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January 19, 2007

Lilian Pizzichini asks, are we enthralled by Big Brother - and Jade Goody's bullying of Shilpa Shetty - because we enjoy seeing other people's degradation?

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

We have become fascinated by the behaviour of three uneducated and overpaid women on Celebrity Big Brother. Writer Lilian Pizzichini argues that this fascination shows us collectively in an ugly light.

Jade Goody's bullying of Shilpa Shetty in the latest series of Celebrity Big Brother is a peculiarly female conflict and it is at its most primitive here because of the nature of its prime movers. Race plays only a part in Goody and her cohorts' targetting of the Bollywood film star. Predictably it is the race issue that has hit the front pages and caused Carphone Warehouse to suspend their sponsorship of the show.

But the real reasons Goody and her two gang members, whose surnames are not worth remembering since their claim to fame is so feeble, have victimised Shetty are because 1) she is beautiful; 2) she is intelligent; 3) she is educated; 4) she is sophisticated; 5) she has poise and self-respect - something her English assailants are lacking.

We have catapulted women like Goody and Danielle, a discredited Miss Great Britain (the panel of judges included her lover), into celebrityhood because 1) they are sexually attractive; 2) they are uneducated. The English have never liked intellectuals. We are a nation of John Bulls and shopkeepers, and we have popularised our culture to such an extent that we celebrate the ordinary and mundane.

Most of the celebs who occupy the pages of Heat have no educational qualifications or any real achievements worth speaking of. Their talent is confined to soap-opera acting both on- and off-screen. They have played the fool to get to the top. In Goody's case and in the case of her sidekick Danielle, that naivete belies a shrewd business acumen and great cunning. These are not lovable innocents. They know exactly what they are doing.

But these two particular girls are insecure. They have nothing but their looks and much-vaunted stupidity to recommend them. When they meet a self-possessed woman like Shetty whose culture is so alien to ours that she will not be impressed by large bosoms and endless chatter, they feel threatened. Finally, the mirror Big Brother offers us as a society reveals the ugly face of our youth and celebrity culture. We have built up girls like Jade and Danielle, given them more status than they deserve. Once it is threatened, watch how ugly they become - and they become ugly because they have no other resources. They cannot compete with Shetty.

The producers have been very clever. They have refused to budge on the issue of racism, saying that it is not "overt". They are quite right, if slightly disingenuous. The people of Great Britain have been revolted by Goody's foul-mouthed tirade and her mother's before her. But what really revolts them? Are they victims themselves of their own hysteria and need for drama and conflict? Would they now like to see Jade thrown to the lions, as much as Jade would like to see Shilpa degraded? Is this desire for another's degradation what this spectacle is about? So that we can leave the site of the sacrifice feeling cleansed and morally purified?

What has fascinated me about the aspect of racism is the instances of racist abuse. Danielle referred to Shetty's habit of eating with her fingers, complaining she "didn't know where her hands had been". This reminds me of the Seventies. I grew up in South London and remember hearing the words "dirty Pakis" being bandied about, the implication being, I suppose, that those people with darker skin than our own are dirty. Interesting that Danielle has such close contact with fear and loathing.

If only TV audiences and producers and politicans would realize that without education we are almost bestial in our responses to the pressure of difference. Education gives us the option to be cilivized and respectful. But TV producers will keep on ratcheting up their figures by promoting youth culture at the expense of maturity. Audiences will continue to gloat over youth and beauty.

The other significant instance of racism was when Goody's mother refused to pronounce Shilpa's name correctly, referring to her as "the Indian". Goody enlarged on that by calling her "Shilpa Poppadum". These two particular women are from the rough end of South London. I grew up in South London but I had books and aspirational, hard-working parents to guide me. These women had neither.

The tragedy for Goody is that she does not know who her father is. This will have a corrosive effect on her sense of identity. In short, she does not know who she is. All she knows is that she is worth around 2 million. She is not stupid as she pretends to be but she is all surface. And the really awful thing is, though tens of thousands have protested to Channel Four at the sight of such ugly behaviour on the part of the uneducated and overpaid, they will focus their revulsion on Goody and demonise her, instead of scrutinising the culture that produced her and their own values.

So watching this television is like looking in a mirror, after all, except the viewers don't really understand what they are seeing.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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