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The Biggest Loser:
An Act of Sacrifice on a Surrealist and Melodramatic Stage

The Biggest Loser is one of the most successful reality shows produced by the American television industry. Aired on NBC, the show started in 2005 and has been running for five consecutive seasons, leading TV ratings every year, in especially the 18-49 age range. It was a success from the beginning. The premiere of the show, on October 19, 2004, was viewed by almost ten million people, which represented the network’s best non-Olympic performance in that time period. More recently, the last episode of the fifth season (April 16, 2008) reached NBC’s highest 18-49 rating in nearly two and a half years. The reason for this success is that it is a show with an enormous influence on the manner in which a massive part of American society constructs its identity, overweight people in particular.

Essentially, The Biggest Loser is a reality show about a group of people losing weight. Each week the contestants weigh themselves on a scale. Those who do not lose enough pounds go home and have to watch the program on TV. The winner of the entire competition receives $250,000; however, the winner is also the one who has been able to transform him or herself into someone that he or she was not before: a thin being without guilt when his or her stomach, brain, or unconscious has decided that it is time for lunch, dinner, or dessert. Every time I watch this program, I am driven to think about its direct relationship to the practice of violating a victim in order to reestablish social harmony. Prompted by this intuition, I believe the reality show The Biggest Loser is actually the representation of an act of sacrifice on a surrealist and melodramatic stage, a stage that also works as a powerful mirror through which the overweight population constructs its identity and only then is permitted to be part of the imagined American society.

Let’s start by understanding the idea of sacrifice as defined by Rene Girard in Violence and the Sacred: “The sacrifice serves to protect the entire community from its own violence; it prompts the entire community to choose victims outside itself. The elements of dissension scattered throughout the community are drawn to the person of the sacrificial victim and eliminated, at least temporarily, by its sacrifice... The purpose of the sacrifice is to restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric. Everything else derives from that.” The victim in The Biggest Loser is the winner of the contest. However, how can a hero be a victim? In order to answer this vital question for our thesis, we must first focus on the act of sacrifice itself and reread it in the light of the reality show.

The community is all the overweight people inside the American society in which we live today, a society where to be fat is considered unhealthy and abnormal. It is a society grounded on well-shaped bodies and diet, among others, as two of its most important principles. It is a society in which the main goal is to become a hero of any type. However, the American heroes we watch on TV are tied to the army, sports, or are other celebrities. Therefore, within this society, within this “nation,” how can a fat person be a hero? We understand the term nation as defined by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities: “A Nation is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” How is it that a fat person can be part of this “imagined” society? And a hero?

In American society, like other highly developed countries, television is a vital medium through which the national imagination is created; television guides it and sets the rules. This is why politicians always seek to control this means of mass communication, as in the case of Italy and its former president Silvio Berlusconi. Television, like journals, newspapers, and the internet tend to standardize all that is imagined. The main goal is to imagine one and only one thing, one image of the entire nation, of the whole society. This image is constructed by all the TV programs and advertisements. Since this is a real fact, overweight people are scarcely part of it. How many overweight people do we find playing on TV series or advertisements? The ratio of overweight people compared to the number of fit people is small. The Biggest Loser is a strong channel through which the rejected can be part of what is imagined. In essence, they can be part of society.

The Biggest Loser is significant because it reinforces the social tissue, it “restores harmony” in Girard’s words. However, if we accepted the fact that obesity and its social ramifications were actually a problem, could it be solved through a reality TV show? The answer is clearly no. Subsequently, where does its importance dwell? The importance lies on the image reflected by the screen. In one case, for the overweight people, it acts as a mirror in which they can recognize themselves as subjects, within the conception of the Lacanian subject; in the other case, for the fit people, it serves as a window where they can see fat people sharing their values and principles and making the effort to fot in by losing weight.

According to Jaques Lacan, during the symbolic order the identity of the subject is created by the perceptions of others. These perceptions, these images of his being, are stored like layers in the mind of the subject, one over the other. TV programs favor images of, above all, well-shaped bodies; part of the identity of the community is grounded on that influence. The Biggest Loser provides another type of image, another source of perceptions about oneself. Since all identities are relational and permanently influenced by exterior elements as Ernesto Laclau explains, the new identity is constructed on other foundations. New types of images are part of the society’s imaginary now; new layers are made part of the subject’s mind.

Of course, well-shaped bodies do not watch the program as an act of sacrifice. What they see is simply a group of people trying to be fit, trying to be like them. The winner is not a victim but a hero who has accomplished the huge goal to be part of thin society. The rest of the contestants are just a group of people that might lose some weight during their lives. On the contrary, for the overweight people, the winner is a victim because he/she had to sacrifice him/herself for the sake of the others, he/she had to renounce him/herself in order for the rest of the group to be recognized as possible images, to be included as part of the total imaginary. The winner is a sort of scapegoat that receives the dissatisfaction of the overweight “community”; the sacrifice is the length of the contest through which one body is violated and transformed into another thing. It is a sacrifice because one body dies, the fat one, and another reborn.

