In the annals of reality TV history, The Swan has cemented itself as one of the most unethical and inhumane. You can debate the worst reality shows ever, but few can argue that The Swan was uniquely horrible. A show that took women described as "ugly ducklings" and turns them into beautiful "swans," the series generated plenty of controversy. Fox aired two seasons in 2004 before quickly axing the misbegotten project.
While the cameras rolled, doctors nipped, tucked, and sculpted the women until they became enhanced versions of themselves. That typically meant the same plastic Barbie doll version of beauty, with very little input from the contestants themselves. The Swan also included a competition element. Two women per episode were judged against each other, and the contestant determined to have made the most progress went on to compete in "the pageant," the season finale in which "the Swan" was officially crowned.
After the show, there were all kinds of problems for the women who participated, both physically and in their personal lives. And it's clear that the morally bankrupt capitalists who produced the show didn't care; they had made their money. Here are just some of the reasons why The Swan is the most inhuman reality competition show ever.
Each episode of The Swan begins with two women who are literally referred to as "ugly ducklings," in reference to the fairy tale in which the duckling turns into a beautiful swan. This cruel and disheartening introduction implies that these women are only as valuable as their appearances.
The Swan surgeons and producers seemed to have only one ideal of physical beauty: the stereotypical "beauty queen" look. Each of the contestants was transformed into a conventionally attractive woman with a plastic smile, wavy hair extensions, and usually a smaller waist size. Anything that made them unique was sliced away.
Contestants were not allowed to look in any mirrors for their three-month stay on the series, thus preserving the surprise of the "grand reveal" of their new faces and bodies.
This type of deprivation can be harmful. Psychologists debate the effect mirrors can have on self-perception, but some argue that intentionally having to stay away from mirrors actually gives them greater importance. That, in turn, reinforces the importance of physical beauty. Staying away from mirrors also likely caused unnecessary stress on the contestants, who were unable to assess how they were progressing.
The show's complete control over the contestant's transformations was more than a little off-putting. By not letting the women look at themselves in the mirror and have a say in their surgeries, they weren't given time to adjust to their new faces. Contestant Lorrie Arias, for instance, was horrified by her transformation, and had a breakdown once the cameras were off:
"I was screaming for the executive producer... I was screaming, ‘I want my face back!’ That’s how freaked out I was. Intelligently, I knew that was impossible. But it was so weird. It was like looking at somebody else, but it was you."