I drafted much of the following last year, but was prompted to finally post the thoughts I had been mulling when I noticed that CBS has just started airing another season of Big Brother. I’m surprised it’s still being made; it never seemed to capture the popular imagination in America like, say, Survivor did.
Or like it did in England. In England the Big Brother show, along with its sister show Celebrity Big Brother, are an amazing — and, to an outsider at least, also fairly frightening — phenomenon. Not only are there both series of shows themselves, but there are also parallel news and commentary shows that get broadcast along with them. In fact, news from the Big Brother house even makes national news, something I can’t imagine the CBS version ever being culturally relevant enough in America to do.
Ironically, however, while this winter sees a new American version, there has been no new full-blown Celebrity Big Brother series in England this year. Not after the fuss over last year’s season — a fuss that says so much about celebrity, racism, and what it really means to live in a surveillance society.
Like all reality shows, Big Brother tries to be a social petri dish, putting people together in a confined situation and watching what happens. But Big Brother takes it all to a further level than most, both in terms of how it contrives the situation and how thoroughly it observes it. Participants don’t just live in the Big Brother house normally — the producers deliberately inject conflicts and scenarios to stir up some action. And then, unlike lots of other reality shows, they are not dependent on post-production editing to create drama. In fact, while they do edit together clips of footage to make hour-long daily shows, the public is free to watch a live feed from the house at any time of the day or night, and other “highlights” are also made available through other internet and television broadcasts. In theory this structure allows the public to see the household interaction organically, but so manipulated are the participants by the producers that in the end there’s really nothing organic about it at all.
Last year’s Celebrity Big Brother competition initial celebrity line-up included singer Leo Sayer, rock star Donny Tourette, filmmaker Ken Russell, comedienne Cleo Rocas, tabloid writer Carole Malone, former English boy-band alum Ian Watkins, another English pop group alum Jo O’Meara, and Miss England-cum-model Danielle Lloyd. Except for Ken Russell and Leo Sayer, I doubt most Americans would have heard of any of them, which becomes an interesting factor to consider as the show unfolds. Also thrown into the mix were Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, Jermaine Jackson, and Dirk Benedict, of A-Team fame. While nearly everyone there seemed to know who the latter two were, the same was not necessarily true in the reverse.
Right away you have some interesting ingredients for drama and misunderstandings. A spread of ages (Danielle Lloyd was 19, whereas Ken Russell was nearly an octogenarian), national cultures, religious cultures (Shilpa Shetty is Hindu, for instance, and Jermaine Jackson is a practicing Muslim), and different reasons for their fame. Combining all these factors in a small house with cameras everywhere, constantly live mikes, and zero privacy from each other or the world is bound to create some tension.
Of course, that’s what the producers would want, because tension is interesting. How it arises and how people deal with it are worth watching and understanding, as it can provide important insights into how people act collectively and individually. If, of course, we’re actually able to correctly identify and learn from the lessons provided.
Interestingly there did not seem to be much tension in the house pertaining to religion. Nor was Ian Watkins’s recent coming out of any significant concern. The producers clearly expected some sort of sexual tension surrounding Dirk Benedict, who’s famous for having played womanizing characters, and at least on that front they weren’t disappointed. The set-up from before he even entered the house was that he was notoriously single, and would he find an object of fancy among the women of the house? He did — Shilpa — and the world got to see a very sweet, but (as mutually-acknowledged) inconsequential, gently flirtatious courtship. But, as Dirk himself admitted in his interviews, he likes to tease. So he would make dry, flirtatious jokes all the time in the house, and not just to Shilpa, which led to an awkward culture clash, as the Brits in the house apparently took him seriously. And when they tried to tease him back, it blew up into an unpleasant misunderstanding.
But none of this conflict was nearly as significant as the one that nearly destroyed the show, the network, and even England itself…
Monty Python once did a sketch, “Most Awful Family in Britain.” As I was watching last year’s Celebrity Big Brother train wreck, it dawned on me that it may be time for an update.
The show wasn’t just about those 11 aforementioned celebrities. A few days into it three more people were introduced into the house: Jade Goody, whose fame arose from her having won an amateur version of Big Brother a few years earlier, her boyfriend Jack, and her mother Jackiey. By the time the show ended they were some of the most despised people in the country, but I think it wasn’t malice as much an ill-educated crudeness that ended up alienating them from the other housemates and consequently the world. So lacking were they in any sort of tools or vocabulary necessary for self-awareness and social integration that they immediately injected all sorts of tension in all sorts of ways, including the one that ultimately precipitated the most famous controversy.