In this process, there is a characteristic of sacrifice that may help us understand a little bit better what was just explained.

When unappeased, violence seeks and always finds a surrogate victim. The creature that excited its fury is abruptly replaced by another. According to Girard, the victim is a substitute for all the members of the community, offered up by the members themselves. All victims, even the animal ones, bear a certain resemblance to the object they replace; otherwise the violent impulse would remain unsatisfied.

As Girard further explains, substitution plays an important role in the act of sacrifice. We might ask, what is being substituted in The Biggest Loser? Violence is the dissatisfaction of the overweight people every time they feel neglected by the society. The anger and fury should be unloaded on the “imagined well-shaped society”; however the dissatisfaction is substituted by the victim, like we said, the winner of the contest. This substitution is possible because it does not deal with “real” beings, but rather with images that suffer a transformation throughout the whole contest. The fat becomes thin and the ugly beautiful.

The victim-image must resemble the substituted; however she/he does not have to appear exactly the same. The image of a fat body cannot be replaced by another fat body, but rather by one that was fat before but is no longer so. This is exactly what happens at the end of every season of The Biggest Loser. The scale stands for the altar in which the sacrifice is being placed. When the host announces to the nation the name of the winner, the order and harmony of society is restored, but only temporarily, because the problem itself has not been resolved. It was only a game of images and illusion; an imaginary happy ending. The image of the new fit person shows the society that the overweight people can be heroes as well, can be part of the “well-shaped imagined community.” All the fury and dissatisfaction is alleviated with the winner’s victory. The culmination of the sacrifice is the coronation of the hero, when he receives the keys to his new car and the equivalent of lost pounds in gold. However, he is no longer what he was before.

The Evanescence of Mixed Opposites, TV as a Blender

We are placed in the middle of a TV set; that is our space. TV sets project images. Therefore, what the audience sees is never a complete reality; we cannot touch nor smell it. There are important intermediaries: the camera and all the processes through which the image is made possible. The result is a distorted reality, a new vision of it, however never reality itself. This effort to think about another type of reality reminds us inevitably of the principles of the Surrealist movement during the second decade of the twentieth century.

Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. According to Andre Breton, we may never find any other motivating force in the activities of the Surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point.

I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, Surreality, if one may so speak.

Surrealism plays with opposites. Through this play, it is possible to grasp another level of reality, one in which the distinction between the opposites is completely absent. The Biggest Loser is a "reality show" in which the opposites are present all the time and play a crucial role. Its spinal cord is the existence of two types of bodies that are absolutely different: one fat and another thin. The fat body is present in its own flesh; on the other side, the thin body is present through the imaginary concept of body that television provides and that helps to construct peoples’ identities.

Thin is the goal, while fat is the reality of the contestants; thin is the future, while fat represents the past. Television plays with these contrasts. The key piece of this process is, of course, the editing work; it juxtaposes images, stories, and feelings permanently. The result is, like in many surrealist games, funny situations that make the audience laugh or shocking ones that make it cry.

The point of fixing, of mixing the opposite and making it disappear, takes place in the realm of imagination as well. It is not in the space of "reality" (not mediated by television) that it will occur, nor in the TV stage in which the contestants play. It will happen in the contestants’ minds, in the imaginary space in which they, along with all the overweight people who watch the program, desire to be part of the “imagined society.” They imagine a place where there is no difference between fat and thin; they imagine a Super reality.

However, for Breton, the surreal material has to be expressed through words; to play is possible only in the realm of language. On the contrary, for his close friend Antonin Artaud, the door to the surreal space must be guided by the physical experience.

As Gloria Feman Orenstein explains, the casual relationship between the word and the act is thus opposite in Breton and Artaud. Breton believes in the “causality of desire” – that the imaginary tends to become real. Artaud’s Theater of Event maintains that only in man’s external world is changed through the events he experiences can his perceptions of reality be altered.

The Biggest Loser is a contest that favors physical activity. It is through physical experience that the contestants can change the "reality," the image that is projected by the television screen. The body in motion creates the text, like in Artaud’s experiments. It creates images that will be read by the viewer; images that will serve as material for the surrealistic game of the editor.

The experience is an important characteristic not only of The Biggest Loser, but of all reality programs. According to Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen, to suffer, to go through things is the foundation of real knowledge for the audience. Only experience is believable. In Brenton’s words, “if it does not bleed, it can’t be trusted.” This last statement reminds us directly of the Theater of Cruelty of Artaud. TV reality programs might be playing surrealist games without being aware of it. They share at least two important characteristics: the experience as a producer of text and the meeting of opposites as the starting point for imagining another level of reality.

So far, we have tried to read The Biggest Loser as an act of sacrifice and place it on a stage seemingly surrealist due to its characteristics. Now, we will talk about the manner in which it is presented to the audience. To tackle this topic means to deal with its melodramatic characteristics.

The Importance of a Good Cry Before a No-Living Body

What the audience watches are basically three things: the contestants fighting for their existence in the program, the guilt they feel about themselves and, most of all, how much they pity themselves.

