An installation at the Channel 4 building in London. Photo: Oli Scarff, Getty Images
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The Secret Life of Students: a Channel 4 documentary or an episode of Jeremy Kyle?

Channel 4's new documentary series The Secret Life of Students once again fits into their trend of perpetuating stereotypes and vilifying social groups. 

One of the first shots of The Secret Life of Students, Channel 4's latest documentary series which follows the first weeks of a group of students at Leicester University, is a scroll through one fresher’s Facebook profile. In between a picture of a drunken student sat in a trolley and a pixellated clip of a fresher streaking, a patronising voice-over chirps “you can tell Josie is popular from a quick peek at her Facebook page, she’s got over 1,200 friends!”. Later, they ask another subject why he actively seeks more followers on Twitter and his awkward stammering response “Just- I don’t know why- it’s weird... Probably competition” perfectly and hypocritically captures Channel 4’s own thirst for viewing figures. The pervasive theme of fame-hungry students, each of which have given Channel 4 access to their Facebook messages, texts and tweets throughout freshers’ week, reflects Channel 4’s own greed for shocked reactions from audiences.

The documentary teams are uninterested in accurately representing social groups – epitomised by My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Benefits Street – when they have selected outrageous subjects who will give audience the response they crave to incite. This response is shock and Channel 4 has perfected their formula for it:

1. Include a provocative title such as Gypsy Blood and My Social Network Stalker which could easily be confused with a headline from Pick Me Up! Magazine.

2.  In the style of Big Brother contestants, choose subjects who can perform in front of the cameras and play up the stereotype they have been carefully selected for.

3. Inspire viewers to tweet about their despair for humanity to create further publicity.

This agenda is the result of Channel 4’s systematic search for documentaries which cause controversy instead of seeking to portray social groups in an accurate and considered way. The current trend of “scripted reality” seen in Channel 4’s export Made in Chelsea, which follows the elite 1 per cent, has shaken up what the channel think their audiences want. Do viewers desire aspirational television or depictions of the reality of lives under crippling government cuts?  The ‘Cutting Edge’ segment of their documentary strand defies the gloss of Made in Chelsea (although just out of shot of the skinny lattes are council estates, but that would ruin the soft focus glow of the product placement) yet the effect is a jeering condemnation of groups in society which are already demonised.

Earlier this week Ofcom decided against an investigation into Channel 4’s documentary Benefits Street despite recieving nearly 900 complaints about the “negative and offensive” portrayal of the lives of those on benefits. The programme raised concerns over the welfare of the children who appeared in the programme and questions of whether the detailed portrayal of criminal activity would inspire viewers to use the subject’s shoplifting techniques. Although Ofcom let Channel 4 off the hook, this perfectly encapsulates the way viewing figures are sought to the detriment of quality. These series have the potential to be hard-hitting reports from the front line of society where people are struggling to make ends meet. In Benefits Street there are juxtapositions such as one inhabitant of James Turner Street in Birmingham declaring the importance of family, with the optimistic sentiment “you could have the whole world and still nothing compares to what we’ve got around here” cruelly followed by a man staggering past the street sign, swearing at the camera and clutching a can of lager.

These are not cutting-edge documentaries. These are production teams hunting down stereotypes and filming them in their natural habitat, cutting them together so as to reinforce as many stereotypes as possible. In one scene in The Secret Life of Students one fresher finds out they have chlamydia and texts her friends saying “LOOOL”. In another a group of students play the drinking game Ring of Fire, with a Nazi twist and when one history student whose idol is Anne Frank, complains at the students using their fingers as moustaches to mimic Hitler, she is ignored. Scene after scene includes more shock value. There is no ground-breaking or even relatable footage about the struggles of leaving home for the first time and the awkward stage of meeting new housemates and instead Channel 4’s aim is to gain viewing figures by provoking outrage, an angle similar to BBC3 ‘s exports Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents.  A far cry from the Louis Theroux's unassuming interviewing technique of asking insightful questions at a distance, these programmes are part of the Jeremy Kyle school of thought, depicting predictable narratives which vilify groups which are already looked down upon by most of society . With The Secret Life of Student’s omniscient but off screen interviewer, the audience sat at home on their sofa assumes the role of Kyle sneering down from his moral high horse.

The Channel 4 website outlines what they want from prospective film makers, stating that “If you have ideas that are agenda setting, risky, controversial, and could never have been made before, we want to hear about them”, adding “our strongest commissions are often ones that, at the outset, feel the most dangerous”. Their rallying cry for producers to deliver them “the most daring and controversial ideas” inevitably leads to programmes equally as hyperbolic.   When Aiden, the fresher who lists his interests on Facebook as the Kardashians, Nek Nominate and Right Wing Conservative views is questioned about his “banter” he answers “I just love pushing the boundaries”. A line which, ironically, could easily appear in the Channel 4 documentary manifesto.                                                  

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution