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Sofia's Letters from London #5
by Sofia Gkiousou
2007-01-20 09:58:32
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I have resigned myself to the fact that writing about pop culture will frequently mean writing about things that I do not really approve of or appreciate. I do have my guilty trash culture pleasures but trust me when I say that the British version of Big Brother is not one of them.

Come to think of it, none of the Big Brother versions around the world have ever been a favorite of mine. Yet - being the social commentator wannabe - I am compelled to write about it this week, if only to bring to the attention of sensitive Ovi readers the complexities and social anxiety that a TV show can throw up in the air.

Celebrity Big Brother is an offshoot of the Big Brother brand in Britain and it is based around the same concept as the main show more or less. The only difference is that the house contains (as if they were furniture) celebrities and they are paid a fee to be there. The show has also spawned a multitude of other shows, mainly talk shows, like Big Brother's Big Mouth and Big Brother's Little Brother where the events of each day are presented and talked about ad nauseam.

Celebrity Big Brother is an admirable experiment if for nothing else than only for the motivation of the participants. Why are they there? One of the 'housemates' in the past - as the participants are infuriatingly called in the show and the press - was George Galloway, a Scottish politician who is currently a Member of Parliament belonging to a party called Respect. Galloway is outspoken and with - at times extreme – socialist views.

When he entered the house he claimed that it was to make the views of his party known but the move has raised a lot of political and other eyebrows. Germaine Greer, a sour-faced academic and one of the most significant feminists of our time, was another unlikely 'housemate' who stormed out of the show and accused Big Brother of bullying tactics as reported by the BBC.

This season though it seemed that it was going to be the most uneventful Celebrity Big Brother for years since the 'celebrities' were so unknown that tabloids and gossip magazines had elaborate spreads about who they are and what their claim to fame is. 'Housemates' include a tabloid journalist, a footballer's girlfriend and one of the Jackson Five; it's Jermaine, but apart from Michael I don't know which is which.

There is only one person who can be called a bona fide celebrity in the house and that is Shilpa Shetty, a Bollywood superstar (and when they say super in Bollywood they mean it) with numerous extravagant films behind her, a solid fan base and a claim to the title of 'the best body in Bollywood' - a result, I suspect, of her black belt in karate. Needless to say, Big Brother found a new fan base in the Asian communities that actually know who Shilpa is and adore her for it.

But perks come at a price and this one came with a record number of complaints. According to The Guardian, the media watchdog Ofcom has so far received 18,000 complaints alleging racial abuse and intolerance, for example. Examples of this have been splashed across the first pages of newspapers and have even been threatening to endanger diplomatic relations. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Chancellor Gordon Brown are currently visiting India, Shilpa's home country, where there have almost been riots in the street and people have been burning Big Brother's logo while holding on to Shilpa's picture.

When did it get this serious? Examples of what can be considered racial abuse are abundant in the show. Some housemates have asked if people eat with their hands in India, with the disgusted look of your average Westerner on their faces, while another contestant refuses to pronounce Shilpa's name correctly, claiming it cannot be done and calling her instead 'the Indian'. There have been protests about her use of spices when cooking and then Shilpa herself, confiding in another housemate, wondering out loud why she is so hated.

To the untrained eye this can be considered drivel or simply a tactic by the production company to up the ratings by inserting an element in the house that is bound to cause controversy. But things are never so simple in Britain.

For all its reputation as a multicultural country, it is difficult for anyone putting the words Britain and India together and not to think back to the dreaded Imperial past. The control that Britain held over India, as well as the ugly incidents of racism that the first generation of Indians in the UK had to deal with are not easily forgotten – not to mention the ugly incidents of racism that the subsequent generations of British Indians have had to endure.

The peace and quiet is fragile at the best of times and the following example I think explains it pretty well. Jack Tweed, one of the housemates, while speaking about Shilpa, said something that was bleeped over. It turned out that the word was 'cunt', but before that was revealed the word on the grapevine (and the internet) was that he had called her a 'Paki', short for Pakistani and is a derogatory term. In order for people to actually think that the bleeped out word was racially insulting there has to be some background there and that is indicative of the problem.

I am not an expert on racial issues or on the imperial history of Britain and India, but I would like to add my two cents in terms of human relationships and another aspect of British life that, as a Greek, took me a while to understand: The fixation with class. I read on a variety of websites that Shilpa is middle-class and that to an Indian her class is immediately visible. I suspect that her middle-class is visible to the British audience, as well even though it is difficult for me to understand the distinctions as my own culture lacks strict class characteristics and leftover bad feelings about who belongs to which class.

It is my humble opinion that Shilpa is an extremely intelligent woman whose looks, cultural differences and, above all, class annoy her almost-nobody housemates. Let's face it, the woman that doesn't talk to her at all is Jade Goody, a contestant in a previous Big Brother series, who has made a career out of being so ignorant that she actually makes good television. Jade had a rough childhood and was really at a loss in terms of where her life was going before she entered the Big Brother house.

The nation was disgusted with her for the whole of the series only to subsequently watch avidly all of her televised adventures, such as going to India (see Jade spitting out an Indian delicacy) or choosing a PA (one of the impossible tasks is to brief Jade so that she can answer journalists' questions on news of the day - the woman doesn't know what is the name of the Chancellor). Now she is back with something that Britons will recognize as with a working class vengeance, a sort of rags-to-riches story to rock the Celebrity Big Brother house by ignoring Shilpa, who, let's face it, is the equivalent of Angelina Jolie.

It gives me hope that there were a record number of complaints to the watchdog. It gives me less hope that the names associated with comments under newspaper articles sound Indian in their vast majority, which means that the 'westerners' remain blissfully out of a debate that could do Britain a lot of good.

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Asa2007-01-19 10:57:59
The great aspect of the class system in the UK is the variety of sub-classes available, like upper lower middle class, working middle class, upper working class and so on. No idea why class distinction is so important though.

BTW I'm Middle middle class ;)

Sofia2007-01-19 14:14:20
It was - and still is - extremely difficult to understand class distinctions in Britain and the various cultural attributes that go with each one. I need to read up on my British history a little bit in case it clarifies it.

Rob2007-01-19 17:56:32
I'm the sneering class. I look down on everyone else. Whether they be upper or lower, it doesn't matter, they're not as cool as me.

Asa2007-01-19 19:12:48
Is the class half-full or half-empty?

This is class distinction.

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