Finally: The Backlash against White Trash TV?

January 21, 2007 at 4:59 pm | Posted in Bollywood, Entertainment, Globalization, Television | 1 Comment
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Has the recent crisis caused by TV celeb Jade Goody’s ranting against Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, her fellow housemate in Celebrity Big Brother 2007, finally stirred up a backlash against (white) Trash TV of that kind? I’m deliberately modelling the term White Trash TV after the German Unterschichtenfernsehen which is to describe TV programs targetting a low income, low level of education audience. The “low level of education” is, however, what counts in this construct – it may be the result of low income, but doesn’t mean that rich people couldn’t be chav (meaning: rude, loud and uneducated, German: prollig) as well.

German “Unterschichtenfernsehen”
The discussion of Unterschichtenfernsehen was highly controversial in Germany, in particular because it was considered a denigrating reflex of the bourgeois (saturated, educated, wealthy) classes against the culturally impoverished lower classes of society. Unterschicht (lower class) is not the immediate equivalent of ‘working class’, in particular because there is no such nostalgic thinking about the working classes as it exists in Britain. The working classes and their ‘organic’ socially supportive culture and ‘authentic’ way of life have played a crucial role in the shaping of the idea of culture put forward by Richard Hoggart und Raymond Williams, the godfathers of contemporary cultural studies. This type of mutual support and nearly wholesome lifestyle is absent from the notion of the Unterschicht.

The lower classes on TV
The present day (German) Unterschicht is a construction in which the individual is disconnected from society and sociability, prone to drugs and alcohol, isolated in their run-down council homes, dwelling in derelict bedsit and unable to look after themselves or their children of which they have many (i.e. more than an average of 1.2 per couple which is the average birth rate). The television set is their substitute for both sociability and education and has since long sucked up all their ambitions. The result are dysfunctional families, put on public display in Die Supernanny, modeled after the British Supernanny Jo Frost, who does not only show the parents to discipline their children, but to carry out such essential tasks as maintaining their households properly. Wrecking the TV set in the kids bedroom is one of the first tasks she sets them.

Murder by neglicence
What is crucial in the Neue Unterschichten-Debatte (the controversy about the new lower classes) is that the term Unterschichtenfernsehen occurred at a time when several cases of neglected, abused, molested (and eventually killed) children caught the media’s attention. In 2005 alone, 178 cases of manslaughter or murder resulting from gross negligence were reported in Germany, murder on children, that is, the most dramatic cases being seven-year old Jessica who was starved to death, two-year old Kevin who was found dead in the fridge of his father who was a drug-addict and 10 months old Leon who died of thirst when his mother simply left him and his sister locked up in her flat. I wouldn’t like to assume that such things have never happened before, but suggesting that this was a new development was part of the discourse.

New idols: The chav takes the cake
The connection between such deprived and depraved individuals the parents of these children have to be assumed to be and the content and effects of Reality TV, spear-headed by Big Brother, were soon to be made. The most popular indvidiuals of this new breed of TV celebrities were the least educated ones and their rise to stardom was accompanied by a certain fascination with the coarseness of their conduct.

Zlatko, for instance, a contestant on the first German edition of Big Brother, was known for not knowing who William Shakespear was – in a similar way that Jade appeared to be ignorant of the most basic knowledge, such as the location of the city of Cambridge (she thought it was in London) or the meaning of the word ‘influential’ (although she knew she was rated 25th most influential person in the world by Heat magazine).

In her rude and loud behaviour Jade was topped only by her own mother who joined her on CBB5 – and claimed after the eviction of Jade that she “would still love to squeeze her (Shilpa’s) neck until her eyes pop out ” Daily Star). All in all this made Jade “play the role of lumpen proletarian gargoyle: inarticulate, lacking in basic general knowledge, prone to flying into ecstasies of rage such as she subjected Shetty to the other day.” (quoted form K-Punk).

The point I’d like to make here is that it was exactly this combination of traits – inarticulate, irritable, incoherent, unfair (sometimes flagged as ‘honest’) – that were Jade’s claim to fame in the past – in the similar way that previous contestant Nikki was famous for her tantrums. What we witness in the promotion of such TV celebrities is the sacrifice of the human ability to tell right from wrong for the sake of entertainment on the level of a gladiator fight.

Bringing out the worst in people
So the backlash against (white, or any) trash TV that I was hoping for did not come to pass. The causa Jade Goody, i.e. putting her in the pillory for racism, is just a sham. The issue that is really at stake here is (or should be) society’s own disgust with the kind of entertainment that they’ve demanded and created – but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if society is able to acknowledge and face this fact. Nobody pulled the plug on Big Brother, they simply axed Jade Goody – for what was inappropriate and disgusting behaviour indeed – only everbody knew that someone of her merits wasn’t exactly a good person to be send as an ambassador to further understanding among nations. (The fact that _ALL_ media production meanwhile has a global audience is another aspect that was ignored by the producers – just think of the case of the Mohammed caricatures).

Nothing good could ever come of Big Brother, and it’s actually a coincidence that nothing worse has happened so far. For those who have forgotten this, some wise words from Radio 1 DJ Nihal on the matter: “The whole point of Big Brother is to bring out the worst in people, it’s not to bring out the best. It’s not that all these people sit around having a nice cup of tea. It is to bring out the worst, and to expose hipocrisy, ignorance, bigotry and also this veneer of respectability that celebrities have is just taken away.”

Ok, and that’s where I’ll end my obsession with the CBB racism row.

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  1. […] in Material für Blogpost-Ideen – von Ziegenmilch zu Celebrity Big Brother UK und der deutschen Unterschichtenfernsehdebatte über Buchkritik und Kocherfolge. Meine Blogposts waren lang und substanziell, ich bloggte täglich […]


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