Monday, January 29, 2007

Racism in Britain, as seen on reality TV

I saw last night that Shilpa Shetty won Celebrity Big Brother 2007 in Britain. This run of the reality TV show has been controversial due to racist statements made on the air against Ms. Shetty. I've been following the situation for a couple of weeks, but I wanted to see how it ended before posting about it. Compare this post with the one I made on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Big Brother aired on CBS in the U.S. in the summer of 2000, trying to capitalize on the success of CBS' other big reality show, Survivor. The premise: a bunch of people live in the same "house" — a set, really — outfitted with cameras that followed their every move 24/7. Each week someone became "head of household", giving them some perks, and two or more people were "up for eviction". The TV audience would vote on who would be turfed from the show. Big Brother is still running in the U.S. but the first season was the best/worst. I watched the first season, but stopped after that. It was a train wreck. Audience members — via text messaging — tended to vote out the most disruptive members. Unfortunately, that meant voting out the most interesting members. Then there was a minor "scandal" where one participant's home town voted en masse, and often, to keep him in the house. The whole thing almost came crashing down to its knees, particularly when the participant with the phone happy home town won.

The original season of Big Brother was actually based on a Dutch show by the same name. The original Dutch Big Brother is considered the "mother of all reality shows", airing in 1997. Like the U.S. show, viewers watched the contestants, two (or more) people were put up for eviction, and viewers would call in to vote for their favourites, the least favourite being thrown out. This format works in other countries, but failed miserably in the U.S. Telephone charges are more expensive in the rest of the world, making a vote worth more. CBS' casting for the first season was lame, and Dutch television allows nudity and sex, slanting the way people vote.

While the U.S. show changed formats (viewers can only vote to reward a player; the players vote each other out ala Survivor), the shows in every other country (Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Great Britain, India, Italy, Mexico, Nigeria, The Philippines and a version played in Sweden and Norway) all follow the Dutch rules.

I seem to be diverging, but it's important to understand the differences between the U.K. version of Big Brother and the American version in case you've only seen the American version.

Britain has run seven seasons of Big Brother, with an annual spin off Celebrity Big Brother, which just finished its 5th season. It's this 5th season that's covered in controversy.

C-list celebrities were put into the house on January 3, 2007, and the last show was on January 28. The winner would be awarded a cash prize for their favourite charity. Several of the contestants I'd never heard of, being in that strange bubble that is British pop culture*, but I was surprised to recognize a few names: Jermaine Jackson (brother of the Michael), Dirk Benedict (The A-Team and original Battlestar Galactica actor), Ken Russell (British film director; he directed The Who's Tommy), and 1970s singer Leo Sayer. I didn't recognize most of the others, including the two at the heart of the controversy: Shilpa Shetty and Jade Goody.

Shilpa Shetty is a beautiful Bollywood actress, famous in her home country of India but not well known on this side of the Atlantic. That may change as a result of this controversy, but more likely she won't be recognized here unless she becomes the next "Bond girl", a possibility according to some rumours.

Jade Goody is pretty much the polar opposite of the refined, educated Shetty. Goody won Big Brother 3 in spite of coming across as a half-wit. From the Wikipedia entry on her, "She supposedly harboured the belief that Mother Teresa was related to Albert Einstein (which she pronounced Heinzstein) and Sherlock Holmes (whom she believed invented toilets), that Rio de Janiero was a person and East Anglia was a foreign country. Two of her most famous quotes, both of which indicate the alleged paucity of her general knowledge are: 'They were trying to use me as an escape goat' and 'Do they speak Portuganese in Portugal?'." Amusing at first, she soon became the target of vitriol in the British tabloid press. The producers of Big Brother allegedly told Goody how she was being portrayed, and started airing clips that made her more sympathetic (the producers deny this). The British press started treating her more positively, perhaps afraid she'd sue over the hatred that was building, and in the end she won the game. Details can be found in this Wikipedia entry. Goody went on to become a reality show celebrity, starring in a couple of other reality shows, selling a series of fitness DVDs (she has since gained back a lot of the weight she lost post-Big Brother), opening a restaurant (as part of a reality show; it has since closed), and releasing her own fragrance line.

While Goody has promoted her ditzy commoner-made-good image, that all fell apart in the middle of this month. Goody started targeting Shetty, presumably as a way of eliminating a strong competitor in the show. This is where the real controversy began. Goody started using racial slurs against Shetty. She began bullying Shetty with the help of a couple of other contestants, including Jo O'Meara, a member of the British pop group S Club 7, and Danielle Lloyd, a former Miss Great Britain.

