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Celebrity Big Brother 07: For Better or Worse?

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

On a recent trip to India I had to sit down frequently, reeling from the shock that the name “Jade Goody” was mentioned by on average three people a day. The absurdity of this preoccupation with a runner-up from 2002’s UK Big Brother, was further illustrated when I looked around me and observed how depressingly quickly the chasm between rich and poor has developed since my last trip to the country four years ago.My own involvement in debates around Celebrity Big Brother 07 was called into question. Had the media spotlight, by weighing up the merits of Jade vs. Shilpa, done more bad than good; merely serving to produce superficial fodder for uncritical debate in a country with bigger problems? Did Jade Goody’s tokenistic ‘charity’ visit to India really matter? To whom? Had any of this episode produced new knowledge or new solutions?

My own preoccupation with the CBB affair related to what it told us about the UK politics of race and representation; and, as an ardent BB and CBB follower since 2000, how the series had become a strange catalyst for anti-racist discourse. So much so, that it had only taken The Sun newspaper a matter of days to jump on the anti-racist bandwagon in order to underline its own liberal credentials. But the impact of this year’s CBB has, as we know, been far-reaching.

Being in India (at the same time as Jade!) made me question what the CBB fixation tells us about India. India today is, more than ever, a society dichotomised by those fully-engaged with Western-led ‘global popular culture’ on the one hand (driven as it is by the demands of an ‘urban lifestyle’) and those leading proper ‘real lives’, imbued with the genuine challenge of making ends meet. The poor and underprivileged majority demographic are further disenfranchised through the fallout of this kind of globalised cultural politics. I can only imagine this chasm will deepen as India’s middle-class grows. Bollywood still seems the only possible cultural space where the gap might be bridged.

Everyone I knew in Delhi was talking about Liz and Arun, Ashwarya and Abhishek and busily reviewing Shah-Rukh’s performance as the new host (apparently after a bitter battle with the original host Amitabh Bhachan) of Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? And so the dehydrated dogs at the turn of every corner, and the stench of the slums backing on to the Railway Station seemed even more pronounced. For most villagers, the ‘cultural knowledge’ offered by this new economy and ‘urban lifestyle’ are well beyond their reach. And not least because the nature of the electricity supply in most parts of rural India means that even those with TV sets get intermittent reception!

There is a big question around the global dynamic that underpins this kind of cultural trading. Shilpa, by agreeing to appear on CBB, clearly wanted to expand her market to include the British. Endemol, who apparently worked hard to get Shilpa on their show, evidently saw this as an opportunity to jump on the Bollywood bandwagon and ‘connect with’ Channel 4’s British-Asian audience. But what has the media packaging of the ‘CBB race row’ really done for India: is it anything more than selling globalisation (albeit in the form of reality TV stars and cloned TV formats) to the Indians? Or is this a naïve view which presumes that India represents a passive audience that uncritically receives Western-led media messages?

In spite of the recent spread of global formats (Big Brother, The Kumars at No. 42, Pop Idol, Wife Swap and X Factor have all been launched and aggressively marketed abroad), deep differences amongst world audiences exist. This is interesting for how it connects to Diaspora politics (for example, where do these representations position the British-Asian viewer compared to a sub-continent based one?). Shilpa Shetty’s own naivety about the manifestations of particular kinds of British racism, is just one illustration of the differences in cultural understanding. Politically, there has been much to gain by engineering this as a global talking-point. Just as Gordon Brown, on his first trip to India, made a clear statement about what CBB meant for Indo-UK relations, senior India ministers knew that this had touched a raw nerve – not for what it demonstrated about UK racism – but because it was a big topic for the educated middle-class.

Discussions around CBB have demonstrated that many resident Indians are affronted to see their homeland and ‘their’ celebrity so publicly criticised, but basically because this taps into the umbrage and insecurity of middle-class ‘English-speaking’ India. Coupled with the fact that some English people (e.g. Jade and her crew and probably a fair amount of viewers) have a deep-seated resentment of a ‘foreigner’ competing for the top prize in a reality TV series that they had presumed ‘belonged’ to them, this tells us something interesting about the universality of national pride. There is a peculiar and municipal kind of xenophobia and territorialism at work here. But, to put it crudely, with less than one in forty Biharis owning a television, what does Jade Goody really matter for their well-being? The India that was so ardently ‘protected’ by those who protested about CBB remains a deeply divided space, and the impact of the CBB furore only seems to shed light on the inequities in its midst.

Write about race and culture. Most of my work has focussed on GB film and TV; I am interested in questions around globalization, popular culture, identity politics and cultural policy. Currently based at Brunel University where I help academics to get money for doing research.
All posts by: Sarita Malik | Email | Website

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