Yup, reality TV is a contrived and unnatural setting. On occasion it can stumble its way into insight. Everyday moments, that would ordinarily go unnoticed, get magnified and bring scrutiny, focus, and debate. Probably not enough to redeem the genre, but useful all the same.
The story of Shilpa Shetty and the reality TV show, “Big Brother,” might be one such case. Reality TV amplifies the normal range of emotion and experience—in this case the maliciousness of hatred. The actual intent of Shetty’s harassers are onlyknown by them, but to many minorities, the situation reeks of familiar prejudice and discrimination.
It might be fair to argue that Shetty brought this upon herself by even agreeing to participate in the show. “Big Brother” contestants, like most reality TV shows, are not known for their moral fiber. Going into the show, Shetty should have known seem coming all kinds of ludicrous and unsettling behavior. When you agree to take part in reality TV, you must be ready for whatever comes. Speaking from experience, expect the insanity to come from two directions. First, from the actual crazy behavior while filming. Second, from the outside world reacting to your behavior on the show. To the latter point, you must be ready for blogs to tear apart everything from your makeup, your clothing, your voice, and every single word you utter. And if you’re a minority, be prepared for people on message boards to call you a terrorist, resort to other stereotypes, and say silly things about your family. It comes with the territory of becoming a “public figure.” It turns out the public isn’t always so kind. Who knew? Regardless, Shetty’s mistreatment is so outside the norm, that it’s made almost every major newspaper, including The New York Times.
Unlike a reality TV contestant, the 10-year-old kid who gets picked on because he looks different, dresses different, or because his parents have accents, did not sign up for any of this. While society accepts that such bullying is bad, the practice is pretty common and rarely discussed. For example, a quick search across the Google reveals a multitude of bloggers of South Asian descent who acknowledge the prejudices they dealt with growing up. The negative consequences of this are often longer term than a moment of torment: The kid can grow up to be an adult who feels ashamed about the way he was treated and blames himself, or even pushes away his cultural heritage in order to “fit in” and escape mockery. Maybe that’s the value in this incident, and why Shetty has done the world a favor. Though typically only visible to its victims, there’s still a quiet undercurrent of prejudice that remains all over the world but goes unmentioned. But prejudice on TV for millions to see, offends our shared sense of fairness and results in this current maelstrom.
There are benefits that can come out of the focus on Shetty’s treatment. This incident increases public discussion and someone might be more likely to think twice before saying something potentially hurtful. Maybe the 10-year-old kid sees that he’s not alone and that hatred is directed even toward successful, visible people. Maybe the tormentors of that kid see it happening on TV, and don’t like it and begin to mend their ways. No matter what, an issue of prejudice, previously hidden from view, is now laid bare.
It’s almost consensus that reality TV often offers up the worst of society. And it is terrible and vile. But in this cesspool of horror, there can beauty.
2/18/13 – I’m not sure why I wrote this. What I wrote doesn’t feel particularly insightful or new. Maybe I wrote it in an act of solidarity for another member of the South Asian diaspora on national TV? Or maybe I was trying to get some more hits…I think it’s called linkbait. Who knows.
To that 10 year old child Ms. Shetty now must assume a role model position and carefully navigate her course of action to deal with this bigotry. The magnifying glass is on her and hopefully she will use her 15 minutes to act with grace and dignity, and set and example for anyone to whom these problems are not unfamilair.
Because after all "With great publicity, comes great responsibility…"
Perhaps Ms. Shetty should have quit when the racism was directed at her and came to her attention. It would seem dignified that she refuses to associate with anything of the sort. She's been paid to do the show and is staying with it, but she is a celebrity and can easily make money elsewhere. Why does she stick it out, just to be insulted? I think rather than acting in such a way as to "win them over" is frankly apologism and appeasement to the racist sentiments of her co-stars. That's what some 1st generation Indian parents said to their children when confronted with schoolyard bullies, "just ignore them, and prove to them that you are a great person, and they will stop," but frankly this is exactly what was referred to above. The feelings of racism and superiority of the majority never disappear, but just take more subtle forms. As an adult no one will taunt you openly, but the pressure to anglicise and de-heathenize oneself is still there. Perhaps Ms. Shetty should make a stand against racism by quitting, an option she can likely afford to do, which will send a message that such racial harassment will not be tolerated.
Dan– great thoughts! I totally agree with you.
Suresh– you raise an interesting point. But the flip-side is the message that quitting sends. Does she make an even stronger statement by sticking through it (and winning) to show others that if you persevere you can and will win? Does that send a stronger message than "quitting"?