Culture Club: Reali-TV, Lost in Translation
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Culture Club: Reali-TV, Lost in Translation

Culture Club is Torontoist’s (brand new) Canadian pop culture column. We’ll be waxing philosophical about the trivial, the titillating, and the mundane on a bi-weekly basis.

Illustration by Kyra Kendall/Torontoist.

Embrace your pear-shape. Learn to love your curves. Celebrate the ample-bosomed body Mother Nature gave you. These are the kinds of phrases that TV host Zain Meghji coos over and over on the W Network’s latest reality show, How To Look Good Naked Canada. Judging by the name of the show, and by Meghji’s illocutionary predilections, one would assume HTLGNC’s mission might fit into the “helping women come to terms with their wobbly bits” category. But what HTLGNC promises in title, it ultimately fails to deliver in content.

Meet Marie. She’s a mother, she lives in the GTA, she hates her tits, and she’s featured in episode 5 of HTLGNC. And before Meghji can say “pear shape,” Marie’s standing before us—a bunch of faceless, nameless, popcorn-eating television addicts—in her skivvies. She likes her arms and lower legs, but she’s not too fond of the spare tire, and she certainly doesn’t like what’s hanging from her chest. Overall—surprise, surprise—she doesn’t like the way she looks when she’s naked.
Now’s the time for Meghji to call upon a Toronto-famous self-esteem expert, right? Perhaps consult a counsellor or therapist who can actually, and properly, address the root of Marie’s insecurities? Wrong. Now’s the time for a makeover. That’s right, ladies: the time has come to put on a spangly top, cake on some makeup, treat those follicles to some TLC—and, uh, look good…naked?
Marie is told she’ll feel better about her naked body by covering it up. As we’ve seen with Restaurant Makeover, reality TV formats are rife with quick-fixes: a coat of paint here, a pair of Spanx there—and Bob’s your uncle. No need to spring for sustainable solutions.
Don’t get us wrong, though: we actually like Canadian reality TV. Why? Because, like most reality TV fans, we’re addicted to the medium’s self-reflexiveness; we like to glimpse ourselves in the people we see on our TV screens—even if only for a few, fleeting moments. That’s why we’ll choose unscripted “reality” over scripted, traditional programming. And that’s why, when we look at Mike Holmes from Holmes on Homes, we like to see the quintessential Canadian “dad” of cable TV, and when we tune into Project Runway Canada we look for those twenty- and thirty-something Ryerson grads who pull at their shirts and mumble their words like we do. But when we turned on HTLGNC, that almighty mirror of a flatscreen (correction: a chunky black Sanyo from the late 1990s) failed to show us anyone, or anything, that resembled ourselves or our cultural values.
How To Look Good Naked Canada isn’t unique, of course; modelled on the eponymous British hit series (minus the “Canada” bit, naturally), it seeks to do in Canada what the original version once accomplished in Great Britain. Created in the wake of “invasive” reality shows like Extreme Makeover and The Swan, the original How To Look Good Naked actually seemed a refreshing departure from these botox- and implant-pushing formats. To be clear: we advocate lip gloss over liposuction. But something seems to have gotten lost in translation; we’re not sure how HTLGNC‘s band-aid approach to ladies’ low self-esteem can really help women feel better about their nekkid bodies—especially after the cameras have stopped rolling, and after Meghji, dear Meghji, has found another pear-shape to coo at.
True, reality formats seem to lend themselves to being bought and tweaked. Reality shows like Big Brother and Idol have been reformatted for audiences all over the globe—often to great commercial success. There’s something universally appealing/appalling about Big Brother’s Orwellian premise, and there’s nothing like a home-grown talent show to pull on those nationalistic heart-strings. But HTLGN‘s Canadian counterpart reminds us more of a Babelfish translation of the original, and less of legitimate cultural product that can stand on its own.
To be fair, we can understand why the W Network would want to cash in on the brand equity of HTLGN: the British version was a hit with audiences, and, hey, times are tough, so why take a chance on an original concept? But when a post-makeover Marie, all bouncy hair and red lingerie, struts her stuff on a makeshift runway at Markville Mall, we find ourselves gazing at a cultural appropriation gone awry. We can’t see ourselves in Maire—and try as we might, we just can’t get behind the show’s poorly translated premise.