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Big Brother, Beyond Britain

by Joanne Lim
7 May 2007 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Celebrity Big Brother [1] | Commons
 

..only now do we recognize how little at home we are within ourselves[1]

A rather small column in an insignificant section of a local Malaysian newspaper alerted me to the Big Bully saga involving Indian actress Shilpa Shetty, which was unfolding in Britain at that time. Unsurprisingly, the ‘excitement’ with issues of racism and multiculturalism unfolding in the (former) colonial Empire had failed to alarm nor excite Malaysians – after all, it was Britain who had ‘forced’ multiculturalism on the country by bringing in Chinese and Indian migrants to live in ‘racial harmony’ with the Bumiputeras in Malaya during its reign. Nevertheless, the seemingly racial-‘tolerant’ country that Malaysia boasts today would not have been possible without its own continuous struggles with issues of multiculturalism since gaining Independence from the British in 1957, and with the constant (albeit implicit) threat of racial unrest if there is failure to practice self-censorship on every level – individual, society, and state – with regards to racial biasness.

The discourse of race and racism remains highly taboo and is much avoided as the consequences have proven detrimental to national security – engaging with this sensitive issue could result in an arrest by the ISA[2] Hence, racist remarks or racially connotative programmes seldom find their way into the media, especially one that has been categorized as ‘Reality’ TV – a genre that seeks to ‘realistically’ portray the lives of ‘real’ people. In Malaysia, ‘live transmissions’ are deliberately delayed for about two seconds to enable the censorship of any ‘unfavorable’ material; and in such a country, Big Brother faces an outright ban, for reasons as vague as the ban itself (parts of the BB format have been inserted into local reality programmes.[3]

Nevertheless, the Big Brother programme in Britain somewhat embodies the ‘celebration’ of media and cultural ‘freedom’ enjoyed by its society; a freedom that many deemed had been misconstrued and misused in the BB House through the xenophobic display by white working-class participants towards a postcolonial Asian star whose only ‘offense’ (or defense) was to represent a successful middle-class individual with bourgeois mannerisms. Yet, when Jade Goody spoke with a racist tone, she conveniently disregarded the Indian communities worldwide and failed to realise that the closed doors of the BB House was in fact the most open platform for public scrutiny through the lenses of (surveillance) cameras – one would think that Jade would be familiar with the idea of ‘being watched’ and in turn, be watchful of herself. For such an issue to have any major racial bearings, the remarks would have to originate from ‘ordinary people’ who understood the taboo and consequences of playing the ‘racial card’ in a popular TV show and the consequences of displaying ‘anti-social behavior’ in this very ‘politically-correct’ society.

Indeed, there has been personal assimilation (on my part) to the ‘reality’ of racism in Britain having resided in the East London[4] area for several years – whether delivered subtly or otherwise, racism is hardly a ‘brand new trend’ and neither would Jade’s remarks be deemed as shocking. Instead of following the debates and media frenzy in Britain, I had the privilege of witnessing the (lack of) reaction of another multicultural nation towards the incident that had caused an upheaval in Britain and India and which earned itself a mention in the World Updates section of the news daily (as opposed to the entertainment section where news on reality TV are usually published). In contrast to the British media coverage of the event, there were only three stories being highlighted – firstly, of the protests in India over a UK TV show causing a diplomatic row between the two countries,[5]) citing reactions from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; secondly, an opinion report stating that Shilpa ‘could not have asked for more’ and owed her revived fame to fellow co-contestants[6]) ; and finally, that the Bollywood actress had won the game and retracted her claims to say that “I know one thing for sure, Jade really didn’t mean to be racist”.[7]

With Indians comprising approximately 30% of Malaysia’s populace, one would expect at least some form of response by the Indian community, possibly in articulating discontent over the racist remarks. Comments on the issue was scarce (apart from several short comments in web forums and blogs) possibly overshadowed by the announcement of Indian superstar Aishwarya Rai’s engagement to Abhishek Bachchan. Was the lack of revolt towards the BB issue due to the success of the Bangsa Malaysia[8] (or Malaysian Race) ideology or were Indian-Malaysians simply dissociating themselves from their ancestral ties? Neither. The reaction of Indian-Malaysians (and Malaysians in general) was of a postcolonial one – to dissociate the Self from the (racial) struggles faced by its former colonizers; the (former) Empire now stands alone in fighting its own (internal) crusades which lacks significance in the lives of those who were once subjected to its eminent power; perhaps Britain is no longer seen as an imperial power and a source of civilized culture for its former colonies. While it is much desired that the protests in Britain and India would articulate the ‘triumph’ of anti-racism and multicultural neo-liberalism, its very limited consequence on the global Indian community reflects that the notion remains a utopian dream.[9] On the contrary, it has magnified the discourse of racism in Britain and is once again ‘allowed’ to be concealed by the rather ‘uncanny’ victory of Shilpa.