The racial slurs were the kind I'm very familiar with. I used to hear them a lot when I worked on the assembly line at GM in Oshawa, ON. There is a large Indian and Pakistani population in Britain and in Canada. I don't begin to understand what causes people to start racist slurs. I don't know if it's insecurity, or just a fear of the unknown and different. For whatever reason, racist slurs often hit immigrants. I heard very few racist comments against African-Canadians growing up, but heard quite a few against Indians and Pakistanis. As an adult I heard more in Toronto aimed at the large Caribbean community and, during the Chinese influx prior to the hand over of Hong Kong, orientals. Slurs against Indians and Pakistanis were the most prevalent. (I should note that the slurs I heard in multi-cultural Toronto were far less prevalent than those I heard on the assembly line in the — at the time — largely working class white city of Oshawa.)

I won't go into details about the slurs spoken by Goody and others on this show. You can find them in the Celebrity Big Brother 2007 Wikipedia entry. They largely dealt with Shetty's colour, and the common (and entirely stupid) racial epithets about cleanliness.

The situation came to a head on January 16, when Goody's bullying and slurs hit a tipping point. The U.K.'s media regulator Ofcom, the British equivalent of the U.S. FCC, received 50,000 complaints about the show. In a typically British response there were calls for banning the show. It became an international incident when Gordon Brown, heir apparent to Tony Blair, visited India soon after. He was forced to explain and denounce the incident while the producers of the show were burned in effigy.

The insults might have been dismissed as the ravings of an idiot if it wasn't for the fact that Goody wasn't the only one contributing. Goody's mother and boyfriend were invited into the house as a twist in the show. They participated (and Goody's boyfriend was probably even worse than Goody herself) in the insults. O'Meara and Lloyd also jumped in. The prevalence of racism in the Big Brother House was what was most troubling to Britons. The incidents were brought up in Question Period in the House of Commons. Given that India second only to the U.S. as a foreign investor in London, the view of a racist Britain has far reaching economic implications. The furor was even enough for cable news in the U.S. to cover the story.

An anti-racist backlash began soon after. Goody was dropped from an anti-bullying charity for which Goody was, ironically, a spokesperson. Her fragrance was pulled from store shelves. Channel 4 (the network airing the show) executives tried to spin the slurs as ugly but not necessarily racist. That didn't stop Nokia from pulling its sponsorship. The number of viewers shot up dramatically soon after, which probably did more to hurt Goody than anything else. She was voted out by the British public by a vote of 83%. There was no live audience present when she left the house.

The racial insults didn't help the other co-conspirators either. O'Meara was bounced in the next vote, leaving six contestants for the finale. Goody's boyfriend came in sixth, and Lloyd was fifth. Dirk Benedict came in third, Jermaine Jackson second, and Shilpa Shetty won with almost 2/3 of the vote over Jackson. The worst off is Goody, whose reputation will probably never recover. She made millions from her initial appearance on the show, but now her second appearance — and her true colours — look to destroy her fame.

For her part, Goody admitted that her comments were racist, and she apologized on the air. Shetty has deflected the issue with class, saying that she didn't really find the comments racist. There are questions of how much of what was seen on TV was the result of clever editing. Editing did not put the words in the mouth of Goody and the others, though.

A week ago, The Scotsman reported another Channel 4 show with racist comments. Shipwrecked is apparently a Survivor clone. One of the contestants, Lucy Buchanan of Edinburgh, is an 18 year-old self-admitted racist, educated in "public schools" (which, in Britain, are equivalent to American and Canadian private schools; I think the idea is that the public, instead of the state, has to pay tuition to go there). To quote the article: "CHANNEL 4 found itself at the centre of a fresh race row last night after a contestant on a new reality show described black people as 'really bad', claiming the UK was now home to 'way too many cultures'."

The article is here: The readers' comments below the article are worth reading, if only for a cross section of thought on the subject. You see the same sort of reaction to race relations in Britain as you do here in the U.S., though there are far more calls for banning the program.

This incident received less of an outcry. Part of that is because other contestants came out and disagreed with Buchanan's statements from the get go. I've heard that she changes her attitude as the show goes along, but I can't confirm that.

The U.S. is, in part, defined by its handling of race relations. I have heard Britons talk of the U.S. in derogatory fashion because of the struggle the U.S. has with race. These incidents go to show that racism is not a national problem, but one afflicting every country on the planet. The U.S. may not have solved its problem of racism, but apparently neither has anyone else...

* American pop culture is the most omnipotent on the planet. A-list American stars are famous the world over, as are many B-list stars, and even some from lower echelons. One of the things that struck me when I visited Britain in 1992 was just how many celebrities there were that I'd never heard of. There are A-list Britons that have no presence over here, let alone the likes of British sports stars and minor celebrities. The same thing exists in every country. Every country has its stars, very few of which are known outside of the country. Canada even has this phenomenon inside its own borders. There are celebrities in Quebec who are virtually unknown in the other three provinces.

Such is American Cultural Imperialism that even the least worth of American celebrities is known north of the border. Yet aside from the odd ex-pat Canadian or someone who knows me, I doubt I could find anyone in Louisiana who has heard of Rick Mercer, Monika Deol or Ralph Benmergui.

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