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The International Writers Magazine: UK Now

Reality Bites: How Big Brother reveals the truth about us all
Alana Hebenton

The 21st century can be defined as a mass media society where people are obsessed with celebrity. This lead to the introduction of reality TV, where the public becomes the celebrity, the essence of this culture is most clearly illustrated in Big Brother. The Big Brother idea originated from George Orwell’s novel 1984 written in 1948, in which Big Brother is the all-seeing leader of the dystopian society.
The 21st century Big Brother, first aired in 2000, uses a reality television format where for three months, a group of people live together in a house, isolated from the outside world but under the continuous gaze of television cameras. The housemates compete for the cash prize by avoiding nomination from their fellow housemates for publicly-voted, evictions from the house. The show went on to have mass success in over 70 different countries.

Big brother’s popularity stems from the way in which it provides the viewer with the control, it allows viewers to become interactive with their televisions, deciding who they watch, reflecting how 21st century society is based on the public having their say.

The reality TV show also, ironically, allows viewers to disconnect with reality by presenting a world free from the world’s problems, political issues, pressures of work and real long term natural relationships. This enables viewers to engage and be entertained without actually having to think, reflecting again how society today is defined by instant gratification. This can be seen from the way in which people no longer wait and save money but simply buy things on credit cards. People no longer take the time to read a Jane Austen novel but go and see the film and with Big Brother people no longer have to take the time to work hard at having a talent to be rich and famous but can simply appear on the show for a few weeks and are sprung into stardom.
The biggest example of Big Brother’s ability to make the talent-less famous can be seen with series 3 contestant Jade Goody. When Jade Goody was a contestant on the show she displayed a high level of ignorance, such as when she believed that the British city of Cambridge was in London and when she was told that Cambridge was in fact in East Anglia she assumed that this was abroad. Goody also believed that Saddam Hussein was a boxer.

However, since her appearance on Big Brother Jade Goody has reportedly earned £4million,fronted her own reality TV shows, created her own perfume and appeared regularly in celebrity, trivia, and gossip-oriented women's magazines such as Heat and OK!. On January 5, 2007, Jade Goody reentered the Big Brother house as a celebrity. This demonstrates how the people of the 21st century don’t see acts of stupidity and lack of intelligence as shameful or embarrassing like previous centuries but as entertaining and something to aspire to.

The irony of the 21st century view of celebrity is again shown with Chantelle Houghton who was billed as the first 'non-celebrity' to feature in the Celebrity Big Brother in 2006. She emerged as the winner of series 4, beating 10 bona fide celebrities. Chantelle went on to gain numerous modelling and presenting jobs, write magazine columns for many magazines including OK! And release an autobiography, showing how in the 21st century you can become a celebrity by simply pretending to be one.

In addition to capturing the celebrity obsessed essence of 21st century culture, Big Brother also reveals how, despite years of social reform and political correctness, we are still ultimately a society that enjoys inflicting and watching cruelty. This can be seen from the way in which in 2004 Big Brother turned evil to boost ratings. The house was made smaller and more claustrophobic; there was one bedroom; and the prize money of £100,000 was reduced if housemates failed their tasks. The makers also chose contestants specifically to cause conflicts, opting for people that were openly gay, a homophobic, a transsexual, a former asylum seeker, and a person who claimed to be bisexual, although he later revealed that this had been a fabrication to improve his chances of being selected.

This illustrates how 21st century society is obsessed with scrutiny as revealed in the media by the way in which tabloids build up celebrities only to pull them down, publicising every movement, explaining why the public have lost any respect they once had for people in authority as how can you respect them when you see them falling out of night clubs or conducting illicit affairs.

However, although Big Brother is often criticized for reinforcing the observing rather than doing nature of our culture and its promotion of ignorance, it does still show how people in the 21st century are still social creatures as the show does bring people together being the topic of the majority of ‘water cooler’ moments in the summer. Also part of Big Brother’s appeal is that you can talk about it with your friends and colleagues the next day.

In conclusion, Big Brother captures the spirit of our mass media society as it draws on the public’s desire to be in control, allowing them to choose who they watch. It permits people to observe every aspect of another person’s life and most importantly it displays a world free of the real troubles of every-day life, allowing people to disconnect from reality in a society where people want instant gratification and do not want to think.

© Alana Hebenton December 2007
shl60532 at

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Alana is studying Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth

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