Thursday, January 18, 2007

Celebrity Big Brother and Racism

A busy week! Too much stress. Although I did manage to complete a poem for the Scottish National Galleries poetry competition and will send it in today.

I watched Celebrity Big Brother last night. The controversy centres around the treatment of Shilpa Shetty, a star of Bollywood movies. Thousands of complaints alleging racism and scape-goating against her by three other housemates have poured into the Channel 4 studio.

What surprises me is Channel 4’s denial that overt racism has taken place. The normally oh-so-politically-correct channel don’t seem to me to have been paying much attention.

Jade Goody, who became famous due to exhibiting crass stupidity and being a blabbermouth who could always be relied on to speak before thinking (on a previous Big Brother series), argued bitterly with Shilpa last night. Jade and two other housemates (Jo, an ex-singer of a commercial pop vocal group, and Danielle, a model who was disgraced after winning a competition while dating the judge) have all made comments that seem racist to me (one of the two, being served chicken cooked by Shilpa, commented about its possible lack of cleanliness, as “you can never be sure where her hand has been”).

The three non-entities (edit: as Harry has pointed out in the comments box, it's unfair of me to call Jo a non-entity, as she was a successful pop star), who have become famous simply for being non-entities, giggle hysterically as they mimic Shilpa's Indian accent (Shilpa got back at them last night by suggesting they should take some elocution lessons. Ha!). Jade persists in addressing her as Shipla, pretending she can't pronounce such a foreign name correctly.

Shilpa is no shrinking violet and can take care of herself. Jade got mad, almost hysterical, last night when in the course of the argument Shilpa commented that Jade was famous only for being on a reality TV show. This is obviously a sore point with Jade and her foaming-at-the-mouth reaction speaks volumes about her own fragile ego. After all, what Shilpa says is only the truth. But when Shilpa left the room, Danielle clearly said, “I wish she’d f*** off home!” Later in the Diary Room, Big Brother asked her what she’d meant by that. A look of horror passed over Danielle’s face. Had she really said that? She hadn’t meant “home”, she said. But that’s exactly what she had said and meant at the time. Will she ever work in modelling again?

Now Carphone Warehhouse are threatening to withdraw their sponsorship of the programme, not wanting to be associated with the racism – understandable of course. (Edit: In fact they have now just pulled out of their sponsorship deal). It is sordid, depressing television. But television, especially reality TV, is only a mirror to reality. It shows us celebrities as they are. It may help certain companies to reconsider who they get to wear their products. It may one day cure the public of an obsession.

It might also wake all of us up. What would our egos be like if we ended up like them, so many of them famous for nothing that’s required any talent whatsoever? And yet we hear Jade boasting that she’s been named as the “25th most infinluential [meaning “influential”] person on the planet!” And then telling Shilpa to stop going around with “her head stuck up her arse.” And then telling the others that she isn't "escape-goating the Indian." The irony is sad, depressing, almost laughable.


Marion McCready said...

Overall I don't think it's been a bad thing, highlights the disgraceful state of Britain in regards to racism (how many of us have heard someone say "they should go back to where they come from").

Anonymous said...

It's cringe-making TV. What's more concerning is what was in the minds of the people who put this little crew together.

I think you need look no futher than Jade's mother to see where her problems come from, she was the first one who was determined not to pronouce Shilpa's name properly.

And I think it has got as much to do with class and education as race. Sadly all three are still huge issues in the country.

Shilpa said the most enlightening thing, something like "So this is the UK these days?" Sadly yes it is. It's Jerry Springer without the bouncers I'm afraid.

When I was with my son at the hospital last week I went over to the Asian store across the road to buy a paper and the poor owner was getting lots of verbal abuse from 12/13 year old school kids that he was trying to get to queue outside his shop, he couldn't let more than 4 in at a time because of the havoc they caused.


Matt Merritt said...

I couldn't agree more, Rob. Channel 4's craven response, or lack of it, is appalling. I've seen people thrown out of football matches for far less than what those three have indulged in.

Anonymous said...

I think it's been interesting on various levels.

There's the media portrayals of Jade and her family (and to a lesser extent Jo and Danielle) which are seething with class-hostility. Yes, their behaviour has been horrible, but there has been a kind of gleeful ferocity about the coverage as though it represented the releasing of a lot of pent-up anger at her temerity at becoming famous in the first place.

There's also a lot of snobbery in people's scorn for 'celebrity culture'. You describe Jo O'Meara as 'ex-singer of a commercial pop vocal group'. As opposed to what? A pro-bono pop group? And since S Club 7 had ten Top 10 singles including four that went to number one, it seems a bit harsh to call her a non-entity.

Then there's the way that it seems to be assumed that the only important question is whether or not they are being racist. If it was 'just' xenophobic bullying or 'just' generic bullying, would that be OK?

I do in fact think that she/they have been racist, and their behaviour would be appalling even without the racism. Probably Channel 4 should have just kicked them out; in the event Jade is probably going to be evicted on Friday and will get to walk out of the house in front of a baying mob, which will make a very edifying spectacle no doubt.

I don't know. I'm not intending to defend anyone.
But the righteous shit-storm which is brewing up around the program still makes me uneasy.

Rob said...

Thanks for the comments. I think there are many issues in all this, and my post only got to a few of them.

Harry, you make some good points as usual. The negative coverage of Jade Goody in the newspapers does have a gleeful ferocity, and yet they helped to create her as a celebrity in the first place.

I take back my comment on Jo being a non-entity. Fair enough. She did have some big hits.

And yes, whether it amounts to "racism" is irrelevant. People have been disciplined in the BB House for far less idiotic behaviour.

Righteous shit storm? I don't know. I think most people genuinely don't like Jade's behaviour. I suspect most of it stems from Jade's own sense of inferiority, which manifests itself as a huge ego. Crack it and it explodes. With every insult in the book - racist or whatever. I think we may all be capable of being Jade from time to time, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't express anger at racist, bullying behaviour.

neepheid said...

I have never watched Big Brother, save for a few accidental glimpses on other people's televisions. The only dignified response I can give is to vote with my eyes and point them elsewhere (say, at a book).

Rob said...

neepheid - that is one possible response. Fair enough.

But I like Big Brother. I think it's a very interesting programme. I don't always like the people on it, but it is - by far, I think - the best reality TV show.

Unknown said...

Oh my, it has been interesting this side of the stream, watching everyone in the UK and the wider world get all steamed up about what is ultimately some very bad behaviour, not that far removed from the sort of school-girl stuff you'd see in the playground.

An interesting article in the Irish Independent pointed out that the Indians themselves are quite racist in their attitudes: the caste system etc. But most Indians believe that Shilpa is way above all this stuff, despite their protesting and burning effigies - it's raising Shilpa's profile in India, and raising it in Britain too. The danger is that tentative line between insulting another culture (something we westerners have done a lot of lately) and then watching India voting with it's economic feet and denying the UK access to those lucrative markets. I'm thinkin how badly Denmark has done in the Middle East since those cartoons.

I think that what BB shows us ultimately, is that that is what humans are really like. Our fascination with how badly Jade and Danielle behaves allows us to sit there in disbelief and to a certain extent distance ourselves. "I would never behave like that," we can think to ourselves - or perhaps more darkly, a reflection of what some people do think: "yeah, that's exactly what I'd say to that one."

I agree with your reasons for watching BB, Rob, it does show people as the mad complex things that they are. Or are they?

Rob said...

Interesting comments, Barbara. Thanks.

Mad? complex? I think so.