Part of the thinking about Celebrity Big Brother is that it will be particularly interesting to watch people whom you think you know interact in this bubble. But the producers’ house of cards, so to speak, nearly collapsed at the beginning with the sudden departures of Donny Tourette, Leo Sayer, and Ken Russell. Normally in Big Brother (although the specific rules seem somewhat amorphous) every few days the housemates nominate which of them should be up for eviction from the house, and then the public phones in to vote on which one of the nominees will get the boot. But this time, barely a week into the show, three people had left before there was a single eviction vote, and the show was now left with fewer actual celebrities and instead several pseudo-celebrities who were largely unknown to the public, yet ultimately running the show.
But that’s a product of the producers’ miscalculation and not particularly interesting in and of itself, except with respect to how it relates to our concept of what could or should constitute celebrity. The actual issue that arose in the show pertained to how these new people interacted, because the answer was badly. When the Goody family initially arrived the housemates had been split up, with most of them going to a separate residence and three (Jermaine, Shilpa, and Ken Russell) left behind to join the Goodys. Right away, the Goodys struggled, particularly Jackiey who could not even manage to correctly pronounce Shilpa’s name. And as a result of their struggle, they focused their frustration on Shilpa. It is not quite clear why they didn’t also focus on Jermaine, as he was an outsider (a foreigner) as well. But then, they knew who he was. Shilpa’s fame arose in a land far away, and so, here in England, they reacted to her as a mere poseur. But, as others have pointed out, the Goodys probably felt defensive because this outsider clearly had more education, poise, and class than all of them put together. And they articulated their insecurity by bullying Shilpa. The public saw their treatment of her, and consequentially soon evicted Jackiey, believed initially to be behind the worst of it. But her eviction did not resolve the problem.
The housemates by now had merged back together, and Jade and Jack soon found peers — and allies — in Danielle and Jo. Demographically they were all quite similar: young, under-educated people whose immense fame was both disproportionate to their talents (although Jo really does seem to have a nice voice) and extremely local. Have any Americans heard of them? Not likely – their fame effectively stops at the English border. It was palpable how terrified they all were by this truth, even if they were not consciously aware of it, because without their fame, what were they?
So, driven by their insecurity, they bullied Shilpa, whom they convinced themselves was as similarly irrelevant, since, after all, they’d never heard of her. It was easy to do, what with her being an outsider — not one of them. And that’s where the brouhaha started, because when you use someone’s status as an outsider as a weapon against them, that’s where the allegations of racism can take root.
The reason there is no regular Celebrity Big Brother UK this year is because of last year’s allegations of racism directed at this bullying clique, which made not only national news but also nearly created an international incident. Unfortunately racism is a loaded word, one that implies a greater purposeful malice than I think can fairly be applied to any of these characters (Jade, Jack, Jo and Danielle). I don’t think any of them intuitively detest anyone of color simply because they are of that color, which I think a term like racist implies. On the other hand, they evinced extreme cultural insensitivity and ignorance, and they did use Shilpa’s perceived differences (including those connected to her cultural origin) as a wedge to alienate her with. Still, if the term racist is to be applied to them, a fair question would be why they didn’t similarly gang up on Jermaine Jackson, who also was a darker-skinned foreigner. Was is simply that their awe of his fame overrode their biases? Or was is not really racism at the core of their behavior but perhaps another ism — like sexism?
We mostly see sexism in terms of the control someone from one sex exerts on the other by virtue of that difference. But it’s also a form of sexism when people from one sex “eat their own,” so to speak. In a sense, this behavior probably originates from a sort of “competition for scarce resources” problem. It’s a manifestation of jealousy, because one group member’s success may potentially come at the expense of another (or at least that’s what they may perceive). Arguably this is why, for instance, women can be so judgmental towards each other, like in how they can criticize other women for their decisions to either stay at home or go back to work after having children, because if that choice wasn’t the wrong one, then what does that say about one having chosen to do the opposite?
But this is just an example of the dynamic I’m referring to and not something to get sidetracked on the merits of debating. The real point is that homogeneous groups, like those of a like sex, are capable of ganging up and bullying one of their own because they’re one of their own. If the victim weren’t of the same group, they wouldn’t be perceived as such a threat. So, in this case, I think the bullying of Shilpa was more an attempt to control her because she was a woman (and one who also had the favor of one of the men), and not because she was darker-skinned or foreign. Those facets merely provided the fissures through which they could drive their wedge, but they weren’t the motivating force.
Not that this made it ok. All these “isms” (racism, sexism) are still about the harms caused by one trying to exert power over another. Bullying is all about that kind of power play, and thus these people were publicly reviled for having bullied. So one by one, the public picked the bullies off. First Jade was evicted (having been pitted against Shilpa in the nominations, pretty much daring the British public to take sides in their televised conflict). Then Jo. Then eventually Danielle and Jack.
