The stripped-down documentary

Kirsten’s Topless Ambition sounds like the sort of programme BBC3 doesn’t want to be associated with anymore: a prurient exploito-doc about a children’s TV presenter agonising over whether to take the career changing decision to do a sexy lads’ mag shoot, whose research involves shaking her tits around a lot and  meeting women with really nice tits who shake them around for a living.

Kirsten O'BrienThis is your standard mission documentary, alright. Starting out with a leering to-camera piece in which Kirsten demands if we want to “see these puppies in print”, it’s immediately awkward. When it lurches into scene of Kirsten looking at photos of Mark Speight (her late co-host on SMart) and explaining that his death convinced her that she needed to move into mainstream TV, it’s suddenly horrible: she’s obviously genuinely grieved by the death of a colleague and friend, but presenting it as a motivating factor in a quest to strip off feels opportunistic.

Other stuff feels not-quite-right too. For one thing, Kirsten’s got a secondary career on the go already – she does stand-up comedy. For another, she raises lots of questions about whether kids’ TV presenters set a bad example by doing glamour shoots, and doesn’t answer any of them before heading out to try on bikinis and learn poledancing. And critically, she doesn’t project sexiness. She goofs off charmingly when trying out page 3 poses, and she puts on a game show in the Carry On-environs of a branch of Hooters, but she doesn’t have a steamy lads mag cover look – she just isn’t that committed to going all Gail Porter and showing off and showing off a “scrawny Kentucky Fried Chicken bargain bucket breasts airbrushed bum newly-hatched raptor-foetus body“.

So it’s a stacked documentatary moving to a preconceived conclusion every bit as much as if Kirsten had been intending to flash her nipples all along, and like any mission documentary, the narrative tramples moronically all over the factual content. Do young girls really see Jordan as the pinnacle of success? Can CBBC presenters influence the aspirations of their audience? Does the transition from kids to adult telly really depend on clinching that bikini shoot? Are women in the media coerced into objectifying themselves? I don’t know, because everytime Kirsten starts googling something she’s concerned about she gets herded along to another instructive encounter like a confused sheep trailing through the gates on the way to the abatoir.

It’s the fictional structure that makes the truthful moments so hard to grasp. When the climactic trip to the FHM offices comes around, Kirsten sits in an office with the editor and has him tell her that she’s got an “adequate” face and an “adequate” body and wouldn’t cut it as an FHM girl. He’s right. The audience never expected him to say anything anything else. I’m pretty sure that Kirsten knows she’s not FHM material and never expected or intended to go into the shoot (if a shoot was what she wanted, dirty little Front magazine had already made her an offer).

But it’s still massively bruising to be told you’re not hot enough and Kirsten cries, miserably, for ages before deciding to stick to the stand-up. Which is what she was going to do anyway. You know what? I didn’t want to see Kirsten’s boobs that much but all of a sudden I feel like I’ve been played. That wasn’t a documentary, it was Kirsten O’Brien’s career relaunching on a sea of self-deprecation. Godspeed, little Kirsten. Godspeed.

4 thoughts on “The stripped-down documentary

  1. I watched it and came to similar conclusions – ie there weren’t any.

    It was all over the place.

    It was trailed as whether or not she should swallow her principles and go topless…turns out it was more…will they let me be in their magazine.

    A bit crap all in all.

  2. Good points. I went over to BBC iPlayer to see it for myself and found it to be really ill-conceived and baffling. I was left wondering what exactly the point/intention was and what I was supposed to think afterwards.

    It’s possible to make a really good case for desexualising your public image somewhat (as a woman) OR going all out with the sexuality/tits approach in order to have a massive career re-launch (Kylie totally did it) …equally, a really interesting exploration of teenage perceptions of female success/topless modelling could be done via the medium of TV and an intelligent look at the role that media-portrayals of sexuality actually do for actual sexual relationships is also fascinating cultural fodder. Fabricated desire, the idea that sexuality and amusing don’t mix (they don’t?) etc. are all potential themes ripe for intelligent unpacking, documentary-style.

    But this programme did none of these things. It sorted of vacillated unconvincingly between all these different ideas, drawing no eventual conclusions and creating the impression that Kirsten herself was as confused as the rest of us by the end of it.

    I question the assertion that women need to get their kit off in order to enjoy media success and am depressed that one person who might provide a decent counter-argument to this hypothesis (she’s a comedian! A TV presenter! We still don’t know what her tits look like!) chose to present herself in the victimish light of ‘one rejected by FHM’ rather than ‘one doing something else.’ It would have been so much better if she could have been unrepentantly dismissive of the whole idea, instead of setting herself up to publicly fail in the world of manufactured media-created ‘sexiness.’

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