Back to the Big Brother house, and things have been quite dull so far, with the housemates on their best behaviour. We are eagerly awaiting the cracks to show and the tensions to build. Sadistic, I know, but that’s what the show’s about.
There’s nobody in there who I really hate, and as yet there’s nobody in there who’s even all that annoying, although Coolio has begun taking some steps in that direction. He can be quite amusing, especially in his double-act with Verne, but not nearly as hilarious as he thinks he is, and probably best taken in small doses. The Tangerine Man, not my favourite person in the general run of things, has been quite affable. In fact, such is the soporific atmosphere that my attention keeps wandering to boy band refugee Ben, and his extraordinary resemblance to Radio 1’s Scott Mills. Well, I’ve never seen both of them in one place.
The only thing for it is recourse to Tommy’s hagiographers at the Daily Record, where Gail Sheridan (relation) is doing the daily profiles. Of course, it’s always risky missing the Record on a Monday, when the paper runs the weekly George Galloway column, wherein the Gorgeous One addresses his devoted audience of Glaswegian barflies. And yesterday we were not disappointed, as George relayed the advice he gave to his good friend Tommy before entering the house. One’s immediate response is to say, “Jesus, if you’re going into Big Brother, the last person you should ask for advice is George Galloway. Unless you intend to do the exact opposite of what he tells you.”
But, and here’s a funny thing, George actually does offer Tommy a good piece of advice. This was, when meeting Verne, to be careful not to address the diminutive actor by the common Glasgow (and Belfast) appellation “wee man”. This is worth saying, because you can quite easily imagine either Tommy or George saying it, without meaning anything disparaging by it. Actually, if I was in the house myself, it’s entirely possible that I would say to Verne, “How’s about you, wee man?” What Verne would make of that is anybody’s guess, but it’s a racing certainty that millions of viewers would take offence on his behalf.
This leads me on to a consideration of the Big Brother core audience, and how they react to this sort of thing. I don’t think that the BB audience is a representative cross-section of the population. Nor do I think that it’s a manifestation of youth culture as such – certainly not of working-class spide culture. I have a feeling that the sort of audience you see on Big Mouth – lots of young women, lots of gays, and a sprinkling of oldies – is probably a fair representation of the demographic. To a big extent it’s a kind of post-Diana metrosexual generation that sets great store by venting its feelings, which makes it interesting to consider just what they get het up about.
I’m loath to use the term political correctness, because it’s very often a lazy cant term employed by the right, but in some contexts it can help explain things. We’re talking about a lot of young people who are very sensitive to issues of oppression – which is good – but who tend to see oppression not in material terms but in terms of speech codes and linguistic taboos. This is one of the things that makes Radio Ulster’s Talk Back so fascinating, because you have open displays of sectarianism, and, when Iris Robinson is shooting her mouth off, of homophobia. I simply can’t imagine this sort of thing getting past the censor on BBC radio in Britain. And yet, we know that these attitudes are widespread in society. There are lots of people who aren’t racist in the sense that the BNP are racist, but who may have attitudes towards minorities distinguished by ignorance, fear, misplaced grievance or whatever, and who certainly aren’t going to be broken from those ideas by right-on speech codes.
This was, I think, one of the big issues in the race row two years back – you had a toxic mix of ignorance, stupidity, jealousy, resentment, who knows what baggage, and it expressed itself in racist language because that was the only way those gormless young women knew how to express themselves. Yes, the public reaction was healthy in that sense, but I also got the sense that there was a certain element of middle-class self-satisfaction in being less prejudiced than the chavs. Yes, you bring race and class together and things get complicated. You also have the lingering suspicion that there are plenty of people who may be totally right-on in verbal terms but have all sorts of unexamined prejudices, unexamined because, well, you know the correct things to say. If you’ve seen Rebecca Gilman’s wonderful Spinning Into Butter, you’ll get my drift.
But yeah, that sort of sentiment is pretty widespread amongst at least a big subset of youth. For instance, any Big Brother contestant who made an anti-gay comment would quickly face demands for his head on a stick. Again, one sympathises, but I much prefer the idea that people can change and that you can win them away from their prejudices. People who don’t see themselves as raving bigots, and indeed aren’t, tend not to be very responsive to hectoring moralism in my experience. Another aspect would be in terms of disability, such as last year when a blind man went into Big Brother and the other contestants pretended not to notice he was blind. I’ve seen similar scenes myself, which is why Tommy earned himself a bit of respect for having a frank talk with Verne about people wanting to help him but not wanting to patronise him or compromise his independence. That was exactly the way to go about things.
There are a whole lot of interesting little twists to this sort of attitude. For instance, this type of demographic tends to be libertine on sex as such, but very PC on women’s bodies. To take BB as a reference point once again, Lucy has made a lucrative career out of having very large bosoms. Lots of young women will hold that against her, hence the boos at the launch. (And which is why packing lots of shapeless cardigans is a smart move on her part.) On the other hand, if a male housemate behave in a crassly sexist way towards her, you could quite quickly see a big shift in sympathy.
It’s a funny thing, this sort of emotional culture, and it’s one I’m not altogether comfortable with. And, as you would expect with an emotionally-based approach, there are all sorts of double standards coming into play. There’s this culture now where making any pointed remark, even if it’s true, can be represented as bullying. But a lot of the people who are so against being judgemental can be fiercely judgemental themselves, especially when it’s a matter of women judging other women. Go on the message boards during any of these reality shows, and it quite shocking how, if some female participant behaves in a slightly unsympathetic way, you get epithets like “evil bitch” being thrown about almost casually. It’s easy to see how the mob mentality can develop.
It cuts both ways, of course. Manuelgate had a definite mob aspect to it, but in that case it was a mob of the oldies. If polling was to be believe, a huge number of young people – exactly the demographic we’re talking about – thought the Ross/Brand prank call was hilarious, and were militantly protective of their special boy Russell. It’s no coincidence that his fame was built on the back of Big Brother.
Ah, well. On such turns of the tongue are people’s characters judged. Of course, we never see enough to really judge somebody’s character in the round, but the record of the reactions this show provokes – not to mention the C4 pre-show briefing – is your explanation of why everyone’s being so pleasant and watching their every word and action. It may just be that, in this modern analogue of Bedlam, the real inmates are those gathered outside.