Thursday, January 18, 2007

Shilpagate - Celebrity Big Brother's Ugly Underbelly

You can always gauge what’s big news in the UK by the contents of the gamut of free evening papers like “London Lite” or “The London Paper”. On the way back from work today, most of these free publications had enormous taglines about the row on Celebrity Big Brother involving Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty. This morning’s Metro also had a full cover story, with a picture of Shetty in tears after yet another round of brow-beating.

In addition to being raised in the UK House of Commons, noted by UK Chancellor Gordon Brown on a trip to India, and commented on by the Government of India’s Junior Minister for External Affairs Anand Sharma, the issue has raged on the internet and news shows for the past twenty four hours. The key issue in question is whether the abuse and intimidation that Shetty is being subjected to by several UK housemates qualifies as racism, or its apparently less sinister cousin, bullying.

Fellow Desicritic Sakshi feels that the issue is one of bitchiness, not racism. I would however, beg to differ. The issue isn’t just that Shetty is being subjected to intimidation – that much is obvious. The issue at stake here is that for whatever reasons that might have caused the coven that have ganged up against Shilpe to have developed a dislike for her, they are choosing to act on that by picking on things that are blatantly racist. To refuse to identify her by her name, to generalise about Indians as a whole on the basis of their interactions with her, to tell her to “f*****g go back home”, and to “go back to the slums” is nothing if not racist. The motivations behind making those statements may or may not be racist – that is not what I question at this point. However, the manner in which the feelings of the coven are verbalised is definitely racist, and as a consequence totally unacceptable.

Unfortunately, Channel 4 seems to have decided that it will try to milk the controversy for all its worth, and by trying to adopt an attitude of feeding clippings to the public that will fuel the controversy are trying to milk the situation for all the viewership ratings it can get.

There have been some discussions of whether Shetty needs to be more aggressive in her reactions to statements from the coven. Funnily enough, when I hear that, I remember something that my mother told me when growing up – that by reacting to people in their language, you only reduce yourself to their level, and that does you no favours. Shetty has shown incredible restraint, resilience and much more class than any of her persecutors.

I only wonder how long it’s going to be before things get so ugly that external intervention is required. I am amazed that the producers of the show can sit back and let the behaviour that is rampant in the house continue without doing anything about it. I struggle to think how far this can go – will we need to see Shetty physically attacked by the deranged coven before they intervene? (Though given that she’s a black belt in karate, I wouldn’t mind seeing her kick some chav a**)

But what is worth investigating in some detail is what drives this victimisation of Shety. Perhaps not surprisingly, it probably stems from the insecurities that she creates in the coven. But more importantly, those insecurities are driven by the fact that she does not fit the classical stereotype of what South Asian/Indian women are truly like. British media and culture have incredibly static stereotypes of what Asian women are supposed to be like, and very few women have managed to take those stereotypes on. Her jamawar draped figure is in contrast to the standard Goodness Gracious Me or The Kumars & No. 42 imagery of slightly dumpy middle-aged women, who are neither glamorous nor sexy, and therefore non-threatening if you’re an aspiring beauty queen. She is incredibly articulate, but while this is okay if you’re a BBC newsreader or reporter (e.g. Nisha Pillai) it is at complete odds if you’re a UK celebrity – take a look around, and you will struggle to find a single female UK celebrity that is articulate, beautiful & successful. Try adding the adjective, “brown” to that set, and you’ll hit a total blank.

To top everything else off, Shetty isn’t even consonant with the only image of a glamorous South Asian woman – Amber (played by Laila Rouass) in Footballers’ Wives; a character that is sexy and incredibly intelligent, but nasty, shrewish, conniving and vicious (“a Bollywood freak show” is one of the terms used to describe Amber’s less than savoury character)

Unfortunately, Shetty fits none of the stereotypes currently available to the UK masses, and is therefore that much more threatening. To top it all off, her privilege grates a large proportion of the UK’s white working class, which is resentful of the upper class & bourgeoisie anyway – to then have that posh-ness on display from a “brown” woman, someone who is subconsciously thought of as being less than them, is even worse.

So we have four disgusting, ill-mannered (and dare I say it, ill-bred) scumbags ganging up on a woman who is much better educated, more talented and classier than all of them put together, and try to “take her down” a few pegs. Unfortunately, the policy has backfired on them, and the sort of dislike generated in the majority of viewers should hopefully see all of them evicted sooner rather than later.

The only positive in this entire fiasco is that for a change, the blatant racism has not gone unnoticed. India’s growing economic clout has made this incredibly problematic an episode for the UK. The country is desperate to be seen to be multicultural, and currently has its Chancellor and PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown on a trip to promote trade & investment. The furore in the press and the concern expressed by the Indian Government over the appalling treatment of a woman who had gone to be a representative of Bollywood & India to the UK has made what could have been a UK media incident a global diplomatic embarrassment. It remains to be seen if the Government will choose to intervene or not.

Until then, all I can say is if you can vote, please vote to keep Shilpa in the house – after all that she’s been through, she deserves to win!

Check out fellow blogger Sunny's comments on Shilpa and the star narrative here

Also check out The Times weblog on Big Brother here - I love India Knight!!


Beth said...

I haven't seen any of the show, and this is by no means any sort of rationale or excuse, and this particular situation seems to go well beyond this, but: reality tv seems always to bring out the very worst in people. I don't watch the genre much, but most of what I've seen is people being, at best, shamelessly mugging attention-whores and, at worst, mean mean mean, probalby for similar reasons. Is anyone comparing this to the race-based teams on a recent season of Survivor (US version)? I can't imagine that ended well either, although I haven't seen any of it.

Sunny Singh said...

Spot on analysis. I agree - gender, class and race make for a potent mix and all of it is being expressed in racial terms.

The Buddha Smiled said...

Hi all,

Beth, I haven't followed Survivor, so personally cannot comment on the racism you say is implicit on the show. I think the reason this issue has struck such a chord within the UK is because the UK takes it multiculturalism very seriously, and the behaviour of the three "token" British women has not gone down well with viewers who have been disgusted by the blatant display of ignorance and crass behaviour. Normally, I would not have even bothered dignifying a show like Big Brother with a post on this blog, but the issue has become too pressing to ignore.

Sunny - glad to know we share the same opinion. And remember, if you disagree with racism, you can evict the perpetrators this Friday!

Beth said...

Oh sorry, what I meant was, Survivor actually assigned people to teams by race. ?!? I think there was white, black, Asian, and Latino.