Seen it, done it, can't get enough of it

It's easy to knock 'Big Brother'. But the 150,000 people who applied for the latest series may be on to something, says psychotherapist Susie Orbach
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The Independent Online

Ask my 13-year-old daughter's friends what they want to be when they grow up, and the answer is "famous". Ask them famous for what or why, and they can't say. Fame and celebrity have turned from a minority interest – or a desire too embarrassing to admit – into the up-front, applauded wish of millions.

Ask my 13-year-old daughter's friends what they want to be when they grow up, and the answer is "famous". Ask them famous for what or why, and they can't say. Fame and celebrity have turned from a minority interest – or a desire too embarrassing to admit – into the up-front, applauded wish of millions.

Andy Warhol predicted the democratisation of fame. Those dinosaurs among us who always thought recognition was to be awarded for accomplishment are still trying to puzzle out why it should be available to everyone, and why they should want it. Ten thousand people made video applications to be in Big Brother 3; this time even their auditions were aired. Since Friday we have been attempting to appreciate what the judges saw in the successful 12, including the kilt-wearing ex-soldier, didgeridoo-playing model or shopaholic dental nurse.

Fame seems like a nifty way out of the problem of the insignificance we can all face, and the dislocation from interpersonal and community links which globalism precipitates. As our world becomes apparently smaller, we see it crowded with people who are as alien to us as we are to them. There are mirrors and TV screens everywhere, but it is hard to find our own reflection. Individuality – that most prized of characteristics – is effaced as our stars, musicians and public figures become increasingly iconic: the stand-in for you and me. Except, of course, that fame often appears to undermine the sense of self, rather than provide it.

Recognition is hard to come by. In the past we relied on pretty continuous relationships with a limited number of people to confirm our identity. But now the world is so large – and our work or personal relationships often so fractured and transient – that it is hard to escape a sense of invisibility and loss. And for those stuck in their circumstances and unable to move, the apparent enchantments of the wider world that can be obtained via fame seem as hard to reach as they are enticing.

So confusing are the issues of visibility, belonging and individuality that it's easy to disdain what's happening, as unrelated people act out being a family in a Harrods window for a week, and revolution brews in the Edwardian country house experiment on television. Our society seems to have limitless appetite for exposure, and some might say humiliation or exhibitionism. But is it really humiliation or exhibitionism? Is it a desire to be humiliated and to show themselves that drives people to do the most ordinary and extraordinary things in public or in front of the camera?

It is a cliché to say so, but such a notion begs two questions. Why do people want to humiliate and exhibit themselves? Second, what needs of the viewer does it serve to participate in this process? The movies, TV game shows and the soaps have democratised who can be seen on television. With the Reithian remit abandoned, and mass culture and consumerism standing in where contribution and civic engagement once lay, a sense of belonging and a sense of uniqueness – the two requisites for feeling psychologically alive – have evaporated.

It is hardly surprising that individuals should seek the challenge and the chance to live the ordinariness of their lives under the public gaze. It's an attempt at recognition, a way of being seen and therefore of seeing oneself. So no, humiliation and exhibitionism wouldn't be my first thoughts on why people participate in this way. It is rather the search to know and be known, to place oneself and to experience oneself inside a small group of people intentionally relating together. Perhaps this explains the squeamishness, embarrassment and fascination that we feel as we confront on screen the things we usually do in private.

Could it be that the apparent shameless nonchalance of contestants reveals our own unacknowledged desire for self-exposure, recognition and connection? We unconsciously admire their ability to act on their desire to be seen doing ordinary things with one another. In watching, we find recognition vicariously, through the representation of ordinariness and banality being enacted for us by them.

All this leaves me with a question. When LA Raeven, the ever-so-skinny sisters, lived at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London over a month-long period last February, it was called art. Their installation – an exploration of not eating, drinking, talking, quarrelling, holding silence, dominance, co-operation, submission, anorexia and body-image – was seen as a commentary on consumer society and on women as commodities. When ordinary people compete for the recognition that reality TV shows give them, we deride them. Is this a case of one judgement for the educated and another for the rest?

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