The Girls of Hedsor Hall isn’t that different from other behavioral competitions in reality tv-land. It features good-looking people with impulse-control issues trying to behave, but mostly acting crazy. And yes, they are competing for a cash prize. We’ve seen it before: 12 so-called bad girls enter, one reformed good girl
(with $100,000).The difference lies in the setting. Rather than being instructed by celebrity
psychologists or plain-old celebrities, the contestants are attending one of the most famous finishing schools in England. Headmistress Gill Harbord and Disciplinarian Rosemary Schrager lend an authenticity to Hedsor Hall that’s rare in the genre. (For
instance, their accents aren’t in question, unlike the heavily voiced-over Trina Dolenz on Tool Academy.) You just can’t fake English like this.
The girls are supposed to learn to be “ladies,” a role that’s very clearly defined in traditional English etiquette. It’s weirdly fascinating to see a feminine ideal so unabashedly embraced as something for young women to aspire to. And at the same time, Hedsor Hall’s definition of “lady-like” behavior is much more inclusive than one might expect. Okay, we have the predictable posture exercises, painting lessons, and flower arranging classes. And then there’s falconry, hunting, and pheasant stuffing! Hedsor Hall promotes a brand of femininity that isn’t just about being dainty and delicate, even if it is limited to outdated pass-times of the English upper class. (I think we’re all ready hoping for falconry to make a popular comeback, though. Am I wrong ?)
The school crest stands for “everything that defines a true lady,” explains Former misbehaving Miss USA/visiting instructor Tara Connor, “Dignity, Discipline, and Grace.” The Hall rules are just as predictable: No swearing, no excess drinking, no men in the rooms, no fighting. Contestants have also learned some of the unspoken rules the hard way. No refusing to get out of bed, for example. No smirking. And absolutely no talking about sex work!
Not surprisingly, a handful of the girls strip or make porn for a living, and the Headmistresses are “disgusted” whenever it comes up. One contestant, Brianna, almost got expelled for discussing her adult website when someone at a donor luncheon asked about her career. I hesitate to place any of the Hedsor Hall contestants in a “Support Sex Workers!” discussion (I’m sure most real-life sex workers would rather not be associated with these people), but it does raise some hackles to see sex work being so roundly dissed. Harbord and Schrager seem to believe that being a sex worker has nothing to do with socio-economic situations and everything to do with bad manners. It’s a bit closed-minded, to say the least.
But to be honest, I’m charmed by the idea of etiquette having the power to thwart sex work. Harbord and Schrager emphasize self-respect over and over again as the most important part of being a lady. Since Brianna has admitted that she believes her body is her most positive attribute, I really want to see Hedsor Hall prove her wrong. Maybe impeccable manners will become her best asset, or, better yet, falconry. Or maybe the girls will simply gain the skills to have more confidence in classrooms and job interviews. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know it’s just another MTV reality show, but I’m totally sold. Blame it on the British.
[Also posted at bitchmagazine.org]