Time for some star qual­ity amid all the Celebrity schaden­freude

Af­ter 17 years and spec­ta­cles like Ge­orge Gal­loway mim­ick­ing a cat, Chan­nel 5 has an­nounced the 21st se­ries of Celebrity Big Brother. Here, me­dia ex­pert Dr John Jewell ex­am­ines a TV and cul­tural phe­nom­e­non...

Western Mail - - WM2 -

NO doubt for some peo­ple the re­turn of Chan­nel 5’s Celebrity Big Brother (CBB) in Jan­uary will be the perfect way to ban­ish the post-Christ­mas blues.

The re­al­ity show, a spin-off from the orig­i­nal Big Brother fran­chise which first cap­tured the nation’s at­ten­tion in 2000, will cel­e­brate its 21st se­ries (yes, re­ally) with a “salute to a cen­te­nary of women’s suf­frage”.

In a move which is, de­pend­ing on your point of view, highly crass and ex­ploita­tive or his­tor­i­cally sen­si­tive and ap­pro­pri­ate, the pro­duc­ers have de­cided to mark the cen­te­nary of women’s right to vote by be­gin­ning the new se­ries with an en­tirely fe­male set of con­tes­tants.

The plan, ac­cord­ing to a press re­lease (which of course has done its job and be­come the ob­ject of dis­cus­sion) is to in­tro­duce male con­tes­tants at a later date – when a se­ries of tests will “chal­lenge gen­der stereo­types and re­veal fas­ci­nat­ing truths about what it is to be a woman – and man – in the 21st cen­tury”.

Well, good luck with that be­cause if pre­vi­ous se­ries are any­thing to go by, any­thing of so­cial or psy­cho­log­i­cal rel­e­vance will be lost in an ego con­test that will fre­quently de­scend in to ex­treme petu­lance, ex­hi­bi­tion­ism and in some cases out­right men­tal break­down.

Which is pre­cisely the sort of thing the show thrives on. Its most mem­o­rable mo­ments in­clude politi­cian Ge­orge Gal­loway mim­ick­ing a cat on all fours pre­tend­ing to lick cream from the hand of Rula Len­ska, the late Jade Goody sub­ject­ing Bol­ly­wood star Shilpa Shetty to a racist tirade, and co­me­dian and ac­tor Les Den­nis sink­ing into de­pres­sion live on air af­ter the break-up of his mar­riage to Amanda Holden.

But, even if it is in ever-de­creas­ing num­bers, au­di­ences have loved the for­mat and the op­por­tu­nity to see for­merly pris­tine “stars” stripped of the ve­neer of fame and priv­i­lege and plunged into sit­u­a­tions be­yond their con­trol. Ex­actly what’s hap­pen­ing at the moment on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, as a mat­ter of fact.

The first episode of this year’s jun­gle japery at­tracted a peak au­di­ence of 10.9 mil­lion view­ers a cou­ple of weeks ago, and that’s ex­tra­or­di­nary in to­day’s frag­mented me­dia en­vi­ron­ment.

What the fig­ures sug­gest is that for the ma­jor­ity of Bri­tish TV view­ers on a win­ter week night, Schaden­freude, or the feel­ing of plea­sure and sat­is­fac­tion ev­i­dent when some­thing bad hap­pens to some­one else, is a ma­jor at­trac­tion.

This is a pro­gramme that has as its unique sell­ing point the guar­an­teed op­por­tu­nity of watch­ing a fa­mous person suffer ev­ery night. The var­i­ous bush tucker tri­als veer from the un­pleas­ant to the hor­rific and never mind the “uses and abuses” of an­i­mals in the name of en­ter­tain­ment.

