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Celebrity Big Brother: a Zzzz-list scandal

What’s behind the international handwringing over ‘Jade v Shilpa’?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

I hate it when I’m forced to agree with the Daily Mail. Yet yesterday’s front cover on the surreal reality TV controversy involving beautiful Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty and some British gobby sort-of celebs made a good point. Why, asked the Mail, is everyone obsessing over a houseful of celebrities, former celebrities, has-beens and wash-ups – not so much Z-list people as Zzzzz-list people – when there are bigger things going on in the world? (The Mail then went and ruined it all, of course, by listing among the ‘bigger things’ some of its myopically Middle England obsessions: not enough prison space to hold all the crazy criminals, rising interest rates, that kind of thing.)

But it’s a good question. Most of us recognise it’s a bit sad when one-time stars enter Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother house in a desperate, and usually forlorn, bid to kickstart their careers. This year, the sight of Seventies singer Leo Sayer starting out as a chirpy team leader and ending up as a demented, wild-haired loner telling Big Brother to ‘fuck off you wankers’ and talking about himself in the third person (‘The people love Leo’), before finally breaking free through the fire exit because Big Brother wouldn’t provide him with clean underpants, was a case study in the futility of trying to renew your celebrity through Celebrity Big Brother. How much sadder, then, that this year everyone from serious commentators to leading politicians to entire states are also trying to boost their flagging standing and score some moral points through the CBB experience.

Everyone wants a piece of the overblown Shilpa v Jade controversy. Following claims that Jade Goody (rechristened ‘Jade Baddie’ by the Sun) and her sidekicks Jo O’Meara (formerly of S Club 7) and Danielle Lloyd (formerly Miss Great Britain) have been racially bullying Ms Shetty, both the PM and PM-in-waiting, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have made statements denouncing such behaviour and defending the traditional British value of tolerance; commentators have written about CBB revealing the true face of ‘bigotry in Britain’, fretting that Jade’s remarks to Shetty (such as calling her ‘Shilpa Poppadom’) could lead to a rise in violent attacks against blacks and Asians; and Indian protesters have burnt effigies of CBB producers while the Indian government has said it will keep its diplomatic ties with Britain (phew!) but will be closely watching developments on CBB.

You couldn’t make it up. Whatever you might think of the saddos who enter the house for a bit of airtime, this year there are even bigger saddos outside of the house using the show as an opportunity to posture and pontificate. Jade and Co may be behaving crassly and immaturely, but the response to CBB exposes serious levels of cynicism, opportunism and plain old contempt for the masses among the political and chattering classes.

The first group of people that should be evicted from this debate for talking bollocks is Channel 4. The suits at Horseferry Road have thrown their hands in the air over the alleged racial bullying of Shetty – while secretly relishing the rise in audience figures brought about by the controversy. (The show had sunk to an all-time low of two million viewers before Jade v Shilpa became a bizarre international incident.) Channel 4 says it disapproves of all kinds of bullying on CBB, and especially ‘racist bullying’; it has been calling some of the housemates into the diary room to ‘discuss their behaviour’. This is disingenuous in the extreme. Channel 4 notoriously nurtures conflict and clashes in the Big Brother house, imagining it is ‘reeeeally interesting’, or just outright hilarious, to watch people from different classes and communities clashing on live TV. It’s done it before, and it did it again this year.

As Carol Midgley wrote in The Times (London), the CBB people knew what they were doing when they stuck Jade Goody’s somewhat uncouth and rowdy family – including her loudmouth mum Jackiey Budden – into a house with sophisticated Shilpa: ‘Endemol has gone for the lowest common denominator: pit bull versus pedigree. It may have seemed like a public-school wheeze to throw the uneducated, loud Goody family – real, live Untermensch! – in the cage with refined [stars] and make people wait like slaves on belligerent pikey Jackiey, but it has backfired.’ (1) And it isn’t the first time C4 producers have tried to ratchet up cultural tensions on the show. I remember Big Brother 5 when they sent in the somewhat conservative, middle-aged Muslim immigrant Ahmed, who declared that he doesn’t really like homosexuality. Who did the producers hilariously send in straight after him? Marco, a mincing, helium-voiced homosexual who makes Liberace look like Rambo.

In Big Brother 6 they put mouthy working-class girl Saskia in the house, who said in a pre-recorded video that she has concerns about ‘foreigners’ in Britain. ‘They all want to kill us, bomb us. I don’t want to generalise, but I do’, said the silly woman. Who did the producers put alongside her in the confined space of the BB house for 10 weeks? Why, Makosi, a proud and loud afro-sporting black woman from Zimbabwe who looked like she stepped out of a Seventies blaxploitation movie – and Kemal, a gay Muslim man with a penchant for wearing women’s saris! Let sparks fly! And they did. Saskia slagged off Makosi for wearing a wig (her afro was a weave) and that, too, was described as ‘racist bullying’ at the time.

