Celebrity Big Brother's Racism Scandal
For one week in January, the British public could have been forgiven for thinking the war in Iraq had ended, that the Taliban had laid down their arms, and that the Israelis had signed a peace deal with the Palestinians. Who had the power to create such an illusion? None other than the British media!
Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother sparked a public debate into race and class that dwarfed all previous public discussions on the subject and eclipsed all domestic and international news. Even the media coverage and debates that consumed parts of Britain after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence or the invasion of Iraq paled in comparison and failed to get the nation talking on such a scale.
What sparked the debate was the treatment of Shilpa Shetty, an Indian upper-class Bollywood actress, by three working-class British wannabe-celebrities.; the Indian actress was subjected to a sustained barrage of insults and slurs that more often than not concealed a reference to race or origin.
Viewers witnessed her fellow housemates sniggering behind her back, making crass suggestions about Asians eating with their hands, deliberately mispronouncing her name or suggesting she “go back home.” Many have suggested that the young girls’ behaviour towards Shilpa was not racist, merely bullying. But for those who have been at the receiving end of racism, this is generally its most common form before it mutates into something more pernicious.
The girls’ actions were in part fuelled by their own inadequacies and lack of self-esteem, but what also galvanised their vitriol were their notions of racial superiority, with one of the girls commenting, “She (Shilpa) wishes she was white.” There may be some truth in that statement, but why should a successful Indian actress wish to be white? What real or perceived privileges come from being “white”? How institutionalised are such beliefs? And how are these notions of superiority disseminated? These are the questions the media and the public should be debating.
If Shilpa Shetty desired “whiteness” as an appendage to her perceived class, then Jade Goody craved “class” as an appendage to her perceived “whiteness.” Each held conscious or subconscious views as to their superiority over the other and this often surfaced in the form of snobbery or arrogance. It was this battle of race vs. class that I found most interesting, as neither party had the desired full package. I think it is fair to say that had Shilpa entered the household as a second generation Indian, living in “Southall” who enjoyed “shagging blokes” and “getting pissed” on the weekends, then she would not have been perceived as a threat.
Equally interesting to observe was a cannibalistic media eat its own tail without realising it was consuming itself. For it was the media who seized this story and it was their repetitious broadcasts of the number of complaints to Ofcom that encouraged others to follow suit and complain, eventually resulting in almost 40,000 complaints being logged.
The events in the Big Brother household have created shockwaves at institutional and individual levels. Trevor Phillips, the head of the Commission for Equal Rights, has since raised the question as to whether Channel 4 should be receiving public funds. In the meantime, Channel 4 has embarked upon a damage limitation exercise, whilst the gullible public eagerly await the next instalment of anything that takes them away from the reality of their own everyday existence. And finally, Jade Goody’s reputation and career has been sacrificed on the very alter of celebrity where she was born and by the very media that created her.
Ironically, her fall from grace leaves us with one final lesson in class politics, for how many times has Prince Philip “put his foot in it” without sparking such public debate or enmity? How many racist remarks from “well heeled” conservative MP’s like Norman Tebbit have been forgiven? How many racist newspaper headlines have topped the tabloids without being challenged? In these instances, the power of class is very much at play and we can see how Jade Goody is merely a sacrificial lamb, a means by which a confused and race-and-class divided society can ease its conscience.
As a society, if we are to learn anything from this spectacle, then we need to move beyond the debate centred around the content of a reality TV programme and begin to question our observations of the power of the media to distract public attention and to manipulate and shape public opinion.