Role models and cultural angst in Little Britain

A furore involving race and class issues has developed this week, over the TV programme Celebrity Big Brother. The episode illustrates how so-called Reality Television can become a significant indicator of cultural anxieties and social identity. It also suggests how celebrity leadership enjoys a honeymoon period which tends to be followed by disenchantment.

Celebrity Big Brother, the TV reality show, has this week resulted in angry reactions when the observed words and actions of some participants were considered to be bullying and racist. The hostility within the show has been directed towards the only non-English participant, an Indian film actress, Shilpa Shetty.

Protests have multiplied into the tens of thousands and spread beyond the viewers of the show. There has been intense interest in India. A major sponsor has withdrawn its support, popular newspapers have also fanned the controversy, and politicians have felt compelled to join the debate. Gordon Brown, like many a politician, has had to deal with the matter in various interviews, rather than sticking to a preferred agenda. He has had the added pressure of being on a visit to India, where the story inevitably was of great interest.

One of the protagonists on the show was Jade Goody, who had won national attention, and accompanying lucrative marketing opportunities, after appearing on an earlier Big Brother show. She achieved her celebrity status through the voting system. Votes of the viewers offer not just a sense of establishing the people’s choice, but provide revenue, is an element of the business model of these programmes). In this way, we the public create the celebrities we most want. The celebrities we deserve, arguably.

But celebrities, as products of social fantasies, having won a public beauty contest, also face the prospect of losing their appeal to the public. The Honeymoon can be brief.

Voting as a measure of cultural beliefs

In a few hours, the viewers will have at opportunity to vote again. This time the voting will determine whether Shilpa Shetty, or Jade Goody will be ‘evicted’ from the Big Brother version of reality. The vote is being treated as having some symbolic significance and an indicator of a Nation’s cultural attitudes towards bullying and racism. National newspapers, having built up Jade, are now urging that she be voted out of the show.

Channel 4 which broadcasts Celebrity Big Brother is engaging in brand damage limitation, which enjoying staggering gains in viewing figures. It announced today that profits from the phone-in vote would go to charity.

How blows the wind?

Various signals suggest that the Big Brother organizers are anticipating that Jade Goody will be removed by the popular vote from the Show tonight. They have decided to avoid any possible unpleasantness of a public demonstation by changing the customary humiliation accompanying the announcement of the vote. Another indicator: the bookmakers William Hill have Goody as a 33 to 1 odds-on favorite for Goody’s eviction.

I could not point to direct evidence. There are various inponderables: Will the Sun’s campaign really swing votes, or even mobilize a proportion of them? Will the withdrawal of support to the show of Carphone Warehouse, the Perfume Shop of selling Jade’s perfume, the disapproval of politicans such as Gordon Brown, and human rights leader Trevor Phillips simply encourage the rebellious tendency among a proportion of viewers?

The Leadership Honeymoon

The process is well-known to politicians. Gordon Brown is not considered a leader of charismatic appeal. However, if he wins not just in the ballet to succeed Tony Blair, but in a subsequent general election, he will be guaranteed the honeymoon period as the voters’ leader of choice. Equally certainly, he will face the prospect that honeymoons create only a temporary state of enchantment, as we create our fantasy leader, and eventually react in disillusion against the image we created.

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5 Responses to Role models and cultural angst in Little Britain

  1. I don’t watch the Big Brother House, although I often walk into our living room and find my kids doing so. They often flip channels as I walk in :-)

    The most interesting aspect of the fuss is that so many people think it vitally important to establish whether this is racism, or “only” class antagonism.

    The legal definition of racism is actually totally absurd, since it states that racism only has to exist in the mind of the beholder in order to become legally actionable. If someone believes something is racist, that is enough for it to be racist. Lewis Carroll would have loved this!

    Of course, in a sane world, it would be observed that bigotry and prejudice are present just about everywhere, and that censoring their expression in one area, while allowing their unbridled expression elsewhere, doesn’t solve the problem at all.

    This is the same difficulty we seem to have with expressions of greed. If they are channelled into some areas, they are a virtue, since they create economic activity, but when the greed expresses itself in overeating and drug abuse, that is bad.

    The blunt truth is that greed is bad, just as bigotry and prejudice are bad. Trying to re-arrange their expressions to evade the issue is about as useful as re-arranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic.

  2. peter says:

    I wonder if we can say that reality tv is a “significant indicator of cultural anxieties and social identity.” I think its like the mind/body problem: Does the mind make the media or the media make the mind?

    In the words of Morrissey, then: “I dunno.”

    From space, maybe, all is mind.

  3. Tudor says:

    I am with Trevor about the dubious merits of debating labels (racism, bullying). Whatever you call it, the specacle was ‘unedifying’ (seems to bring out the intellectual snob in me, but that’s my problem).

    To argue (as I’ve heard argued) the social benefits of the whole orchestrated event is weak. We might argue in similar vein that the manner of conducting Saddam execution’s could be justified in view of the debate it promoted.

    Peter’s point of mind and media is a bit like that Post Modern Mantra with its mutual enfolding ‘turn’ (The reality of spectacle and the spectacle of reality; the mind of the media, and the media of the mind; from space all is mind, from mind all is space etc. )
    Which is a good a reason as any to agree with Morrissey.

  4. Having said my piece above, I did then watch a bit of the spectacle. What clearly emerged was that Jade Goodey was shocked at the selective manner in which her remarks were presented to appear racist. On emerging frrom the house, she dealt with the flack rather well.

    While in the house, Jade made a rather telling remark, to the effect that she was more like the Indian fans who made Shilpa Shetty famous than she was. She commented to the effect that she would like to see Shilpa mixing with the people in the slums who go to see her movies.

    This is fair comment about the extreme class distinctions in India, based upon a caste system which is extremely racist (higher caste = whiter skin). This system goes back to the invasion of India by white-skinned Aryans at about 1500BC. It is a kind of informal apartheid system, sanctioned by religious belief, considered by many to be respectably “spiritual”, and in practice outrageous.

    I have not come across a single comment to this effect in all the noise generated by this business.

    The mud seems to be sticking to Channel 4, not to Jade, but nobody seems to have noticed the real issue at all. It is so huge that it is invisible.

  5. Tudor says:

    Thanks, Trevor.

    Re: Big issues that are ignored. Couldn’t agree more. It’s the gorilla in the dining room no one mentions. It’s not mentioning the war. It’s a kind of subtle version of the meme effect, or a way cultural beliefs preserve themselves.

    How to draw attention to what you call the real issue. Maybe just finding the right time and place to speak the unspeakable? It’s the Emperor’s (lack of) new clothes again.

    Mostly, though it’s hard work to reach a common view on what that real issue is.

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