I’ve often suggested that anyone who went on Big Brother probably needed their head read. But the producers of UK Big Brother have taken this a step further this year, assembling a motley collection of mentally ill housemates for the entertainment of Channel 4 viewers. They’ve been slammed by various mental health groups for exploiting sufferers, and then the families of those involved have come out to defend their offspring’s right to participate. So, when is it affirming and progressive for people with problems to be featured on national television, and when is it little more than a horrific freakshow? Hint – when it doesn’t involve a Big Brother house.
There’s a lot of political correctness in all this, of course. For instance, in the first paragraph above, I implied that BB housemates were “mad” to go on the show. But to do so is deeply insensitiveto people with mental health issues. It’s not kind to call people “mad” when what you really mean to imply is just that they’re losers.
So let me clarify. People who appear on BB should not “have their head read – unless they’re on UK BB, where it seems to be an entry requirement. People who appear on Australian BB should instead be thrown to a pack of wild jackals, and then what’s left of their entrails should be left abandoned on a mountainside. Which is roughly what happens when they get out of the house, appear at a series of dodgy Gold Coast nightclubs, and are then promptly forgotten forevermore.
Now, I don’t want to get cheap laughs by sensationalising the mentally ill. So instead I’ll let The Sun do it for me. Here’s their description of the individuals with a few personal issues who have been put in the BB house this year:
Pre-op transsexual Sam Brodie (who’s just been added)… Sam, 18, has already told housemates: “I’m” the most paranoid person ever.” He was booted out of home at 14 after telling his family he wanted to become a woman, say his pals.
Shahbaz threatened to kill himself on live TV before walking out.
Lea has tried to commit suicide and suffers from body dysmorphia – hating her looks.
Nikki has been sectioned (ie institutionalised against her will, for her own protection) over her anorexia
And (last but not least) Pete has Tourette’s Syndrome.
“One charity warned it was “only a matter of time” before the show was responsible for a tragedy,” The Sun said. Well, as long as it happens in front of the cameras.
On the show’s website, Lea claims to have the largest breast implants in the UK. And while they don’t mention the suicide attempt, they do reveal she’s “grumpy in the morning until she’s had a cup of tea!” Sharvaz was more upfront, telling TV viewers “I’m a dead man walking. I came to die on this program, I’m going to prove it”. Does the Lifeline service in the UK now put callers straight through to the BB audition hotline?
Let’s leave aside, then, the obviously foolish idea of putting mentally fragile people under the enormous pressure of being on TV, filmed 24 hours a day. Probably not a great environment for the paranoid. And the producers’ line – as quoted in The Sun – that a psychologist is on hand is clearly pretty inadequate. Would anyone who’s heard her commentary during the show trust our own Carmel Hill in a life-or-death situation?
The interesting character in all this – yes, even more interesting than the UK’s largest implants, except perhaps to Sun readers – is Pete, who has Tourette’s Syndrome. (And you can see in that Wikipedia link that he’s already drawn enormous attention to the disease. ) That is, the recurrence of physical and spoken ‘tics’.
It’s presented a dilemma for the audience, who aren’t sure whether they’re laughing with or at him. He twitches a lot, swears in every single sentence and makes animal noises. Channel 4 has had to move the live crosses to the house to after 9pm in case he utters an expletive and shocks young ears. But of course, it’s rating through the roof.
Pete’s mum reckons it’s all fine. But, as Jelena Dokic might tell you, parents aren’t always the best judge of whether their children are overexposed. And overexposed is certainly what Pete’s being – after some ambiguous action in the pool last year, the BB team have installed underwater cameras, which have already revealed that he’s very well-endowed. Ah, it’s so classy. Although of course, this being Britain, his helpful bandmates had already told it all to the tabloids.
Nevertheless, these various gifts and limitations have ultimately made Pete the favourite to win with both bookies and the BBC. It seems UK voters are the opposite of their Australian counterparts, who always vote for the dullest contestant on offer. We had the Logans, but they had transsexual Nadia.
So, is Pete’s inclusion empowering? Should having a formal disability be no barrier to being a housemate? Is he breaking new ground for Tourette’s sufferers? I don’t think so, I just don’t believe most people are laughing at him. Let’s be honest, Tourette’s is funny if you don’t know what it is. Because swearing is funny, which is why it’s the resort of all two-bit comedians. And that’s why there was a hilarious Tourette’s character in Deuce Bigalow, that clearing-house of all disabilities which can be exploited for cheap laughs.
I’m embarrassed to say that when I was about 13, I thought that the wheelchair-bound man who sits shouting and swearing outside Woolies on George St and on Glebe Pt Rd was the funniest thing in the world. I assumed his constant invective at passers-by was a result of drunkenness, rather than a mental illness. (Well, the drinking couldn’t have helped, could it?) For years I’ve felt guilty whenever I see him. So I hope the UK viewing public feel equally guilty that they laugh at Pete, and that it makes them give him the prize. But I can’t avoid the sensation that BB has crossed the point in the UK where it’s now turned into a kind of old-fashioned travelling circus, where the freaks are all lined up for us to point at.
So ultimately, hearing about the direction UK Big Brother has taken makes me appreciate our own bland housemates. Sure, they’re as boring as hell to watch, but at least no-one’s threatening to kill themselves live-to-air or completely degrading themselves. Well, not since Hotdogs’ Up Late Game Show got cancelled, anyway.