It may be possible that Indian-Malaysians decided to dismiss the issue as a ‘day in the life of Western celebrities’ with the exception of Shilpa, although her media fame in Britain also makes her very much a ‘Western celebrity’. While Shilpa may be regarded as an ambassador of India in Britain, it is undeniable that her participation in a Western version of Celebrity BB had required her to transcend geographical and cultural spaces and to position herself within a Western context, indirectly subjecting herself to the ‘laws’ of the West, and to be integrated in Western culture and ideology. Shilpa (like countless other British migrants) would have shared the same ‘excitement’ of desiring to be a part of the elitism and grandeur of Western, imperial traditions. After all, she would have returned to India after winning the competition if there was refusal to partake of such Western ‘intolerance’, instead of applying for a work permit (which was subsequently granted by the British government) to extend her stay in Britain. Shilpa’s decision could have been influenced by a blurring of boundaries between the ‘reality’ of ‘successfully’ surviving 26 days in the BB House under 24-hour surveillance and the ‘reality’ of being able to live/work in Britain while also being subjected to scrutiny through similar forms of surveillance. With such blurring of boundaries, the BB House can be read as allegorical of Britain’s ‘white man’s territory’, where the Asian is stripped of her freedom as she enters this territory and is reduced (from a Bollywood star) to resemble a submissive Indian woman whose life should suddenly centre around being accepted (by winning) in a white man’s society whilst being subjected to the ‘dominant white gaze’[10] (as Fanon would say) through the eyes of Jade, other occupants of the BB House and of course the British community in general. However, Shilpa’s victory does not signify her liberation from the Western world; on the contrary, the way she negotiates her place in the white man’s society allows for the formation of an identity that embodies a process rather than a fixed state – a ‘becoming, not a being’.[11] The process of transformation means that there cannot be a return to the initial moment of creation as the ‘Other’ creates a new life for herself in the ‘new world’ of the West and a new alter ego for her role as an ‘icon’ in the white man’s world. India’s beloved Bollywood star certainly enjoys the glitz and glamour of ‘making it big’ in the next-best-place to Hollywood, has no regrets of leaving her country for Britain and has no present desire of returning.

On the other hand, we may have also witnessed the infamous death-struggle of colonialism and the negative consequences of Jade, Danielle and Jo’s actions would merely be seen as a mirroring of their actions, an ‘imperial power injured at home for the first time’. The Celebrity BB programme, which has depicted colonial domination and influence, manifests what Jameson has termed as ‘political unconsciousness’ in this form of ‘art’.[12] Having been denied a ‘voice’ by her fellow housemates, the subaltern cannot be restored to her proper place in a dialogical system of society unless she actively pursues ‘the restoration of artificial reconstruction’ of this formerly stifled voice. Thus, by crossing boundaries, utilizing many kinds of (high and low) knowledge, she legitimizes the whole project of society, thereby restoring her place in society. Shilpa uses the reality programme to reconstruct this very ‘project’ – not only by taking control of ‘high’ established traditions from the more dominant culture and merging it with the ‘low’ of her subaltern identity, but also by ‘crossing boundaries’ to consolidate the disparate elements of a hegemonic world culture.

…when the Self is also the Other

It is in Malaysia alone that we find a state which constantly promotes the idea of being known as single race (Malaysian race or Bangsa Malaysia) as opposed to Chinese-Malaysian or Indian-Malaysian, a move towards achieving ‘racial harmony’ among its peoples. Nonetheless, it remains a utopian concept although one tends to practice added toleration due to the unconscious notion that making racist remarks only result in having it ‘thrown back at your own face’ because regardless of ones ethnic origin, speaking about the Other within this society also reflects in one speaking to/about oneself. It is not a perfect concept as there is always an inherent sense of belonging to our own collective-ethnic bodies and a natural reflex-action to defend this body; and in defense of its programme, Channel 4 claims that it was merely a ‘clash of culture and class’ rather than race. While it may seem to be a rather crude explanation in an attempt to conceal the racial issue, it also forces one to think beyond Beauty and the Beast – Shilpa and Jade, to address the presence of this ‘clash’ faced by British-Indians and India-Indians and the feeling of in-betweenness expressed by Homi Bhabha[13] – when the Self is also the Other – Jade’s racial slurs indirectly results in her being racist towards her own British (Indian) community, towards her own Self. Would the remarks have been made if Shilpa was British-Indian, educated in East Ham? Would Jade have flaunted her racial biasness if the show was produced in India and the participants were housed in New Delhi?

