Thursday, January 18, 2007

Is reality real? Really?

Does the name Shilpa Shetty ring a bell? It should: she's a well-known Bollywood actress presently living in the Celebrity Big Brother house, in the centre of a gathering international storm.

For those not in the know, the Big Brother schtick is to plonk people into a house, make them live together, and, with the assistance of the audience, kick them out one by one. The last remaining tenant wins. Welcome to another iteration of that well-worn oxymoron, "reality TV."

But how much reality is enough? It appears that the delectable Ms. Shetty has encountered not only the usual rudeness to be expected when people are cooped up under real artificial conditions, but some real racism, too. In England! Who'd a thunk it?

As soon as the treatment of Shetty hit the fans, as it were, and she does have her share of them, real trouble erupted in Britain and in India. 18,000 complaints were recorded by the media watchdog Ofcom--the largest number ever received--and 2,000 by Channel 4, which hosts the show. The luckless Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, found himself in India at the time, on an official visit. "I want Britain to be seen as a country of fairness and tolerance. Anything detracting from this I condemn," he said. Tony Blair and London's mayor Ken Livingstone soon followed with condemnations of their own.

During the same time, in Shetty's homeland, there have been demonstrations, effigy burnings and assorted other expressions of indignation. The Indian Finance Minister announced that India-Britain relations would not be harmed by all this, meaning that they have been, at least at the popular level.
"I am confident, he said, "that the universal condemnation of the racist remarks will result in change in behavior of persons associated with the program." Meanwhile, the Celebrity Big Brother audience has swelled from 3.5 million to a staggering 4.5 million viewers. Really.

Of course, this is where it all gets interesting. As we know, well-formulated diplomatic statements are a performance; and so, for that matter, are political demonstrations. We have not moved abruptly from the "real" to the real; rather, what Jean Baudrillard calls simulation has simply been extended. We remain, as the wider audience, squarely within the realm of the hyperreal. Ironically, the only shred of reality that can be glimpsed in all of this* is the blatant racism--and that's precisely what viewers and governments want expunged.

To paraphrase Jack Nicholson: Reality? We can't handle reality. Sure, we want it real. But not really real.
* This, too, of course, is problematic, given that race and racism are modes of false representation, performed by racists and the racialized alike. But these power dynamics are anterior to the phenomenon of "reality TV."

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