how biomedical concepts and practices, which undermine the salience of norms drawn from the “natural order” are relayed through mass media and inform self-understanding, social being, self-care, and practices of everyday life. The project tracks makeover TV’s valorization of the metamorphic or transformative body as an ideal that emerges through, and across, various contexts in science and popular culture. This genre of programming is one of the few sites at which the aesthetics of biotechnology are made visible in non-fiction representations and are depicted as part of everyday life. Each of this dissertation’s televisual case studies is exemplary of how popular culture absorbs and makes visible ideas from biomedicine, and how this relates to public policy, economic conditions, and developments in biomedicine.

Harnessing biomedicine has aided in television’s recreation of itself as an essential element of “new” media. It has done so by presenting itself as a technology for managed health care at a distance, and by presenting the body as a primary medium of self-expression. Television encourages ideas about the body as “transmedial continuity” or form of media, both physical and symbolic, represented through and across variable sites, objects and platforms. Under the aegis of “health,” medical makeover programs establish a direct relationship between body-based visual identity and life, promote biomedicine as a ubiquitous means of conceiving of the self and body, and posit biotechnology as a tool for transformation and self-care. In this context, health becomes a visual ideal and an organizing principle for self-care, which are framed as prerequisites for social, economic, and political legibility.

Although biomedicine challenges essentialist models of “natural order” through which misogynist and racist norms have been justified in modern culture, its appearances in narratives of self-transformation are overwhelmingly framed by politically retrogressive ideals of embodiment, which it aids in achieving. Given the pervasiveness of visual media and its centrality in refiguring norms that have social, biological and political significance, media literacy and critical acuity are crucial to preserving both cultural and bio diversity.

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