Blatant Racism on Reality TV
Recently reality television seems to have taken over the small screen in a big way. No matter which channel you turn to, there is almost certainly bound to be some sort of reality show being broadcast, at least that is the case in the West and by all accounts is gradually happening in our part of the world too. However, in the last few weeks reality show Celebrity Big Brother has dominated not just the small screen but has been the epicentre of media attention and brought us to the brink of an international diplomatic crisis!
The reality television show Big Brother has been on air since 2000, each year housing a number of contestants in their purpose-built house, keeping them under surveillance 24 hours a day. Weekly tasks are given and the contestants are rewarded and punished for winning or losing the challenge and each week a few contestants are nominated by their fellow housemates to be voted off and the viewers call or text to vote for the person they would like to see evicted. The last person remaining wins a cash prize. This brainchild was conceived by Endemol and televised by Channel 4, an independent television channel not unfamiliar with controversy as they have a history of airing programmes that might be considered cutting edge and risqué. Big Brother also has a version where the contestants are so called celebrities and the difference is that it is for a shorter period of time and the money goes to the charity of choice of the winner.
This year the contestants in the house included Bollywood actress, Shilpa Shetty and former Big Brother contestant Jade Goody who despite not winning the show made it big after her exit with her own television show, autobiography and even perfume. There were also names such as Jermaine Jackson (brother to Michael Jackson) and Dirk Benedict (from the popular TV serial The A Team). However when Goody was brought in along with her mother Jackiey Budden and boyfriend Jack Tweed things got off to a rocky start with the Bollywood actress. Goody's mother refused to pronounce Shilpa's name correctly referring to her as 'princess' or 'the Indian' and asking whether she lived in a shack and generally arguing with her at any given opportunity. It was unsurprising that Budden was the first person to be evicted. Even prior to her eviction two of the other contestants opted to leave the house of their own accord as they refused to be under the same roof with the likes of Jade Goody and Co.
However, Jade along with Jo O'Meara (former singer from pop group S Club 7) and Ex Miss UK beauty pageant winner Danielle Lloyd took it upon themselves to pick on Shilpa at any given point. They were seen mimicking her accent and saying that she could not speak English properly despite her English being far superior to the other three! One of them went as far as calling her a 'dog'. On one episode, Jo was heard suggesting that Indians were thin because they were always ill as a result of undercooking their food. While Danielle claimed that Shilpa wanted “to be white" as she had applied bleach on her face. The terrible trio also complained that Shetty had touched other housemates' food with her hands and did not know “where her hands had been”. As the people in the Big Brother house have no access to the outside world, they were oblivious to the impact their blatant bullying of Shilpa was having on the audience. People complained that the three were not only bullying the actress, but that their comments were racist. The situation seemed to come to a head when Shilpa and Jade had a heated argument about chicken stock cubes no less! Jade resorted to shouting and screaming profanities, accusing the actress of being a “fake and a liar” while Shilpa looked on in horror at the outburst from her fellow housemate. What was even more repugnant was that both Jo and Danielle found this highly amusing and once Shilpa had left, one commented on how the argument had made her day and the other exclaimed that it was “****ing fantastic” and Shilpa should “**** off home”. I did not think I would be saying this but Shilpa's behaviour was commendable. She maintained her dignity and did not stoop to the level of her abusers by entering into name calling or swearing. The nastiest thing that the actress could think of levelling at Jade was that she needed lessons in etiquette and that her only claim to fame was her stint at Big Brother. Having seen the highlights of this particular encounter myself, I can only say that it was disgusting watching the vitriol directed at Shilpa and also somewhat disturbing. Similarly it seems that thousands of people felt the same way as the total number of complaints received by Ofcom and broadcaster Channel 4, which screens the show, passed 30,000.
I wonder whether Channel 4 were prepared for the international furore that accompanied Jade Goody's behaviour or should I say misbehaviour. Not only did the general public and media get involved in the story denouncing the actions of the three, but it almost overshadowed the visit of our Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown to India. He stated that, “I want Britain to be seen as a country of fairness and tolerance. Anything detracting from this I condemn." Even the Indian Government was outraged by the appalling treatment of Shetty. The question on people's lips was whether this was the true face of Britain where racism was widely prevalent. To say that racism does not exist in the UK would be naïve and incorrect but Britain prides itself for being a multicultural and multiracial society and it is reassuring to know that the general public were outraged by the bullying of Shilpa and felt that it was racially motivated and regarded this as unacceptable. This was put to the test when both Jade and Shilpa went head to head for eviction and Goody was forced to leave the house with an overwhelming majority of the votes (82%) going against her. Shilpa even implied that that Jade's behaviour was racist but then retracted this statement and we were privy to the girls making up before Jade was booted out. Sceptics feel that the contestants may have been made aware of the situation and tried to do a bit of damage control.
It seems strange that a reality TV show can have such a huge impact on public opinion as we have seen in CBB but it has also brought to the front the importance of knowing and understanding other people's culture and religion. Even without knowing it people may have prejudices and misconceptions about others, which only surface when put in certain situations. We can only wait and see what ramifications if any this particular incident will have in the long run.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007