But therein lies a perhaps more sinister element of sexism perpetuated by the British public and possibly also the housemates. Again, focusing on how these “isms” are all about the power struggle, of trying to diminish someone because of their demographic quality and not the content of their character, the venom directed at Jade, Jo, and Danielle far exceeded the amount directed at Jack. Regarding Jade perhaps that’s reasonable since she came across as the most hostile towards Shilpa and the ringleader of the rest. But Jo and Danielle seemed to face much more public retribution than it appears Jack may have had to. Of course, Jack was largely an unknown before he went into the house — he was only there because he was Jade’s boyfriend — and thus he had less to lose reputationally. Maybe the difference in his treatment stems from the fact that the public could punish Jade, Jo, and Danielle through their fame, but because he wasn’t himself famous there wasn’t that avenue available for punishing him. Still, if he were to walk away from the show with an increased positive notoriety as a result from his time on Big Brother it would suggest an unfortunate inequality in that the consequences he faced for his animus to Shilpa would not be nearly as severe as those faced by the women, even though he would have deserved censure just as much.
The parable of the panopticon
In the end, whether by the producers’ manipulations or the moral indignation of the public, Celebrity Big Brother picked off people roughly in reverse order to their apparent relative niceness. After Jack and Danielle left, the next to go was Ian. Ian was the least controversial and nicest of all the UK contestants, but even being Welsh he was still too British to overcome the public self-loathing the show had engendered. Americans Jermaine Jackson and Dirk Benedict took the second and third-place spots, respectively, and Indian Shilpa Shetty won the whole thing.
I’d thought it was interesting that Dirk Benedict was quoted beforehand as being more concerned about how he would live for so long in such a small space with so many people than the intrusion the constant cameras would present. I suppose by being a celebrity with fans he’d become more inured to the imposition that cameras and attention can have on one’s life, although Celebrity Big Brother would seem to raise that level of intrusion to an enormous scale. We could watch every one of them eat, sleep, breathe, brush their teeth… The feeds may not have picked up on all of it, and the portions included in the broadcast shows were even more selective, but in a sense that lack of inclusiveness made it even worse for the participants.
The problem with the all-seeing panopticon is that it is not “all seeing”. It may have the technological potential to see all, but ultimately the impressions it forms are restricted to whatever the watcher is able to consume. Thus one of the dangers with being so closely monitored is that the monitoring is inherently imperfect. The show demonstrated imperfect monitoring in several ways. For one, Dirk Benedict, who liked to make pithy American witticisms, is often mistranscribed. When I watch the feeds, my American ear can pick up exactly what he’s saying. But UK fan sites would report that he’d said something completely different. So what does it mean when the ever-watching British public sees and hears everything that is said, yet sees and hears it wrong?
And then there’s the matter of selectiveness. Jade Goody, for instance, has been publicly excoriated for a number of things she said to and about Shilpa Shetty, but not all of the things she said. Are the bad ones so unforgivable as to completely overshadow any decent things as well? Perhaps. But by being able to observe so much, the panopticon can so easily lose context for what it sees, and with the loss of context, it also loses its capacity for mercy. Each ugly thing can be played and replayed so many times so as to render everything else ugly by association.
There are some advocates for surveillance societies who would say the trade-off is worth it. That without full and unfettered access to observe everything the ugly things would never be able to be discovered and rooted out. But at what cost is this effort undertaken? Just like the Revolution which eventually turned against Robespierre, the panopticon eventually consumes itself.
First, it’s insatiable. Not satisfied with having torn Jade to pieces for the things she said, there were later reports that it was turning onto the supposed “nice” guys Jermaine and Dirk for things they may or may not have said too. Surely there was something wrong with them, too, and they must be punished!
Secondly, it’s severe. There were reports that it wasn’t enough that journalists tore apart the bullying brood: soon the police then tried to investigate them, the producers, and the broadcast channel itself for possible charges regarding the incitement of racial hatred. The thing with having an all-seeing panopticon is that when all wrongs can be found, they also all can be severely punished, even if it means that the punishment ultimately ends up being much more severe than the actual harm caused in the first place. Of course it’s not good to have a society full of racist animus, but the term “racist” is itself a poisonous label that causes its own harm to both its recipient and society when it can be so easily applied. The panopticon therefore does no one any favors if allows people to be so quickly destroyed by this kind of taxonomic retribution, without adequately considering to what extent it might fairly be deserved.
Celebrity Big Brother, of course, is just a television show, simple entertainment that shouldn’t be taken too seriously (unlike it obviously was by so many). But to the extent that it represents a microcosm of modern life the whole episode exposes what should be some great concerns about the growing surveillance society. In real life the panopticon is not limited to watching 14 people for 26 days — it can watch everyone all the time. On the upside, that means that no wrong can go unnoticed and unpunished. On the other hand, however, no behavior, no matter how personal, private, or innocuous, can go unscrutinized. Be careful with what you say or do out there, because someone will be watching and waiting to punish you.