Caught in the Act. Or the mirror has two faces by Craig Hanlon-Smith @craigscontinuum
In its infancy, Big Brother was billed as a social experiment, originally a fascinating and nation gripping revolution in reality television. Not entirely due to its shift onto the schedule of Richard Desmond’s Channel 5, in more recent years it has descended into a desperate opportunity to shock and outrage in increasing states of drunken undress. Big Brother contestants, and indeed winners, have in the past few series come and gone with the same attention given to yesterday’s chip wrapping paper and tomorrow’s chips. Even the celebrity edition, with the odd standout moment aside (“David’s dead!”), has struggled to make much of an impact in our popular culture psyche. Viewing figures have struggled for air between one and two million viewers depending on the night of the week and rumours of the executive axe have abounded for years. And whilst the viewing numbers have on average remained consistent if not exhilarating for the latest outing, the most recently broadcast series of Celebrity Big Brother (CBB) appeared to encourage a return to its experimental beginnings and held up an interesting social mirror to all of us. Although perhaps by accident rather than design, CBB also raised interesting questions of our own LGBT communities and a, perhaps, incorrectly assumed connection with our supposed brothers and sisters.
There was much debate on a variety of social media platforms of the battle between apparent good and evil in the finale showdown of former Conservative politician, Ann Widdecombe, and drag queen, Courtney Act (Shane Jenek). I myself may have tweeted something along the lines of seeing the CBB final vote as a Brexit re-run, and whilst I concede this notion to be verging on the totally ridiculous, what actually played out in that house over the last two weeks of the contest was much more serious.
This isn’t an opportunity to vent about bigotry, or to call Ann Widdecombe a range of unhelpful names. It’s also my own usual practice to hesitate in the casual overuse of the term homophobia when someone is simply being horrid or plainly mean. However, homophobia is a term totally apt when examining Ms Widdecombe’s behaviour in the CBB house; she appeared genuinely afeared. It’s not the intention to criticise Ann Widdecombe when I say that the slightest leaning towards any sexual debate or discussion caused an outward shudder of not simple disapproval, but internal trial and torment, she looked genuinely sick. This was ever more pronounced in the presence of the transgendered contestant India Willoughby. India made it openly clear that her own preferred gender description was that of woman, a concept Ms Widdecombe struggled to grasp and openly misgendered her housemate. Perhaps a simple and clumsy error to make when one is from another political and social generation entirely. And although she didn’t directly apologise, she did offer that she hadn’t intended any offence.
Her discomfort, though, grew in stature in the company of the male homosexual. She regularly covered her face in the vicinity of Courtney Act. Initially as Miss Act ‘suffered’ an apparently unexpected wardrobe malfunction, but as the series progressed, simply as Shane Jenek took a seat in the living area dressed in drag. Mr Jenek cast aside his civilian attire as Courtney Act typically made an appearance on eviction night episodes or for entertainment-related challenges, but in the last week took a decision one evening to ‘drag-up’, just because. Initially I sat amazed as Widdecombe appeared to physically recoil, then both cover and turn her face in what I initially assumed was disgust, but began to notice was a form of actual and real distress. Courtney Act, a man in drag, was a triple threat to Ann Widdecombe appearing to instil a fear that was all at once emotional, psychological and physical. It was as though watching in Widdecombe, the frightened victim of a bully; however, there was not a bully in the room except for, it could be argued, Miss Widdecombe herself. And there you have it; the fear, the homophobia and then the domineering almost bully-like responses that abound through the mouth of one we then call bigot – and many did through their social media feeds. It was a fascinating, illuminating and alarming watch through this revised social experiment of what I and many of you reading this will have experienced first-hand. That fear in Ann Widdecombe was real and Shane Jenek/Courtney Act only had to appear for the dragon of homophobia to come screeching out if its cave, breathing fire.
Of course, neither gay Shane nor Courtney were alone. There was a small community of homosexuals in the house. Wayne Sleep and Amanda Barrie spoke openly of their same-sex relationships and in Barrie’s case her Civil Partner. But Shane Jenek was very much in isolation as the contest began to heat up. An intelligent and willing participant in this experiment, at all times in his questioning of the homophobia he found himself living with, remained calm, reasonable, questioning, but polite. Who challenged his friends in the house when they used language he deemed confrontational and inappropriate, but who turned to the community members he hoped would understand. Amanda Barrie sided with her elder female compatriot, expressing anger at Jenek for his position and that she liked Ann Widdecombe “and I’m in a Civil Partnership”, a progressive legislative step Widdecombe opposed not only as an MP but often criticised whilst in the CBB house. Wayne Sleep, again openly gay on the TV show and camping it up at every wine-infused opportunity, refused to engage in any discussion with Jenek about a responsibility to the LGBT+ community and in fact seemed affronted that he might and both Barrie and Sleep nominated Jenek for eviction, for the stance he had taken. There seemed a gulf of belief between the three, which appeared to confuse them all. The elders not understanding why Jenek assumed a community relationship or connection along LGBT+ lines and Jenek genuinely surprised that they didn’t.
Widdecombe didn’t win the popular televoting contest, but take no comfort from that. The LGBT+ online mafia were out in force in the run up to the live TV finale, I for one voted for Courtney Act/Shane J four times in a bid to sleep that night. In a real election, we have one crack at the prize and my lasting memory of this unsettling experiment will be of the housemates uniting behind Widdecombe on account of her elder stateswoman qualities and traditional values.
You think I’m being daft? Watch this space. You were warned.