This year’s women-only edition of Celebrity Big Brother is supposed to be a “celebratory, surprising and insightful” exploration of feminism. Here, freelance writer Daisy Buchanan argues this is simply not the case.
I’m a feminist, and I love reality TV. It’s the guilty pleasure I refuse to be shamed for enjoying. From the moment in 2001 when Helen Adams told her Big Brother housemates “I love blinking, I do,” to the time Camilla Thurlow schooled Jonny Mitchell on bill splitting etiquette and the true meaning of equality on last summer’s Love Island, I’ve been hooked. So you’d think that an all-woman edition of Celebrity Big Brother, commissioned to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage, would be a cause for celebration. But while it might be entertaining, I don’t believe it’s a positive way to promote women’s success and progress.
The line-up of housemates is eclectic. It includes Ann Widdecombe (whose latest contribution to feminism was to call the Women’s March “pathetic”), the journalist and broadcaster Rachel Johnson, the sister of Boris, and Malika Haqq, best friend and former PA of Khloe Kardashian. I’m excited to see the journalist and reporter India Willoughby in the house - she’s one of the most high-profile trans women in the UK, and a trailblazing presenter. Also appearing this year is Maggie Oliver, the detective constable who fought to protect vulnerable, abused girls who were targeted by a paedophile ring in Rochdale.
However, a sizeable percentage of the women appearing on the show are white, young, privileged and successful because they’ve already appeared on other reality shows. Will this showcase female strength and ability, and inspire viewers? Or will it just reinforce the idea that if you’re an ambitious woman, you need to look a certain way, and have access to a particular level of privilege, in order to succeed?
Women are constantly scrutinised and judged on the way they look, and pressured to meet beauty standards that are set within extremely narrow parameters. For women who are in the public eye, this pressure is escalated and the standards are even more exacting. Rounding up several famous women and inviting us to stare at them is a painfully effective way of promoting judgemental comments and bitchy behaviour from the viewing public.
Individually, I’d hope that we respond to the housemates because we’re reacting to their talents, skills and personalities. However, I’d bet my Visa card on at least three of the housemates showing up on the Sidebar Of Shame before the end of the week, probably when they’re about to go to bed, or get out of the shower. We will be encouraged to mock and laugh at the women when they’re in their most vulnerable states, because when they’re asleep, they don’t look the same as they do when they’ve spent two hours with a make-up artist, because it’s part of their job. We will be shown examples of their humanity, and told it is evidence that these women have failed, because they cannot meet the impossible standards that we’ve set for them, 24 hours a day.
Reality television thrives on conflict. I’m sure there will be people behind the scenes doing everything they can to encourage tension, competition and rivalry between the contestants. The CBB house is designed to be an artificial, stressful environment. It’s thought that no-one wants to tune in and watch a group of people agreeing with each other, being kind to each other, or having lovely chats, so the people who make the show will be doing everything they can to avoid these scenarios, and boost ratings. We’re therefore bound to see these women being rude, jealous and cruel towards each other. Again, I’d bet that it’s only a matter of days before someone publicly cites this as evidence that women are “naturally bitchy” and “don’t get on”, and that the CBB feminist experiment has failed.
I think one of the strangest aspects of current feminist thinking is the idea that women are supposed to be nice to each other, and that if we’re not, we’re not executing our feminism properly. Being a feminist doesn’t mean automatically loving all other women. The chemistry of friendship is complicated, and while having shared interests and experience helps, that of “being oppressed by the patriarchy” is a fairly broad starting point. Some women are dickheads, just as some men are dickheads. Yet, I’m sure that the contestants will be judged and pilloried for the way they interact, unless the series ends with one of the women getting married just so all of the other housemates can be bridesmaids. (Even then, one of them would probably be photographed ‘storming off’ at the hen do, when she’d just gone to the loo to take out her contact lenses.)
During the aforementioned series of Love Island, contestants Chris and Kem’s ‘bromance’ made national headlines, and led to a spin-off programme. While I loved seeing their relationship develop, and believe that strong examples of male friendship make a positive difference, it made me think that men are often rewarded for the behaviour that is simply demanded of women. Ultimately, that’s why this new series of CBB troubles me so much. Just ‘having a big group of women in a house’ isn’t inherently feminist. After all, women aren’t necessarily inherently feminist themselves.
We live in the same world as men. That world has different expectations of us, and doesn’t value us as highly. We’ve all learned to survive it in a different way. In fact, we’re probably going to see some of the women on CBB demonstrating some sexist behaviour over the next few weeks - and we’ll probably judge them much more harshly than we’d judge men for doing the same thing. The format isn’t feminist, and the response to it will certainly be sexist.
Images: Rex Features