Now, let us review some of the typical characteristics of melodrama. According to Peter Brooks, "The connotations of the word are probably similar for us all. They include: the indulgence of strong emotionalism; moral polarization and schematization; extreme states of being, situations, actions; over villainy, persecution of the good, and final reward of virtue; inflated and extravagant expression; dark plottings, suspense, breathtaking peripety. The few critics who have given serious attention to melodrama have noted its psychological function in allowing us the pleasures of self-pity and the experience of wholeness brought by the identification with 'monopathic' emotion."

Two types of characters participate in melodrama: the good and the villain. In the case of The Biggest Loser, the good is the contestant that loses most pounds; the good is the thin body, consequently, the villain is the fat one. In both cases, we have a “real” situation of a fight between extreme states of being, of two polarized extremes. The contestants fight against their bodies, against what they are. They want to become something different, to overcome the image they project. Since most of the contestants are not fat by nature, but rather gained weigh due to depression or anxiety problems, the outcome is curious. The thin body ends up being the victim of fatness.

Just like in melodramas, at the end of the hero’s effort, bravery and courage are rewarded. The passage from bad to good, poor to rich, fat to thin, ugly to beautiful means money. However, the grand prize is not monetary but the fact of having a new body, the contestant’s acceptance of himself, the audience’s acceptance of the existence of the overweight people as part of the society. All the effort is worthy. There is always a happy ending, despite the fact that it implies a sacrifice.

What unites contestants with the audience is, of course, the strong emotion. The audience recognizes itself in the contestants and supports them by sending emails or dialing numbers. The audience shares in the suffering, or at least is willing to. When the contestants pity themselves through very well edited personal stories, the audience does it as well. The editor arranges the plot to take the emotion to its highest level, casually, just before commercials. In that precise moment, a new aerobic machine is advertised and the audience calls desperately to buy it, it feels guilty for not sharing the effort, for not being a hero. What the reality show is doing is trying to extract the audience’s emotions as much as possible and turn them into money.

The tears shed by the audience at a Victorian melodrama come under the heading of a good cry. They might be called the poor man’s catharsis, and as such have a better claim to be the main objective of popular melodrama than its notorious moral pretensions. Besides referring to superficial emotion, the phrase “having a good cry” implies feeling sorry for oneself. As Bentley explains, the pity is self-pity.

In melodramas, the psyche of the hero must be one, complete, not divided. In reality shows what is one is the emotion. Thu the main purpose is to lead the audience to a single emotion, and like I said before, a single image of identity. It is this emotional wholeness that producers maneuver at their own pace. During the program, the audience is taught how to feel miserable and the importance of a good cry, how to feel pity. Constant images of struggling against an undesired body, contrasted with images of triumph and happiness, move the audience’s emotion from one extreme to another.

Week by week, we watch all the former characteristics put together and in motion. What we have in front of us is a type of melodrama, but absolutely naked. It is the age in which the production machinery of programs has decided that the time dedicated to worry about superfluous complexities such as movies, books, or plays is useless. What the creators of the reality shows have done, indeed, is to perform a surgery. They take the parts of the genre and, since there is no-living body anymore, connect them to an incubator and feed it with the audience’s telephone calls.

Uniqueness as the Ultimate Goal

We started our reflections on the grounds that The Biggest Loser is the way through which a group of people channel their anger and dissatisfaction. It is the way through which they can be part of the imaginary of society. It is an important mirror in which overweight people can recognize themselves and a window through which the rest of society can see them being part of "their" world. It is sacrifice because something dies; the fat body yields its space to the thin and well-shaped body. However, this is possible only in the realm of images, of imagination. The space in which this act is performed is surrealistic due to the presence of opposites and the longing for a super reality; it is also melodramatic because of the way in which emotions are managed and commercialized; it is the sense of reality that is being sold.

What is being reflected is simply the way society behaves and expresses its frustrations. Drives and desires, the material of the unconscious according to Freud, are the matter that producers and editors plot and project in order to govern the audience’s perceptions. The pleasure of seeing someone suffering has not changed since the ancient Roman Empire. Maybe the motive to keep watching reality shows is just to experience reality; regardless of the type of reality we are being exposed to. Paradoxically, it is in virtual images where we look for ourselves, for our identity, where we try to experience the "real."

We must bear in mind that The Biggest Loser is part of the enormous number of TV reality programs of our time. All controlled, sponsored and produced by huge companies. As we all know, they do not have other goals than to make money. Reality shows are part of an effort to standardize everything, to deny difference, to globalize whatever seems strange or unfamiliar. Besides being a valid channel through which a group of people demand existence, The Biggest Loser may be part of this attempt to standardize as well. What is being standardized? The answer in this case is the body. It is being done on a very delicate surface, the imagination. Images are not the only objects that are being played with, but identities as well. The ultimate purpose is to dictate a unique idea of reality and a unique idea of the body in this case. The final goal is to totalize the space in which we imagine.

June 2008

From guest contributor Diego Mattos Vazualdo

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