Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Big Brother is Watching Racist?

There's been a bit of a brouhaha over the goings on in the Celebrity version of the Big Brother TV show over the last week or so. The details are well documented on the Wikipedia page. Basically, Indian actress Shilpa Shetty and some of her British housemates didn't get along very well, resulting in some verbal sparring that led thousands of people to complain to a media watchdog about racism on the show. One contestant in particular, Jade Goody, was singled out as the prime culprit and drew the ire of the media and the viewing public - she was subsequently 'voted off' the show by viewers.

I haven't actually seen the show, but I've read most of the controversial comments that have been made. Do I think they're racist? Yes - they're certainly derogatory comments that allude to the fact that Shetty is Indian. But I still find it to be a bit of a murky issue - did the comments come about purely because of her being an Indian, or was it because there was friction between her and the others that led to them using racial taunts to attack her? I've read accounts where people have accused Shetty of being arrogant and perhaps manipulative. I guess my point is, people will say things that they perceive to be hurtful towards others when they're angry, regardless of whether they actually believe in what they're saying or subscribe to that point of view. That doesn't excuse what was said, but one has to consider the possibility that the comments weren't necessarily motivated by race.

It's strange to look at the scale of the reactions, particularly against Goody who seems to have been singled out despite not being the only culprit. Still, it's hard to work up any sympathy for someone whose livelihood is based on public image and nothing more (seriously, she's a reality TV celebrity!). I think the media has milked this for all its worth and sensationalised it, both in England and in India. And I can't also help but wonder if Channel 4 didn't secretly encourage the furore as well by denying racism on the show - it sure did help their ratings, although it ultimately cost them sponsors and a lot of good will.

After Goody's eviction, media focus seems to have shifted to Channel 4, and on why they didn't stop the show or intervene. I'm not sure why this is, and I don't agree with it. Surely the whole point of the show is to see a bunch of people interacting in an enclosed place (like in The Thing, only without the violence and death), and to observe the friction that results? It's not a scripted show, it's one where people are essentially competing against each other, and as far as I'm aware Channel 4 doesn't have any control over what they do. I would have thought this sought of thing is about the only interesting aspect of Big Brother - heck, I can't think of anything more compelling coming out of the show. Isn't this what the show's supposed to be about? It's probably the best Big Brother has ever been.

The subject that is being addressed now is the wrong one, in my humble opinion. Focusing on the fate of Channel 4 and Big Brother seems pointless. The controversy that erupted was a good thing, and it raised some interesting questions which are being obscured by all the hoopla surrounding how Goody and Channel 4 should atone for their sins. The events that took place ought to have been an opportunity to debate racism - what it is and in what form it exists today, and why is it still here?

Is racism still prevalent in Western society, and what defines it? There seems to be an element of surprise in some quarters, almost as if this sort of thing is unheard of. It seems to me to be the exposure of something that is very real but doesn't often get aired in public broadcasts. Are people truly not aware of it, or is there a racist underbelly that people are just choosing to ignore? I don't know if Goody's words were racially motivated or not, but surely the use of those words in a racist manner didn't come out of thin air - their use as insulting ammunition was probably inculcated into her by society. Such insults may even be common enough to not be considered particularly offensive or truly racist.

Goody's defenders have claimed that it's not a case of racism because Goody is clearly ignorant and unaware of the racial connotations of what she said. Is that really a reasonable excuse? Isn't racism inherently a form of ignorance? I'd like to see people considering why such ignorance persists, why such racist attitudes prevail, and what should be done to address it. The stuff that happened on the show was trivial, there are far worse instances of racism taking place in the world. On the bright side, I don't believe racism to be an endemic problem - the actions of a few ignorant people aren't representative, and the thousands of complaints and the consequences for those involved are an indication of that.

Despite the misguided media focus right now, it appears that the notion of racism still being a relevant issue has entered the public consciousness. That alone may be a good first step in fighting it. Until, of course, the next big hot topic comes along and enraptures everyone, leaving this one as just another hazy memory. And with that, I bring this rambling post to an end.


sanity index said...

people will say things that they perceive to be hurtful towards others when they're angry, regardless of whether they actually believe in what they're saying or subscribe to that point of view.

I think that's a great point.

I've only read about this controversy from the news, myself, though from what I could see, the media only showed Goody being antagonistic, so one almost had to conclude she was the bad person.

On the related note of racism - because open racism is not as tolerated now, people have become better at hiding it, but I do think it is alive and well.

Antimatter said...

Yeah, I agree.. it's just taken on a new shape. A more insidious one.