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No one could have predicted when the fifth series of popular reality show Celebrity Big Brother began in 2007 it would end up being the centre of an international race row. The series began, like any other, with eleven semi-familiar faces making the brave walk into Britain’s second most famous house (after Number 10). Two days later they were joined by Big Brother poster girl Jade Goody, with her mother and boyfriend in tow.
In the following two weeks Jade, along with former S Club 7 singer Jo O’Meara and glamour model Danielle Lloyd, would take a dislike to fellow housemate and Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. The group’s disdain for Shetty resulted in them making a number of insensitive remarks on camera that viewers at home were quick to determine as being racist.
The controversy surrounding the perceived racist bullying in the house and the lack of intervention by the show’s producers led to one of the biggest media frenzies of the decade. Carphone Warehouse, the show’s official sponsors, cut ties with the series, Ofcom received over 44,000 viewer complaints and at one point, protesters took to the streets of India to burn effigies of the show’s organisers. Both Goody and O’Meara admitted to having received death threats upon leaving the house and suffered severe mental health issues as a result of the media backlash. The show itself did not return the following year, Channel 4 instead deciding to rest it for a year to let wounds heal.
The series marked a turning point for Big Brother which had built its popularity on a reputation for being one of the most controversial and scandalous shows on television. Subsequent series of the show would see housemates reprimanded the moment language or behaviour veered even close to what could be interpreted as discriminatory by viewers. With a number of housemates even being removed on account of using threatening or offensive language, it was obvious that post-Jade and Shilpa, producers were terrified of once again facing the wrath of broadcast regulators.
Over 10 years later however, it seems that producers have softened their grip on housemates’ loose lips once again — except this time the public aren’t so bothered. In fact, at the time of writing this article, the bookies favourite to win the current series of Celebrity Big Brother is Ann Widdecombe, a former Conservative MP who has been wildly vocal about her disdain for the LGBT community throughout both her time in parliament and the Big Brother house.
In a post-Brexit television landscape, are the viewing public more forgiving and open to hearing outdated, offensive views being aired?
Over the last three weeks, viewers have watched as Widdecombe came to blows with a number of her fellow housemates over her notoriously conservative views on homosexuality and women’s rights. Often this manifested itself in thoughtful, respectful debates which made for fascinating television, particularly for the show’s largely younger audience.
At other times however, Widdecombe has been heard referring to the tactile relationship between Australian drag queen Courtney Act (real name Shane Jenek) and Apprentice star Andrew Brady as ‘lewd’ and ‘disgusting’. She would later nominate both Jenek and Brady for eviction because of their flirtatious behaviour and reminded Brady, who is straight, that his mother and grandmother were watching. On countless other occasions Widdecombe has be shown to grimace and roll her eyes at the mere hint of femininity from male housemates or even passing references to their homosexuality — often the camera immediately zooms in on her face to capture these reactions.
It could be argued that what we’ve seen in the recent series of Celebrity Big Brother is just as much, if not more, of an example of a housemate using blatantly bigoted and discriminatory language than much of what Jade and co. were slaughtered for 11 years ago. This time around however, it seems both the producers and the general public are more than happy to see someone with Widdecombe’s politically incorrect views given a platform.
Inside the house it’s a similar story. During the housemates last round of nominations, every housemate bar one nominated Jenek for eviction after he voiced his offence over Widdecombe’s homophobic views. Glamour model and reality star Jess Impiazzi accused Shane of ‘victimising’ Ann over her opinions and complained that he was unable to respect his elders. Even his fellow LGBT housemates Amanda Barrie (of Coronation Street fame) and celebrated tap dancer Wayne Sleep have chastised Jenek for his issues with Widdecombe and accused him of being ‘obsessed with gay rights’.
Despite these scenes making for very uncomfortable viewing, Widdecombe has come out of the series, so far, unscathed. In 2016, British television personality Christopher Biggins was given a number of formal warnings about using offensive language before ultimately being removed from the house for comments he made about bisexuals. That same year, in the summer civilian series of the show, Channel 5 issued an official statement saying they do not tolerate offensive language from housemates after viewers took offense to housemate Sam Giffen referring to two other gay housemates as ‘bum boys’. In 2015, American R&B singer Alexander O’Neal was issued with a formal warning for his use of a homophobic slur against fellow housemate Perez Hilton. To date, the Widdecombe has never been spoken to about her calling to Shane and Andrew’s affection for each other disgusting and how this could be offensive to viewers.
And so, with Widdecombe now odds on favourite to win the series and support for her both inside and outside the house at an all time, it raises the question — in a post-Brexit television landscape, are the viewing public more forgiving and open to hearing outdated, offensive views being aired?
Back in 2007, Shetty’s inevitable win was seen by many as a final act of justice against her persecutors. This year’s finale will take place today, Friday February 2nd, and a Shane vs Ann final two looks likely — but this time, will the public choose to crown the oppressor or the oppressed as their winner?