More than this, the viewer has the abil­ity, if they so wish, to vote for the person they want to see en­dure the most un­pleas­ant­ness. This process is vi­tal to the show’s suc­cess – it means that or­di­nary peo­ple can have a say in the fate of those they may con­sider to be re­moved from the “real world”. This sort of cos­metic democ­racy is of course a fea­ture of a num­ber of re­al­ity shows but only in I’m a Celebrity… are the au­di­ence in­vited, to the glee of the pre­sen­ters, to de­cide on who is hu­mil­i­ated.

There is an ob­vi­ous de­light in see­ing suc­cess­ful peo­ple fail and in Celebrity chav: Fame, Fem­i­nin­ity and So­cial Class, Imo­gen Tyler and Bruce Ben­net write that our seem­ingly in­ex­haustible de­sire for celebrity cul­ture de­mands in­creas­ingly cruel dra­mas. They draw upon Michel Fou­calt’s “the­atres of pun­ish­ment”, where we can see con­tem­po­rary re­al­ity TV au­di­ences as sim­i­lar to the “bay­ing of mobs” of his­tory. Au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion is key to the suc­cess of pro­grammes such as I’m a Celebrity… be­cause, “re­sponses of moral outrage are a cru­cial com­po­nent of spec­ta­to­rial en­gage­ment”.

In the age of celebrity there are clear hi­er­ar­chies, and those who have fame at­trib­uted to them (that is to say, peo­ple who have be­come fa­mous sim­ply by at­tract­ing a lot of me­dia at­ten­tion and have no dis­cernible skills out­side their renown it­self ) are at the bot­tom of the lad­der and re­ceive the most pub­lic dis­ap­proval. Mind you, this is not nec­es­sar­ily a bar­rier to suc­cess in the long term – there’s a celebrity in the White House whose com­plete lack of ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­per­tise in the po­lit­i­cal arena clearly didn’t ham­per his progress. In­deed, as Olivier Driessens as­serts, in mul­ti­ple so­cial fields, such as the po­lit­i­cal, cul­tural, or eco­nomic, celebrity has be­come a val­ued power re­source.

In terms of Celebrity Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity part of the fas­ci­na­tion is in see­ing stars in sit­u­a­tions where they are forced to “be them­selves”. There’s the il­lu­sion of re­al­ity in what are ac­tu­ally rig­or­ously con­trolled stages of ac­tion. CBB is sold on its au­then­tic­ity, but in what “real” sit­u­a­tions do peo­ple co­ex­ist with those they have never met be­fore in the same spa­ces for 24 hours a day? Prison, per­haps?

But the con­tes­tants don’t re­ceive vis­i­tors, they are not al­lowed re­course to me­dia or con­tact with the out­side world. In these cir­cum­stances it’s no won­der tem­pers fray and hith­erto un­known char­ac­ter traits are re­vealed.

But these are the things that keep us watch­ing, and I sup­pose in the end we all know it’s per­for­mance and the ar­ti­fi­cial­ity of the re­al­ity is some­thing we hap­pily ac­cept.

With this in mind, it’s a bit rich for the pro­duc­ers of CBB to premise the new se­ries on the bat­tle for fe­male em­pow­er­ment which in­volved years of strug­gle and sac­ri­fice.

Then again, it’s per­haps not too fan­ci­ful to imag­ine that suf­fragette Emily Dav­i­son, who died un­der horses’ hooves at the 1913 Derby, as some­body who would have lit up the house. This was a woman who set fire to pil­lar boxes, was ar­rested on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions, went on hunger strike seven times, was sub­se­quently force-fed, hid in the Houses of Par­lia­ment three times and threw stones at Prime Min­is­ter Lloyd Ge­orge.

She also, re­port­edly, at­tacked a vicar with a whip and hid a carv­ing knife in her skirt. Now that’s star qual­ity.

Dr John Jewell is di­rec­tor of un­der­grad­u­ate stud­ies at Cardiff Uni­ver­sity’s School of Jour­nal­ism.

> Celebrity Big Brother will launch the new se­ries with an all-fe­male cast of celebrity house­mates in a salute to a cen­te­nary of women’s suf­frage

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