I watched Season Two of the British ITV show From Ladette to Lady (rebroadcast in the USA on the Sundance Channel) with rapt attention. The Eliza Doolittle basic premise is simple: take eight working-class badly-behaved young women and send them to Eggleston Hall finishing school so they can become more feminine and classy. Each week one of the girls is ejected from the Hall, until the climax of the series when the remaining ones go to a debutantes' ball, and we see whether they can pass for real ladies.
The show itself is remarkably uncritical about its own assumptions. 18-year-old tomboy Clara Mayer lives with her father and works as an engineer, and the etiquette teachers hope that she can lose her masculine manner. Becky Squire, 21, is sexually promiscuous at home, and hopes to change her behavior. Vicky Jenkins is a tanning salon manager, and at 21, spends a large portion of her income on drink. In fact, nearly all the girls seem to be serious drinkers. We see the beautiful Louise Porter, 19, getting drunk and then shouting and fighting. Francis Rowe, a 19-year-old hairdresser, has recently had breast implants, and she flashes her boobs in public at just about every opportunity after she has had a few drinks. Ladies are not meant to act that way. The women are portrayed as out-of-control, the despair of their families, and lacking in civilized qualities. By becoming more feminine and less working class, they will become better people. This entails learning highly coded skills: how to lose their accents and take on more refined speech; flower arranging; cooking; walking in a ladylike fashion; keeping up a polite conversation with men they might hope to impress; and of course dressing more demurely and prettily. While the women's former behavior does seem excessive to the point of dangerousness, the remedy of a finishing school is a return to the values of an earlier era--maybe the 1950s.
The sexism and classism of the show are not so surprising: this is after all prime-time British Reality TV (Thursdays at 9pm), which has brought us such gems as Pop Idol, Big Brother, Survivor, Wife Swap, Strictly Come Dancing, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. It's not known for its subtlety. What's more interesting about the show is its silence about the reasons why these young women behaved so badly. One of the upper class men who spends an evening with them says it is in their blood--presumably referring more to their class than their gender, as if class and degenerate behavior is a genetic trait. Others will prefer a sociological explanation, and undoubtedly the phenomenon of ladettes is linked to the rise of "lad culture" in the UK.
Whatever the causes, the extreme drinking, promiscuity and anti-social behavior of the girls will seem pathological to outsiders. Despite the retrograde nature of the finishing school, it is also a form of moral therapy for a lifestyle that would generally seen as a medical problem in contemporary USA. By moral therapy, I mean the sort of treatment for mental illness that was used at the York Retreat by William Tuke at the end of the Eighteenth Century. People with severe mental illnesses were given occupational therapy, education about Quaker principles, and were, reputedly, treated with kindness. The activities assigned to the girls in From Ladette to Lady -- the flower arranging and cooking -- were close to occupational therapy, and the girls also received plenty of moral education. The ladettes are chastised by their teachers in firmly moral terms when they mess up, as the TV show's producers make sure they do, and at least once for every show.
I have mixed feelings about this. One the one hand, it's appalling that a TV is using people who seem to have some pretty major emotional problems -- substance abuse, lack of emotional control, poor self-esteem, rage -- for entertainment purposes. It makes viewers into visitors to the asylum, gawking at the inmates, and a clear example of Reality TV moving one step closer to an old-fashioned freak show. On the other hand, it is a now a radical idea that we could treat these emotional problems with ethical training and kindness, rather than sending the girls to mental health professionals, and it's a welcome change to see such non-medical solutions being offered. Despite my ambivalence, I do know that I'm already looking forward to Season 3, which is being made this spring.