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.

Photo: Getty
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem