Why is no one challenging the misogyny on Celebrity Big Brother?

The revelation that Jim Davidson, Evander Holyfield and Dappy from N-Dubz are acting like misogynists is hardly shocking. The depressing and dispiriting thing is how ordinary and everyday their attitudes are, and how little their behaviour was challenged.

I’ll get the embarrassing confession out of the way quickly – I have been watching Celebrity Big Brother. I’ve been ill! I’ve had the flu! But there’s no excuse. I started watching in the hope of some Liz Jones-generated outrage, which predictably hasn’t materialised. I kept watching after getting hooked on a love triangle between some bloke out of Blue, a glamour model and an actress. But I’m stopping watching now. The hatred and aggression towards women from the male housemates has reached despair-for-humanity levels, and I can’t take it any more.

I know what you’re thinking – you’re watching Big Brother, and you’re surprised that it’s making you despair for humanity? But hear me out. What’s making me despair is not the shocking revelation that Jim Davidson, Evander Holyfield and Dappy from N-Dubz are misogynists. The depressing and dispiriting thing is how ordinary and everyday their attitudes are, so much so that their chauvinistic beliefs and harassing behaviour can pass by without challenge or comment, either from their fellow housemates, or from the show’s producers.

The main target of their hostility is 26-year-old Luisa Zissman, cupcake entrepreneur and runner-up in last year’s series of The Apprentice. Perhaps she is a very difficult person to live with, although that hasn’t come across. Her main crime, it would appear, is having the audacity to be young, beautiful and self-confident, and to admit to having a healthy and active sex life. She has been very candid and open about her bisexuality and her enjoyment of group sex, and although I’ll admit to finding people who go on and on about all the wild sex they are having a little bit tedious, that’s as far as my judgment goes. In the Big Brother house, however, her sex life is a weapon to be wielded against her, a tool to discredit her in disagreements.

 

In Saturday night’s episode, Dappy – a man who deliberately leaked a photograph of his genitals to promote his own career – followed Luisa around the house, shouting at her that she is “dirty, disgusting, loose”, that she is a slag and a whore, that her daughter should be ashamed of her. He proclaimed loudly and surely that such things are different for men than for women; that while a man who sleeps with five women is a pig, a woman who sleeps with five men is a slag, and “I would rather be a pig than a slag”. Despite Luisa’s clear, calm, but obviously distressed pleas for him to walk away and leave her alone, he followed her from room to room, repeating his sexist tirade, and encouraging bystanders to join in the denunciation. Meanwhile, Evander Holyfield mocked Luisa and her friend Jasmine for thinking there could ever be such thing as equality between the sexes. Jim Davidson apportioned fifty per cent of the blame for the abuse on to Luisa herself – something he later explained by the fact that “I’m a male chauvinist pig”. So that’s alright then. I had assumed he was a nasty, bullying woman-hater, but it turns out he’s just one of those loveable male chauvinist pigs you used to hear about it.

The sexist attitudes held by Dappy and his allies don’t surprise me, and nor does his aggressive and harassing manner of expressing them. But what shocked and disturbed me was that nobody intervened. The rest of the housemates were studiously silent, and when pushed to comment, were keen to interpret it as an argument where blame lay equally on both sides. And if the programme-makers noticed the sexism and harassment that was going on, they didn’t share their concern with the viewers. A few days earlier, Evander Holyfield made some pronouncements about homosexuality being abnormal and like a disability – comments which rightly saw him quickly and publicly rebuked by the show’s producers, and which may result in an Ofcom investigation. It is striking that the public expression of one category of morally reprehensible views is so unacceptable that the programme-makers are forced into condemnation; but when the target of your views is women, it is unlikely that anyone will even notice. You can jokingly and self-deprecatingly make reference to your sexism, as Davidson has done, and still be cheered by the crowds assembled outside.

We know that the Big Brother house is rarely a hotbed of liberal, progressive thought. But the “Jade Goody Big Brother racism row”, as it is now officially known, prompted an important debate and a great deal of national introspection about race relations. The individuals at the centre of those events had to be carefully ferreted away from the crowds and the cameras, while the conversation about what this means about our society and our culture dominated the media. As I watched Saturday evening’s episode, what frustrated me most was not the sexist behaviour I was watching, but the certain knowledge that the hatred towards women being expressed in there isn’t going to trigger any national soul-searching about societal misogyny. And not just because I was the only one watching.

 

Last year's Apprentice runner-up Luisa Zissman has been the main target of the CBB misogyny. Photo: Getty

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper is a lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Warwick. She tweets as @boodleoops.

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Can we morally justify rape dramas like the BBC’s Three Girls?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives.

