Big Brother is showing just how effortless tolerance can be

The social experiment has always served as a portrait of contemporary Britain, one considerably more realistic than most soap operas, writes Laura Barton. The 2023 reboot, on which contestants have rallied around transgender housemate Hallie, is no different – and should be celebrated for it

Wednesday 11 October 2023 06:30 BST
Hallie, who came out as transgender to her housemates on Monday’s 'Big Brother’
Hallie, who came out as transgender to her housemates on Monday’s 'Big Brother’ (Shutterstock for Big Brother)

When the first episode of Big Brother aired in the summer of 2000, it was met with an audience of around 3.7 million viewers, and a kind of unsettled curiosity. It wasn’t the first example of reality television —the genre encompasses 1964’s Seven Up! as well as long-popular programmes such as Candid Camera and Antiques Roadshow. But the notion, then, of 11 ordinary people sharing a house under the constant, watchful eye of television cameras seemed both terrifying and deeply compelling. Across the 64 days of its airing, it would become Channel 4’s most successful programme.

Big Brother returned this week for its 20th series, drawing a crowd of 2.5 million viewers – all of them, I would imagine, considerably more attuned to the customs of reality TV than we were back in 2000. But what was noticeable in its opening nights was how much this show, perhaps more than any other, holds a mirror up to our points of national debate and discussion – not least to the current conversation around gender.

Over the past 23 years, our appetite for reality has deepened. We have gorged ourselves on singing contests and dancing competitions, interior design battles, hotel makeovers, shows that focus on dating, baking, pottery, nudity, dinner parties, drag queens and more. We have been introduced to “scripted reality” soap operas, following the lives of people in Essex and Chelsea and Newcastle. We have even taken to reality shows in which we watch other people watching television.

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