“The distinctive feature of the stories told in our times is that they articulate individual lives in a way that excludes or suppresses (prevents from articulation) that possibility of tracking down the links concerning individual fate to the ways and means by which society as a whole operates”.
Ethical objections over the methods and motives of reality shows like The Biggest Loser are not new. Health and medical experts have regularly expressed their concerns in the popular media over the potential for harm that rapid weight loss, rigorous psychological abuse, public exposure to ridicule and fierce competition can have on the individuals who participate in the show*. My interest here is not in these critiques but in the neoliberal narratives of (over) consumption and (self) regulation these shows produce and that the contestants embody. Reality television shows such as The Biggest Loser thrive on this voyeuristic ‘democratization of pain’ where the entrepreneurial imperative is conceptually paired with the practice of emotional governance.
The contestants in The Biggest Loser are the discursive and affective embodiment of neoliberal culture. Here, citizens are reconstructed as over-consumers whose bodies are out of control at the same time as they are buying in to the neoliberal solution that position them as responsible individuals that regulate that excess consumption. These consuming narratives deploy and privilege neoliberal discourses of individual risk, responsibility, self-regulation and continual self-surveillance in relation to excess consumption, self-optimization attached to moral values of self-worth.
Under the neoliberal logic of individual responsibilization, these shows often tend toward a certain “glamour of misery” which both celebrates and commodifies the performance of identity through a therapeutic narrative of self-optimisation and self-regulation. Illouz contends that the rise of therapeutic culture in the last thirty years positions people who have “un-self-realised lives” in need of care or therapy, thus creating an “emotional hierarchy” of subjects which in turn justifies the “organization of difference” that institutions build themselves upon. This, however, produces a paradox: a culture of therapeutic expression which gives narrative form to experiences of suffering and actions to over come it necessarily places that suffering at the center of self-identity.
Capitalist narratives of progress focused on optimizing productivity, efficiency and capacity are paradoxically sustained by an exposure to injury and vulnerability and the continual management of risk. Jasbir Puar argues that “neoliberal regimes of biocapital produce the body as never healthy enough, and thus always in a debilitated state in relation to what one’s bodily capacity is imagined to be”. The continual state of being in pursuit of optimum health performs a double action: it not only forms and formulates the body as an endless potentiality for intervention and optimization, thus producing the temporal category of chronicity whereby everyone is subject to reinvention. Glavan traces the genealogy of chronic illness and disease over the last half of the 20th century to claim it has become a “political entity” that derives from and justifies surveillance. Surveillance of the body is conducted not through direct forms of disciplinary power but by powers of control whereby individuals are encouraged (through the ‘positive’ language of individual freedom and choice) to police themselves for their own good.
The accounts given by contestants in The Biggest Loser are produced and respond to the ongoing tension between excess consumption and self-regulation within a neoliberal schema of intelligibility that accords recognition in terms of ‘positive’ practices of individual empowerment, participation, responsibility and choice. At the same time, the show’s format produces narratives of exceptionalism where voices that conform to and perform inspirational stories of self-reinvention, enterprise and control are rewarded and given recognition; and where their obesity is understood as an individual moral failing largely disconnected from social or structural conditions of inequality.
TBL illustrates that persuasive cultural narratives are produced through a coalescing of the modern individual, therapeutic culture and market imperatives to form new modes of speech and a narrative grammar that are given legitimacy through a neoliberal mode of recognition. Contestants on the show have invariably internalized institutional narratives of risk, responsibility and regulation in relation to their own obesity and the show is premised on the celebration of these privileged narrative tropes. At once taking control of their lives via the opportunity to both give account of and enact these narratives of self-transformation, the contestants on The Biggest Loser can also be understood as consuming a rationality that obscures structural health inequalities in order to privilege the individual story. This ambiguous position is, in part, a strategy of survival, whereby these people consume a particular neoliberal narrative that equates obesity (somewhat paradoxicaly) with over consumption and under regulation in order to find a socially acceptable way to narrate and perform that very same consuming narrative. Inspirational stories of survival and empowerment are celebrated and vital to the show’s affective resonance with the audience; at the same time, these narratives are made intelligible through a “liberal eugenics of lifestyle programming” that limits recognition to individual identification with a neoliberal framing of obesity that understands it as a problem of a lack of individual self-control. The therapeutic narrative of finding one’s “authentic voice” (your true self) through a transformative process of endless self-optimisation becomes more than a personal project of self-discovery: it becomes a biopolitical act of self-craft. Contestants who participate in the ‘right way’ are given space to ‘tell their story’, but the discursive tools of feminism which were used to critique power are instead incorporated into neoliberal narratives of self-regulation and enterprise.
Zygmunt Bauman, The individualized society (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Polity Press 2001). 9.
Guthman, Julie, and Melanie DuPuis. “Embodying neoliberalism: economy, culture, and the politics of fat.” Environment and planning D 24.3 (2006))
Eva Illouz, Oprah Winfrey and the glamour of misery: An essay on popular culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
———, Cold intimacies : the making of emotional capitalism (Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2007). 49.
Puar, “Prognosis time: Towards a geopolitics of affect, debility and capacity,” 167.
R. Galvin, “Disturbing notions of chronic illness and individual responsibility: Towards a genealogy of morals,” Health: 6, no. 2 (2002): 114.
Jasbir K Puar, “Coda: The Cost of Getting Better Suicide, Sensation, Switchpoints,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 18, no. 1 (2012): 153.