The Big Brother Incident

Well, I did not tune in for it; but you would have to be dwelling under a boulder without broadband not to have become aware of the diplomatic incident and international protests caused by the treatment of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty on the Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother program here in the UK. I generally shut off and down at the mere mention of the word “celebrity,” which to me signals the exhibition of some latter-day Zsa Zsa Gaborisms—the state of being prominently stupid for the sake of being stupendously prominent—that I can well do without. Where is the humility that convinced notoriously competitive Rose Nylund (portrayed by birthday Girl Betty White, born on this day in 1922) to turn down the St. Olaf Woman of the Year award after discovering that the judges had been swayed by a spurious account of her achievements?

That said, confronting undereducated, overexposed, and self-absorbed have-beens or wannabes with someone who is someone somewhere else strikes me as an inspired premise for a potentially edifying spectacle. It might offer a cultural corrective to the culturing of fame, forcing those who fancy themselves somebodies—along with those who buy into or by way of mockery perpetuate the process of celebrification (the fabrication of celebrity)—to reevaluate the limits and merits of popularity. At any rate, it lends a culture clash edge to a program that is otherwise nothing but trash edging itself in on culture.

Now, Celebrity Big Brother has received some twenty-thousand viewer complaints citing the abuse of Ms. Shetty by other housemates, deploring the ethnic slurs and biasides (you know, those tossed in remarks revealing a speaker’s prejudices) that have translated into a ratings bonanza for the program. In a development worthy of satirist Johnathan Swift, these televised housecoolings have led to protests in India and protestations by the British Prime Minister (who, like the folks in the East, has never seen the show). The public shaming of this guilty pleasure is a remarkable development indeed, considering that much of British entertainment is based on the principle of offending. Apparently, it is acceptable to caricature and beLittle Britain, but not to portray as reality the actual small-mindedness of some of its people who have been elevated to the status of representatives by virtue of their omnipresence.

It’s been good for business, this brouhaha; but might a muzzle put an end to the foul-mouthing? Could Big Brother live up to its Orwellian name by resulting in overzealous watchdoggedness, by causing a backlash more profound than the aftermath of Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, by pushing any kind of social controversy off the screen and by keeping prejudice private so that it may flourish, undetected and unchecked. Perhaps it is better to permit those in need of publicity to make fools of themselves (and each other) than to fool ourselves into believing such ignorance extinct.

The ongoing debate whether to aspire to cultural universals or favor the ethnically distinct predates the social climate change brought on by political correctness. Jewish writer-actress Gertrude Berg (previously mentioned here), whose sitcom The Goldberg had its television premiere on this day in 1949, once remarked about the success of her series in the age of anti-Semitic Gentleman’s Agreements that “we all respond to human situations and human emotions—and that dividing people into rigid racial, economic, social, or religious groups is a lot of nonsense.” Worse than nonsense would be to deny that those divisions exist and that an assumed, unquestioned sameness is a healthy substitute for hard-fought equality.

One Reply to “The Big Brother Incident”

  1. I\’ve read that \”Life with Luigi\”, which I think was a very funny and entertaining didn\’t translate well to television because of the way different ethnic groups were caricatured. Perhaps its the visual element that adds the negative dimension? I would also say the most successful elements of \”Life with Luigi\” were the influence of Leo Rosten and his Kaplan stories.Incidentally, I hadn\’t heard of the UK-BB incidents here in Germany. It sounds absolutely disgusting. In general, there seems to be a meanness in modern humor – laughing at someone else\’s expense.

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