Sexism in the house: Celebrity Big Brother 2009

Big Brother.jpgI might be alone in admitting this, but I love Big Brother! Can’t get enough of it, in fact. While the programme has courted controversy both nationally and internationally, I find it compelling viewing simply because individuals are metaphorically stripped of all shiny veneers to reveal their deep dark sinewy flesh. Try as they may, raw personality is hard to conceal when one is placed in a confined space with other people for weeks at a time. It’s interesting because it does centralise the extent to which we sometimes have to amend our personalities when interacting with others in order to prevent conflict and promote a harmonious community. This is not shown to be vindictive or deceptive, just a necessary action for everyday social cohesion. Ah, bliss.

Most of the entertainment in Big Brother, however, emanates from the breaking down of social pretences. This year’s Celebrity Big Brother has been no exception but has, in many instances, made for particularly uncomfortable viewing. What has been prominent is explicit sexism, something that has remained largely unreported by the mainstream media. So much has happened that it would be impossible to relate it all in one post, but I will summarise as best I can…Recently, for example, the male housemates stayed up late debating whether or not it is acceptable to call a woman a “bitch” or a “ho.”

To his credit, Scottish socialist politician Tommy Sheridan, 44, argued that the terms are always disrespectful, only to be contradicted by actor Verne Troyer, 40, who claimed that calling a “random girl” a “ho” or “bitch” was out of order, but “when a girl steals from me she’s a ho.” I don’t know if Troyer, who shot to fame playing Mini-Me in Austin Powers, has being particularly vulnerable to this sort of behaviour, but presumably if a woman steals from him she is a “thief,” a “criminal” and not a “ho.” “Ho” is used as a derogatory sexual slur, so why would it be necessary to cast aspersions on a woman’s sexual behaviour when she has transgressed the law? It’s not acceptable to steal, but if a man takes something that doesn’t belong to him, he’s predominantly judged by that crime only, with discussions surrounding his sexual premise not even entertained let alone pursued. Is the idea of a woman’s morality and integrity so entwined with her chastity that the moment she does transcend the law she is deemed sexually abhorrent? And this argument in itself neglects the word “ho,” what it actually means, and the reasons for the associations we make with it, which is a minefield of mysogyny. “Ho” is a negative term for a woman who is sexually active and enjoys a rich and varied personal life, but why do we allow this detrimental terminology to continue to form part of our vocabulary?

What’s more disturbing is the free reign rapper-turned-tv-chef Coolio, 45, has been given in the house by Big Brother – by which I mean he has not been reprimanded for his chauvinistic, and often aggressive, behaviour. He is lecherous, tactile and clearly has difficulties interacting with women. He takes recourse to sexual suggestion whenever he has the chance. While his words are probably not supported by intention, that he is clearly intimidating some of the female housemates should be enough to warrant him being told to calm down, or at least ordered to take a cold shower. Mutya Buena, 23, former Sugababe and now a solo singer and song writer, quit the show after being saved during the live vote, claiming that she had to go home. She later confessed that her decision to leave was largely fuelled by uncomfortable sexual advances made by Coolio, who she rightly said is “old enough to be my father.” Buena was furious that the producers didn’t step in sooner. But why didn’t they? Even during Channel 4 broadcasts of the show (which go through a gruelling editing mill) it’s been clear that Coolio is over-stepping the mark, so why doesn’t Big Brother challenge him?

It’s not as if sexual harassment doesn’t happen in Big Brother. In 2006, a female housemate in the Australian version of the show was held down by one contestant as another rubbed his penis on her face in an act known as “turkey slapping.” While some of the nationals did pick up Buena’s story after she spoke about feeling intimidated by Coolio, that he had been acting inappropriately has been visually apparent to all watching the show, but until she spoke of it, it was ignored. Is it the case that until a sexual assault has taken place, Big Brother will not reprimand housemates, and the national newspapers won’t consider overt male sexual intimidation as inappropriate behaviour until a woman has been physically harmed or at least speaks about it herself? As long as we don’t complain, is sexual harrassment a readily accepted part of our social interactions with men?

If Coolio wasn’t a celebrity would his behaviour have been tolerated as long as it has been? While I am not suggesting he could have potentially attacked Mutya or one of the other female housemates, this “boys being boys” attitude of tolerance and acceptance does permeate through all social strata to the continued detriment and silencing of women.