Nina Funnell and I wrote the following post on Big Brother which was first published at both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on November 5th.
Big Brother is set to evict his final housemate tonight. Despite earlier laments that the return of BB hailed the decline of civilization as we know it, the most controversial element of this series seems to have been Sonia Kruger’s flamboyant outfits. Oh how threatened some seem to be by a woman over twenty who dares to combine silver and sequins. And oh how fearful we are of this particular television genre. But why?
One of the common concerns about reality TV is that it encourages a perverse level of voyeurism and a sadistic interest in watching others suffer. There is, of course, a long history to both this type of spectatorship and the accompanying cultural concerns. But watching reality contestants duel for immunity pales in comparison to the sadistic spectatorship of past eras, where people would gather in the town square to cheer on public executions. Not to mention what went on in the coliseums when gladiators were placed at the mercy of “the audience vote”. Historically, evictions tended to be far more permanent, and there were no consolation prizes.
Another criticism frequently leveled at shows like Big Brother is that it is not ‘reality’ at all, because the environment is artificial and the contestants suffer from the observer effect (where the act of observing a phenomenon influences the phenomenon being observed). However the genre routinely draws attention to its own constructedness: the contrived situations and the experience of being constantly observed are key talking point within the show, and housemates openly acknowledge and draw attention to the artificialness of situation by waving at the cameras. The audience too are absolutely in on this.
Other critics are scornful of the types of people who appear on these shows, especially those who seek and acquire public status as a result of their reality TV journey. Part of the aversion to ‘instant celebrity’ is that it doesn’t seem to be connected to hard work or talent.
Of course there have always been those who have achieved fame and wealth without it being linked to innate ability or merit, including royals and the children born of powerful family dynasties. And yet our protestant work ethic makes us suspicious (envious?) of anyone who succeeds without the requisite hard yards, and even more so if they make any money out of this.
But we should remember that for every Ryan (Fitzy) Fitzgerald and Chrissie Swan who manage to leverage their 5 minutes of fame into something sustainable, there are plenty who don’t. Like it or not, there is a real skill in maximizing these opportunities.
And while some truly disturbing incidents have occurred throughout the numerous seasons of Big Brother, including bullying, backstabbing and sexual harassment, the show itself has not authored these behaviors, so much as exposed them. Big Brother holds a mirror up to ourselves and in doing so it generates vital conversations around issues which we may be otherwise loathed to discuss. Often we, the audience, are left self-assessing and recalibrating our own moral compasses.
When Professor Catharine Lumby interviewed teenage girls as part of a research project exploring their media consumption habits, she was “amazed by how eloquently the girls talked about the ethical lessons embedded in [the] show Big Brother. [These included] how do you remain true to yourself and get on in a group? What’s the line between healthy self-interest and selfishness? Under what circumstances is it OK to lie? Should appearances matter?”
“These were some of the questions that defined their interest in the show. What looks like an extended conversation between a bunch of indolent and horny 20-somethings hanging around a house to some of us, is a catalogue of the dilemmas of everyday life to others” writes Lumby.
It’s a fascinating insight which reminds us that young people are perfectly capable of having sophisticated conversations around cultural goods which appear to be anything but sophisticated.
And perhaps that is what is really at stake here: a struggle over taste and the right to determine what counts as legitimate cultural goods. Could it be then, that Big Brother’s ultimate sin is who it appeals to: those who cheer on Reggie’s antics. Those who slap along with Sara-Marie as she bum dances. Those who laugh along at the “dancing doona.” Those who love to cheer on a contestant named “Boog.”
BB is the Bogan’s choice. And it never pretends otherwise.
Whether you watched this season or not, let’s at least be honest about where our objections really come from.