The reality of modern Britain

A populist anti-feminist backlash is brewing, not just in the 'Big Brother' house, but in the wider culture
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If you hate Big Brother, you hate Britain and everything we have become. I love Big Brother because I love living in a country where a ballsy Portuguese transsexual is odds-on favourite to win the nation's biggest popularity contest. And I love Big Brother for revealing our nation's dysfunctions in all their fetid, furious glory. The current series of the reality TV show - which reaches a climax tonight - reveals more about this country's strengths and problems in the early 21st century than all the Booker Prize winners and Royal Court plays of the noughties combined.

If you hate Big Brother, you hate Britain and everything we have become. I love Big Brother because I love living in a country where a ballsy Portuguese transsexual is odds-on favourite to win the nation's biggest popularity contest. And I love Big Brother for revealing our nation's dysfunctions in all their fetid, furious glory. The current series of the reality TV show - which reaches a climax tonight - reveals more about this country's strengths and problems in the early 21st century than all the Booker Prize winners and Royal Court plays of the noughties combined.

Look at how the latest series of Big Brother offers a window onto Britain's confused gender politics. We like to think that we have all comfortably absorbed feminism, adjusted to the equality of the sexes, and moved on. In fact, Big Brother is a reminder of how the most basic precepts of feminism have still only been loosely absorbed. The Big Brother house was quickly dominated by smart women and gay men, whose emotional literacy and extroversion match the show's format (and, increasingly, our culture's values) pretty neatly.

This left a rump of angry, alienated straight men who had been brought up with a sense of masculine entitlement, only to find that nobody else was interested in playing their game. Twenty-three year-old Victor Ebuwa complained violently that he was "getting no respect", and found being challenged by women unbearable. "Who are you? Who are you to question me?" he yelled at them, even physically attacking one woman who yelled in his face.

Similarly, his friend Jason Cowan aggressively asserted his masculinity, buffing up his body into the condom-stuffed-fill-of-walnuts look beloved by threatened men. He dismissed talking about emotions as "women's bullshit". He has become more and more isolated and more and more angry, sounding like a Tourette's victim as he curses the "harem" that quickly grew tired of him. He found it very hard to deal with the sexual rejection of blonde contestant Vanessa, at one point pinning her on a bed and thrusting himself against her as she said: "No, get off. Stop it."

Together, Victor and Jason declared they were the "Jungle Cats", a masculine posse protecting themselves against the tide of oestrogen. They were bemused that Stuart, the metrosexual straight boy who let the girls put make-up on him, was the only one to find a sexual partner in the house, or receive female attention.

This rump of angry men can be spotted in every pub in Britain; we all know Jungle Cats. They have all the worst elements of the old masculinity - a lack of empathy, gratuitous aggression and an obsession with "respect" - but none of its positive qualities, like stoicism and a willingness to provide. For this group of men who won't (or can't) feminise their behaviour, Britain is becoming increasingly unwelcoming. Even hardcore masculine territory like football has shifted in just three decades from boozing and bedding bad boys, like George Best, to David Beckham of the Alice band and the diamond ear-stud.

You can see the suppressed masculine rage about this emerging in the phenomenal rise of violent internet porn based on debasing women and "putting them in their place". Jungle Cats do not like living in a country that prefers Nadia, the shrieking, sexy, emotionally incontinent transsexual, to their testosterone-tanged misogyny. A populist anti-feminist backlash is brewing, not just in the Big Brother house but in the wider culture. The Jungle Cats constituency is large, and it isn't going anywhere; it is genuinely hard to know how to integrate them without compromising on feminist values. Show me a novel or a play that has dramatised this dilemma with the same economy and emotional punch as Big Brother.

And the series has shown that it isn't only men who still need to absorb basic feminist lessons. Contestant Michelle Bass has been - in classic misogynist fashion - denounced as "mad" and "hen-pecking" because she was over-possessive towards her boyfriend Stuart. Michelle has so often been described as a bunny-boiler that you would think she posed a greater risk to Britain's rabbits than an outbreak of myxomatosis.

But far from being some post-feminist power-woman, Michelle's odd behaviour comes from a desperate need to believe Her Man is smiling on her. She has offered to "lose weight so I'm beautiful for you", and disingenuously claimed she liked lesbianism and porn to stimulate him. Far from controlling Stuart, she would adjust herself to his every whim.

Don't we all know a Michelle, a woman who derives all her self-esteem not from her job or even her looks, but from the approbation of her boyfriend? Did the feminists of the 1960s ever imagine this is how so many of their career-women daughters would turn out?

My own Michelle is an old university friend who is now a super-smart professional. Anybody who met her would think she was unusually self confident; in an argument about politics, she can floor any man. Yet I discovered last year that, once a week, her boyfriend weighs her. Literally. He weighs her to make sure she is losing the amount of weight he has demanded. (She is slightly plump but no more, if it matters.)

What makes a liberated, intelligent woman agree to this? What makes a woman like Big Brother's Michelle think that she only has merit if she is going out with a man like Stuart - a man less intelligent and less likeable than her? Can anybody imagine the opposite scenario, where a woman weighed her boyfriend once a week, or where Stuart became crippled by low self-esteem every second Michelle didn't beam on him? These are obviously drastic examples, but on a smaller level I see women making sacrifices for their supposedly-equal partners all the time. Even among people my age, I hardly know any couples who equally share the housework and cooking. Whoever coined the phrase "post-feminism" should be shot. Or weighed every week by their partner.

Given that the theme of this year's Big Brother has been gender rage, it is fitting that Nadia is favourite to win. Her presence on the show initially seemed exploitative - like the Jerry Springer shows where they wheel on a transsexual and treat us to gawp at The Freak. Who could have imagined that she would be so amazing, so funny, so likeable, that within just 10 weeks the notoriously transphobic, homophobic Sun would have to declare on its front page that Nadia was their readers' choice?

A relative of mine said she thought Nadia was "disgusting" after the first show, and said: "I hate her. Him. It." Earlier this week we spoke again, and I asked who she was voting for. "Nadia of course," she said. "Isn't she great? She's such a nice person. And she wears high heels in the shower! I love her." When I reminded her of her initial reaction, she said - to my astonishment - "I guess I was prejudiced. I know better now."

One of the most abused minorities in Britain has been humanised by Big Brother 5. Nadia isn't seen as an entertaining mutant; people genuinely like her. And we haven't even touched on the other rich topics thrown up by the current series, like the Celebrity Worship Syndrome that infects almost every contestant.

Henry James once said of an art work: "All human life is there." If he was alive today, he would say the same about Big Brother.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

Comments