Celebrity Big Brother

This article is a preview from the Winter 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

This summer’s Celebrity Big Brother (Channel 5) was like some Warholian nightmare. Long gone are the longueurs of the early Big Brother series, and the simplicity of its premise: put a group of people in a room, deprive them of contact with the outside world, have them vote one person out each week, and see what happens. Long forgotten also is the flimsy “scientific” justification for the show – the claim that it was a social experiment. The hyped-up atmosphere of 2015 will no longer permit even the illusion of such detachment.

This year the overall format of the series, framed as a competition, not only amongst the individual housemates, but between “teams” representing the US and the UK, predictably provoked high tension early on. There were the familiar “tasks” – pointless activities, ranging from the daft to the humiliating – designed to foment discontent amongst the housemates. But this year, the producers’ interventions in the house amounted to prolonged psychological torture. This was all the more troubling, given that a number of the housemates were evidently fragile. The former TV presenter Gail Porter, who has a history of mental health problems, clearly struggled, “joking” on her exit from the house that it was worse than being sectioned. Model Austin Armacost, raw with anger and grief because his brother’s death had led to the crumbling of his family, was subject to violent mood swings, and at one point launched into a savage verbal attack on reality TV veteran Janice Dickinson.

The obsession with “twists”, introduced to keep freshening the format, has produced a self-parodic situation where the only constant is perpetual instability. Rules on nominations were continually changed. Housemates would find nominations that they had supposed were happening in the “diary room”, seen only by the producers and the audience at home, broadcast to the whole house. Housemates were required to nominate in front of one another, which amounted to a demand that they denigrate each other in public.

In one especially deceitful trick from the show’s producers, the two most aggressive American housemates – reality TV personality Farrah Abraham and former porn star Jenna Jameson – were apparently evicted, taken to a hidden part of the house and told they were watching the other housemates in secret. In fact, the other housemates were fully aware of Abraham and Jameson’s fake eviction, so the last laugh – a hollow, spiteful laugh – was on them.

For the roots of this televisual culture, we need to look back forty years. In his book 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America, Andreas Hillen persuasively argues that the threshold into our current era of reality/celebrity was 1973, the year of the Watergate hearings, and the year that the first reality TV programme, An American Family, was broadcast.

The ephemerality of celebrity status was of course anticipated by Andy Warhol’s quip about everyone being famous for 15 minutes, but Warhol’s most extraordinary prescience lay in his understanding of the specificity of celebrity, its difference from the older mystique and glamour of the Hollywood star. Whereas the star was soft-focus and associated with film, the celebrity emerged from the new accessibility that television appeared to promise.

Celebrity culture was nowhere better illustrated than in Warhol’s Interview magazine. Like Watergate, Interview was made possible by taping. The interviews, which ranged over the trivial minutiae of its subjects’ lives, were transcripts; they weren’t framed by the interposing persona of the writer. Yet Warhol understood that tape recording did not capture an unmediated real. Rather – and as Warhol’s admirer Jean Baudrillard recognised – ubiquitous taping destroyed any illusion that such a real existed. Instead, there would now only be an anxious and unanswerable question: are those who are recorded performing for the tape or the camera? (Some said they felt that Nixon, at the heart of a White House riddled with recording apparatus, would often seem to say things for the benefit of the tape.)

The intrusion of the cameras into the Loud family’s lives in An American Family prompted all kinds of anxious discussions: did the cameras affect what they were recording? As Hillen points out, the series wasn’t only “Warholian” – there was an actual connection with Warhol. Lance Loud had corresponded with Warhol since the late 1960s, and An American Family featured scenes of Lance mingling with some of Warhol’s superstars, the clique of New York personalities he promoted, in the Chelsea Hotel.

Not least because he was a victim of it, Warhol was sensitive to the volatile combination of violence and celebrity in the pop landscape. With Celebrity Big Brother in 2015, it is clear that this aggression has become overwhelming. Ever since An American Family, reality TV has provoked feelings of guilt and complicity in the audience. To what extent are we responsible for the suffering we are watching? With Celebrity Big Brother this summer, those feelings became acute, almost unbearable. The programme became a prolonged exercise in intense cruelty, which made the early Big Brother, not to mention An American Family, seem quaintly genteel. What has happened in the fifteen years since Big Brother was first broadcast in the UK to account for this increase in savagery?

The simple answer involves two closely related factors: shifts in the economy, and the ubiquity of the internet. The resulting composite – capitalist cyberspace – has normalised extreme precariousness (the sense that nothing is permanent, everything is constantly under threat), competitiveness and casual aggression. One consequence is a new breed of celebrity, typified by 24-year-old Farrah Abraham, the unofficial star of the latest Celebrity Big Brother. Abraham, who came to fame on MTV’s Teen Mom, is a Darwinian product of the harsh, unremitting spotlight of 21st-century celebrity/reality TV. Abraham has quite literally made a career out of being hateful. It’s what the audience, and therefore the TV producers, seems to want. She became the most successful of the Teen Moms by being obnoxious and antagonistic – her whole life becoming a performance art piece in which she played the one-dimensional role of a person devoid of compassion, nonchalantly dismissive and contemptuous of others practically all the time. But why would Abraham have any cause to mend her ways? She has been immensely rewarded. The performance of invulnerability is both her “brand” and a survival strategy.

In the atmosphere of cut-throat uncertainty that prevails in late capitalist television, trusting others is a luxury that noone, not even the super-rich, can afford. The grimace of scorn on Abraham’s face – surgically enhanced, permanently lip-glossed – is both a protective mask and her unique selling point. Allied with the similarly harsh Jenna Jameson in the Celebrity Big Brother house, Abraham came off as a comic figure, but one that noone could actually laugh at. Her one-note hostility and bizarre insults – “You’re full of Satan” – were absurd, but too full of actual malice to leave anything but a bitter taste in the mouth. There was also something darkly comic about the relentlessly aggressive and insulting Jameson and Abraham attacking others for their “negativity”. Both seemed to be the endpoint of a therapeutic culture which lays all the emphasis on shoring up one’s own ego – even to the point of becoming delusional.

The rise of social media, and the fear it has produced in television executives, means that shows like Celebrity Big Brother are saturated with anxiety – not only the anxiety of the housemates, who are often selected for their hair-trigger tempers or psychic weaknesses, but the anxiety of the producers, always looking for the next hashtag outrage, for provocations that will go viral. This anxiety, and the surrounding social situation that engenders it, takes us beyond the cool ambivalence of Warhol’s aesthetic.

As Hillen points out, Warhol certainly enjoyed, even cultivated, the self-destruction of figures such as Edie Sedgwick and Candy Darling. But he also imbued them with a tenderness and a tragic grandeur that has no place on reality TV in the 21st century. No tragedy now – only spasms of soon-to-be-forgotten outrage, ejaculations of hatred and suffering snacked on like fast food.