Nevertheless, it cannot be disregarded that the current racial discourse concerns ‘celebrities’ – individuals accustomed to gossips, backstabbing, and handling bad reputation in the media. Indeed, while the remarks may have seemed racist, the bullying may have been fueled primarily by jealousy – very common and, at times even necessary, in the world of celebrities (bitching, gossiping, constructing drama for fleeting fame, etc). In times of desperation (and possibly in discovering and desiring what the Self lacks which is present in the Other), Jade finds solace in belonging to a (former) superior race, class, and culture, while having confidence that she would have the support of her fellow British housemates and entire British community as the programme was the British version of Celebrity BB. Unlike the ordinary person who ‘volunteers’ to be enslaved in the BB House, participants of Celebrity BB are paid handsomely to ‘perform’ their job under a legally binding contract (hence making it equivalent to another soap opera on TV) where actors are subjected to all forms of control, especially by producers attempting to sensationalize the programme and to restore the ‘glory’ of the reality genre considering the dwindling interest of audiences in Britain (and generally in the West) in the reality programmes. Nevertheless, I do not claim that events which took place in the BB House did not reflect the reality of Britain’s struggle with multiculturalism. Yet, if Britain is bold enough to produce a reality show like Celebrity BB, it should be prepared for such outrageous, morally-degrading events – after all, if participants ‘self-censor’ their actions in respect of the ‘surveillance’ cameras, then the programme would no longer be true to its purpose as a ‘reality’ genre.

It is also important to raise the question of whether Shilpa would have won if it was not for the racial controversy that took place and to examine whether the results of Celebrity BB reflects the way Britain is responding to the discourse of racism – where the act of racial tolerance (by voting an Indian winner on a British show) seems more like forced acceptance; by showing support for the Other in order to ensure that the Self is not harmed; to ensure that Britain is not placed under the threat of racial turmoil which it already faces from its Muslim community. In ‘fearing’ the Other, there is a parallel sense of fear towards the Self and what the Self is capable of (un)doing; Britain recognizes the power of the ‘next’ Empire and realises that it will ultimately collapse if the entire (postcolonial) Indian/Asian community (within and beyond Britain) plan another racial upheaval against the West. Nevertheless, the reality genre should no longer be disregarded merely as a Western form of entertainment as the politics of reality TV has been reflected in the way that events taking place in the BB House are juxtaposed with other discourses of racism in Britain and by addressing the BB episode in the Houses of Parliament. Perhaps BB is banned in Malaysia because the ‘powers that rule’ recognize that the politics of reality TV extend beyond culture and entertainment, hence the refusal to tolerate a television format such as BB which ‘pressures’ participants into revealing ‘un-Malaysian’ characteristics (and partly because it does not help the developing nation achieve its Vision 2020 objectives compared to the ‘discovery of new talents’ through reality shows such as Malaysian Idol and Akademi Fantasia); and the British community could continue watching Pop Idol or X-Factor while enjoying a meal of Chinese take-away or tasty Indian curry, and any a ‘desire’ for one to be racially biased would be merely ‘implicitly’ reflected in the results.

Notes

1. Theweit, K. (1987) Male fantasies, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press. [↑]

2. The Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA) is known as “white terror” and permits detention of an individual (for up to 60 days or more) without trial if found to threaten the country’s security. [↑]

3. For example, reality-talent show participants are housed together and placed under the scrutiny of several hidden cameras located throughout the location. [↑]

4. I am not suggesting that racism exists exclusively in East London, rather I am suggesting that one does not need to even to tune in to the BB programme to know that racism has been a long-standing struggle of Britain. [↑]

5. THE STAR (18 January 2007) Blair drawn into ‘Big Brother’ racial abuse row as Indians burn an effigy (taken from the AP news report; accessed on 25/03/07 [↑]

6. THE STAR (29 January 2007) Big Brother’ revives Shetty’s fading career (Accessed on 25/03/07 [↑]

7.  MALAYSIAN SUN (27 January 2007), Jade Should Not be Branded a Racist [↑]

8. Bangsa Malaysia means people who are able to identify themselves with the country, speak Bahasa Malaysia and accept the Constitution. To realize the goal of Bangsa Malaysia, the people should start accepting each other as they are, regardless of race and religion.” – Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, THE STAR, 11 September 1995 [↑]

9.  Indeed, the issue failed to have as big an impact worldwide as did the Islamic cartoons by the Swedish newspaper which saw a global upheaval by Muslim communities (and was also heavily addressed by the Malaysian government). [↑]

10. Fanon, F. (1986) Black Skin, White Masks, London: Pluto, p.19 [↑]

11. Frith, S. (1996) ‘Music and Identity’, in Hall, S. and Paul duGay (eds.) Questions of Cultural Identity, London: Sage Publications, p. 109
 [↑]

12. Jameson, F. (1981) The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, London: Methuen, p. 84 [↑]

13. Bhabha, H. K. (1994) The Location of Culture, London: Routledge [↑]

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All posts by: Joanne Lim | Email | Website

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