Role models and cultural angst in Little Britain

January 19, 2007

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 A major sponsor has withdrawn its support, popular newspapers have also fanned the controversy, and politicians have felt compelled to join the debate.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.