BB producers cynically invent conflict for entertainment purposes, and then have the gall to voice ‘crocodile concern’ (as Carol Midgley described it) when that conflict causes controversy. The current Jade v Shilpa spat is actually a product of reality TV’s cynical treatment of individuals as lab rats to be thrown together to see what happens.

Yet many commentators have cited this isolated concocted incident on a TV show that not many people were watching anyway as evidence of the bigotry that is apparently rampant in Britain. Germaine Greer – one-time feminist author who, since her own appearance on CBB two years ago, is now better known as a commentator on all things reality TV-related – says the treatment of Shilpa Shetty isn’t that surprising because ‘this is a racist country. To the vast majority of couch potatoes out there, Shilpa is a “Paki bird”.’ Though you shouldn’t take anything Greer says about CBB too seriously. After all, after she bailed from the house two years ago she denounced the ‘fascist’ bullying of Big Brother producers and said: ‘Holocaust is what happens when good people do nothing.’ Maybe we should send in armed forces to rescue Shetty before she is gassed and her skin used to make a lampshade while the racist ignoramuses in TV-Watching Land laugh along.

Accusations of ‘racism’ against Jade, Jo and Danielle and pretty much everyone watching the show demonstrate what the r-word is used for these days: not accurately to describe someone’s views of ethnic minorities but as a kind of snobbish judgement of their lack of breeding and etiquette. The Jade gang’s behaviour looks to me less like old-fashioned racism (those comparing their treatment of Shetty to the treatment of Asians in Britain in the Seventies, who were discriminated against and sometimes violently attacked by far-right thugs, have short memories indeed) and more like spiteful schoolgirlish bullying. Jade and Jo and Danielle are like the chubby girls in the class jealous of their tall, beautiful and sophisticated classmate. And jealous of the fact that whereas they are has-beens (a former reality TV star, a former singer, a former beauty queen), Shetty still has a proper career. They’re being bitchy rather than racist.

Yet today, ‘racist’ has become code for ‘underclass’ – uneducated, uncouth, thick, fat, ‘not one of us’. Snobs might once have said ‘That person lacks breeding’; today they say ‘She’s a racist’. In some of the commentary about ‘racist Jade’ and her family and sidekicks there are some barely concealed side-swipes against a certain class of individual. In a piece headlined ‘Beauty and the beastliness: a tale of declining British values’, Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian says ‘The Big Brother house remains one of hate, divided between ugly thick white Britain and one imperturbably dignified Indian woman. Shilpa Shetty has taken the supposed British virtues of civility, articulacy, reserve and having a stiff upper lip and shown that…we lack them.’ (2) Bloggers write about Jade and Co as ‘slags’ and Jade as the ‘hero of the chav class’ who has created ‘an international incident’ (3). Meanwhile Lee Jasper of the National Assembly Against Racism imagines there will be a rise in racist attacks as a result of Jade’s bullying.

TV viewers, the ‘chav class’, are seen as an excitable horde who will be prompted into attacking their strangely coloured neighbours by some gobshite saying the word ‘poppadom’ on a TV show. How contemptible they find us! The cynical producers at C4 ratchet up tensions, and then their mates elsewhere in the media use these tensions as evidence that we’re all hateful twats. Nice.

It is striking that some in the commentariart seem to see Jade the Bermondsey girl, Jo the Essex girl and Danielle the Scouser as the real foreigners, with weird and alien ways, and Shilpa as the embodiment of their own civilised and dignified values. During the era of British colonialism in India, old colonialists and their wives would also comment on the good behaviour of ‘the Indians’, who were seen as cool, calm and subservient, in contrast to the rowdy and ungrateful underclass at home, the real ‘foreign body’. There are echoes of this today in the bizarre debate about a bizarre reality TV show.

Anyway, Jade and the rest seem to have realised that their behaviour has been bad, and Shilpa Shetty is coping quite well with the taunts (she says it isn’t racism, and points out that at least she has a career to return to). But in the bizarre invasion of real life by reality TV over the past few days, we have glimpsed some pretty unreal prejudices amongst the political classes and commentariat. What number do I call to evict these people?

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Pedigree v pit bull: Big Brother’s cynical face, The Times, 17 January 2007

(2) Beauty and the beastliness: a tale of declining British values, Guardian, 19 January 2007

(3) Well done Jade, Andrew Ian Dodge, 17 January 2007

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