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Racist overtones and class undertones in UK Celebrity Big Brother

by Jimmy Kinyera
7 May 2007 • Comments (2) • Print
Posted: Celebrity Big Brother [1] | Commons

Big brother is essentially an annual ‘reality’ television programme broadcast on Channel 4; it’s renowned for its diverse concoction of personalities and pious tabloid coverage. However this year’s Big Brother was not extolled for its intercontinental assortment of contestants, but rather for its potentially detrimental ramification on both race and diplomatic relations.

There were over forty thousand complaints and public furore in both England and India. This prompted a statement from both the UK chancellor (Gordon Brown) whilst on his visit to India and the Prime Minister (Tony Blair), as well as other Indian dignitaries. This year’s Celebrity Big Brother contestants included Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, former contestant of third UK series of Big Brother Jade Goody, former singer of the pop group S Club 7 Jo O’Meara, glamour model and former Miss Great Britain: Danielle Lloyd, boyfriend of Jade Goody: Jack Tweed, mother of Jade Goody: Jackiey Budden, American actor: Dirk Benedict, and lastly former singer in The Jackson 5: Jermaine Jackson.[1]

I am interested in the polemical debates and complaints which arose from the ghastly behaviour towards Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty by Jade Goody, Jo O’Meara and Danielle Lloyd. The infamous trio subjected Shilpa to bullying and verbal abuse, which were fuelled by her ethnicity, class and gender. The response to the recent events in the Celebrity Big Brother house once again alludes to the intricacy of race, class and gender. It divulges the variable nature of this logic of identity in a post-modern world, yet concurrently reiterating derisive sediments of historical discourses about the ‘Other’. This conduct surely functions within the democratic virtues of autonomous expression and choice, which are also often contradictory. Big Brother’s deportment as a prism for social reality develops a dual symbiosis; in which the social reality endorses the stereotypes in social representation and social representation endorses the social reality hence becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The rapport between Jade’s gang and Shilpa Shetty crudely represented an anxious encounter between white working class and Indian middle class femininity. Class and racial thinking manifested in the entire process of interaction, namely language, dressing and etiquette. Shilpa’s middle class decorum incensed the above contestants who somewhat felt inferior to her eloquent demeanour, which refused to adhere to their expectations of Indian femininity, showing a profound sense of confidence and pride in her ethnic identity. Shilpa’s race and embodiment of middle class superiority exasperated the trio who remarked that she wants to be white. This assumption also illustrates their ignorance of India’s callous class and caste system. Shilpa’s characterisation was in fact evocative of the belligerent class relations, which had historically dominated England hence prompting further contempt towards her chiefly because she is not white. This amalgamation of race, class, intelligence and aesthetic beauty augmented the communal array of cruelty towards Shilpa; among the names calling and comments were “dog”, “dick”, “wanker”, “fucking cunt” she should “fuck off home”: reminiscent of the racist chants against non-whites, “You need elocution lessons”, “Indians were thin because they undercooked chicken”, “They eat with their hands in India, don’t they. Or is that China?” “I’ve seen how she goes in and out of people’s arseholes” as well as saying “She makes me feel sick. She makes my skin crawl”. Additionally Jack Tweed’s suggested that Shilpa should remove objects from the toilet with her teeth.

The focal source of the decry obviously became her nationality and auxiliaries such as culture, accent and other elements of the white cultural imagination. Jade incessantly referred to Shilpa as ‘Shilpa Poppadom’.[2] The above remark is almost equivalent to calling an Italian individual Bolognese. When viewed in this context, this mode of address becomes visibly preposterous and demeaning. Not to mention Jackiey Budden’s predilection to referring to Shilpa as the “The Indian” rather than her name. The vilification of South Asian cuisines has a long legacy in the Occidental world, one recurring element being the presumption that every South Asian cuisine is curry infested. This hypocrisy of course has an ambivalent blend of disavowal and fascination since Indian cuisines have successfully become a popular aspect of non-Asian British culture. This impertinent attitude is often overlooked and discounted as a mere insult based on class and cultural differences. Channel 4 similarly advocated this position when they issued a statement repudiating the presence of any ‘overt’ racist conduct; however this insinuates that covert racism is acceptable and should thus be tolerated. It also raises another question as to what constitutes racism and when does ignorance end and racism begin? Dirk Benedict’s comments are subtly racist despite his amicable rapport with Shilpa: “There are millions of Indians. Millions. And they’re breeding fast. They are having four or five kids when the Brits are having one. The average British woman has 1.3 children and the Indians are having 3.5. The Brits, the natural-born, are already in a minority. There will be a Nehru as Prime Minister soon.” It’s therefore certainly not surprising that Hertfordshire Police saw no merit in pursuing the case on grounds that there has not been any ‘overt’ racism. This seemed at odds with the definition of a racist incident in the 1999 Macpherson report, which defined a race hate crime as any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”[3] Both the victim, the public, (anti bullying organisation call Against Bullying and Big Brother sponsors (Carphone warehouse) held the same views, despite Shilpa’s belated self-effacing effigy i.e. her change in statement from her conversation with Rocos, who said, “I don’t think there’s anything racist in it”, but Shilpa replied, “It is, I’m telling you” to her diary room public announcement that “People make mistakes and we’re all human beings, we’re all fallible…Jade is not racist”. We assume this hasty transition was a result of some presage, remunerations and calculative far-sightedness of a prosperous career in England; case in point, meeting the Queen of England and procuring a modelling contract with Marks & Spencer.

Lastly, Shilpa’s predicament once again illustrates that the white British public will tolerate ‘covert’ racism on reality television by simply distorting the delineation of racism itself. As exemplified by Shilpa they reward the victim with veneration and a possible monetary inducement to assuage their own guilt and of course perpetuate their global neo-liberal façade, wretchedly they are betrayed by the harsh reality.


2.  A Poppadom is a thin wafer, which is sometimes described as a flatbread [↑]

Jimmy Kinyera is an aspiring African academic writer with a particular interest in identity i.e. race, gender, class, ethnicity. He is currently undertaking a M.A in Media Studies at the University of East London.
All posts by: Jimmy Kinyera | Email | Website

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2 Responses »

  1. I agree with the view you have stated but, you must also look at this situation from its root easy understood viewpoint. Jade, Jo, Danielle,and Jack come from a younger generation than Shilpa, and probably from a background in which talk about ethnic minorities is from a crude viewpoint which they (because of being bought up this way) is justifiable to them.

    Please also don’t forget the background from were Jade and Jackie come from: a tough working class background where they have had to adjust to the harsh realities of life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying for the least that their behavior was justifiable.

    The saddest thing about this whole situation is we the public see this group (Jade, Jo, Danielle, Jack and Jackie) as celebrity, that they are not is the paradox.

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