Last week, over three consecutive nights, the BBC aired Three Girls: an unflinching drama based on the 2012 Rochdale Grooming Case, which exposed and prosecuted nine men for the trafficking, prostitution and rape of children. It is, of course, a terribly bleak story – one that is important not to shy away from. And yet when I first heard about the docudrama, it made me instinctively uncomfortable. TV has a wider social purpose beyond sheer enjoyment, but is the repeated rape of children appropriate material for primetime entertainment?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives. Child abuse, too, is something our society condemns but has an uncomfortable obsession with reading about in detail - you only need to walk into your local Waterstones to see a true life section crowded with children’s sad faces staring up from bestselling misery memoirs. I’ve written before, at length, about our cultural fixation on murdered, abused and kidnapped women and young girls, and the ethical questions they raise. Do we want to know the specific brutalities of this case because it is important to reckon with the reality of the situation, or because the shock factor fascinates us? Is it inherently unethical to treat the real traumas of children as spectacle? Aside from general distastefulness, what impact does making a drama about these assaults have on the real-word victims? What function does this particular story – with its narrative of the police officers too afraid of being labelled racist to bring the criminals (who were mostly of Pakistani descent) to task – serve in the current political climate?

Andrew Norfolk, the Times journalist who first exposed the Rochdale case and spent years facing its horrors head-on, had concerns over such a topic being turned into television. “When I first heard that the BBC had commissioned a docudrama, my initial shock that the corporation would choose to tackle such a controversial subject was swiftly replaced by wariness,” he explains. But his concerns were not that such a programme would become voyeuristic. “I feared that innate squeamishness would result in a sanitised exercise that shied away from uncomfortable realities.”

“More fool me. Three Girls pulls no punches. It tells a raw, harrowing story in a way that makes for searingly compelling drama,” he goes on, adding that the writers succeeds in turning “such bleak misery into three hours of gripping television drama”.

Norfolk, of course, has first-hand knowledge of the show’s source material, as well as the experience of trying to open the public’s eyes to unspeakable crimes. Viewers will never have this. As someone removed from the reality of the Rochdale case, those familiar words “gripping” and “compelling” make me squirm, especially when paired with such unimaginably damaging experiences for the real life young victims.

The first episode of Three Girls explores the actual abuse at the centre of the Rochdale case. It follows Holly, who meets the headstrong Amber and her vulnerable younger sister Ruby, and starts hanging out with them at a take-away shop, where an older man known only as “Daddy” plies them with free food and vodka to gain their trust. It’s not long before we witness Holly being raped in a grim, long scene. We then see her assaulted again, before watching her perform a “prozzy dance” for her horrified father. It’s unbearably sad watching.

It’s certainly true, then, that Three Girls is “harrowing”, but why is “harrowing” as a concept read as automatically valuable? The Daily Mail called it “spellbinding”; many other outlets saw the first episode’s brutality as “brave”. Some headlines were far more discomfiting: the Huffington Post rounded up the “most disturbing moments” from the drama in a sensational listicle, while the Telegraph and extreme right-wing sites took the opportunity to push their politics with headlines like “How poor white girls were sacrificed on the altar of multiculturalism” and “BBC’s Muslim Rape Gang Drama Skirts Religion Issue”.

But the makers of Three Girls seem more aware than most of the troubling potential for sensationalism a drama about Rochdale might have. In a blog post for the BBC, Head of Drama Hilary Salmon explains how they justified their decision to explore the violence of this particular case due to the story’s capacity for social change.

“There are many true stories that an audience might be interested in reliving through drama but the ones that really resonate and arguably deserve to be made are those which can change an audience’s perception of the victims because, for all the media noise, their true voices haven’t yet been heard.”

“The voices of the children abused and exploited in Rochdale had not been heard,” Salmon continues. “How did they feel while all this was happening to them and how do they feel now?”

She adds that public perception of the young victims was disappointingly regressive:

“[Whistleblowers] worked tirelessly to change the perception of these young girls in the eyes of the authorities just as we have tried to do for audiences through the drama. A perception that the girls were simply displaying a lifestyle choice and didn’t need or want protection. Never mind that they were 13, 14, 15 years old at the time and had such low self-esteem that free chips and alcohol would turn a grubby room at the back of a kebab shop into the equivalent of a clubhouse.”

The first hour of Three Girls asks the audience to confront the realities of the assaults on these young victims. Then it puts its most shocking moments to good use. The following two episodes explore the aftermath of the case: how a culture of disbelief silenced the victims at its centre, and how forcing the children to repeatedly relive the acts, only to be ignored, traumatised them as they became adults. How victim-blaming attitudes saw abused children officially declared criminals, and the babies they bore taken away by child protection services. How it was a culture of demonising working-class teenage girls, rather than the fear of racism, that saw the victims belittled and dismissed again and again.

We see explicit discussions of all these complex problems. The adult moral hearts of the show, NHS sexual health worker Sara and police officer Maggie, constantly condemn the culture of misogyny and classism that allowed this abuse to flourish. There are whole scenes dedicated to exploring how the race of the perpetrators does not reflect Muslim culture as a whole. And, most importantly, the perspectives most frequently and sensitively explored are those of the victims themselves, retrospectively giving them a voice. The script manages to do this without veering into preachy public service announcement territory.

Three Girls a masterclass in how to explore violence against girls without objectifying the victims - an area in which other modern TV series and films are lagging depressingly behind. (I’d still advice viewer discretion in watching the first episode, but the more brutal scenes in the programme serve a specific purpose.) I only hope other writers can hold the same aims. Three Girls shows how you can move beyond just “gripping” and “compelling” to find stories that shift social narratives by changing audience’s beliefs, before they’ve had a chance to look away.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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