Paul Kelly has finally blown the lid on the truth: for three weeks, we’ve been locked in a horror orgy. This came to a head on Thursday when ABC2 aired Sexy Beasts: ‘ordinary’ people are transformed through prosthetics into monsters for the sake of participating on a dating show. ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,’ said Oscar Wilde in The Critic as Artist. ‘Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’ Besides being bad advice, Sexy Beasts shows that Oscar Wilde was wrong.
The premiss of Sexy Beasts is simple. We’re all so superficial and terrible, and we judge each other on appearance. What would happen if we disguised a bunch of 30-something singles so that they had to rely on their personalities instead of their looks? Instead of just putting a wall up between them, Blind Date style, Sexy Beasts cosmetically changes the participants so that they can interact with each other.
This is the last time the show makes sense. There’s about six minutes of actual content in the show, with the rest of the running time occupied with the contestants mugging the camera in costume. In the pilot episode, we are introduced to Matt who has been given makeup to make him look like a giant dog. This, of course, means that he has to pretend to how, pant, piss on things, and make ‘doggy style’ jokes every three minutes. He is introduced to three women who have similarly been cosmetically altered to look like a lizard, alien, and demon. The demon has a nose that reminds people of a female genital and so we’re reminded of that as often as possible.
By reducing the image of man to that of an animal or monster, people behave as degenerates. Surprise. This is why the furries are such a threat to civilisation.
It’s in this that the ambition of the show is thwarted. We aren’t seeing people relying on their real personalities to woo members of the opposite sex (we can push the taboo of having people woo each other as space aliens and animals, but only if we’re in the safe world of heteronormativity), we are seeing people act out a particular role influenced by their appearance.
Is there a true self? Zizek gives the interesting example of the violent video game player. The argument in favour of video games is that they allow the player to fantasise themselves as a sadistic, murderous, violent person without actually being that person. But perhaps the true self is the one being performed in the consequence-free environment of the video game.
Am I really the person in my own mental world, the one that I alone perceive and into whom I have privileged insights? Is this the ‘true self’ that others try to understand beyond the wall of language and sense perceptions, whom they try to replicate with their own cognitive representations to occupy a place within their mental world?
Sexy Beasts gives us an insight into an alternative way of answering the question: we can be agnostic about the status of the ‘true self’ because people respond to fantasy versions of each other anyway. Matt, the grotesque dog-man, is not only making a decision about whom he wants to date based on the immediate sensory experience of those people, but also based on his fantasy about who the people might really be. The alien-girl notes that she has a job holding up numbers ringside at boxing matches, wearing little but gold underwear. Matt is caught between the fantastic image of the alien-girl in front of him (which he doesn’t find attractive) and the fantasy image of a woman in gold underwear. At the same time, he knows that the lizard-girl is actually from Essex (which he doesn’t find attractive because he is a seriously shallow gobshite) and doesn’t find his innuendo funny (ibidem), but he is attracted to the fantastic image of the lizard-girl (whom he tries to kiss).
The show misses some interesting opportunities. Given the power of the makeup artists to change the contestants, what happens if the contestants get a say in their appearance? Instead of seeing people trying to disguise who they are, the physical appearance becomes an outwards manifestation of something they want to communicate to potential other people. The physical appearance is no longer an evil that has to be overcome through abnegation, but a platform from which the contestants can convey who they are more authentically. Conversely, why not cause everybody to look identical and then see how individuality is sustained through the rituals of dating?
People don’t tell us the truth when we hand them a mask. As Sexy Beasts shows, masks are used only to gain control of the fantasy image that we convey to others, to trick them into thinking that we’re fully functioning people conditioned into the proper social constructs.