Consenting to be locked up in a house with a bunch of strangers for three months. No contact with the outside world. Your every move watched and scrutinised by a hungry and curious public.
Germaine Greer may not have been that far off when she likened reality television to torture.
So why do we keep signing up for it? Why do hundreds of people line up outside Sydney University at 4am in the hope that they might be among the few selected to audition in front of Dicko, Mark and Marcia, let alone appear on Australian Idol? Why do we know that thousands of others will do the same when Big Brother holds its first ever set of auditions in the two days leading up to Australia Day?
The answer’s pretty simple, really. They want to be famous.
Whether it’s about getting your face on Video Hits, your voice on talk back radio, or your name on the op ed page of the Herald, fame and public recognition are the main currency we use in contemporary Australia to decide who matters and who, well, just doesn’t.
In the TV documentary that accompanied his book Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton said that you could tell a lot about what a society valued by what featured in its Sunday papers. So when Posh and Becks dominate the British press, Home & Away actor Bec Cartwright’s Christmas celebrations are considered worthy of a front page mention in our own, and celebrities have long since replaced anonymous models on the cover of Cosmopolitan, is it any wonder so many young people want to be famous?
More so than most other reality television shows, Big Brother is about fame. Survivor, The Apprentice and Australian Idol are contests of physical skill, business acumen and musical ability: Big Brother is a contest of personality in which the promise of a public profile is a greater lure than the $1 million cheque. He (it's usually a “he”) who has the most fans wins.
Most of the time, Big Brother delivers on its promises. In return for their “torture” - isolation, forced social interaction and constant surveillance - contestants are offered magazine spreads, television presenter roles and invites to “B” and “C-list” parties.
It’s only when they try to use the platform they’re given in unauthorised ways that the trouble starts. Big Brother proved himself completely unprepared when housemate Merlin Luck used his own eviction to draw attention to the mandatory-detention of refugees.
While many of the older generation criticised Merlin’s protest as inappropriate and immature, a use of the wrong forum for the wrong purposes, others - Merlin included - recognised that in the 21st century there isn’t a more appropriate place to draw attention to something, be a political issue or yourself, than on a popular television show.
Like Merlin, most of the hoo-ha surrounding Greer’s early departure stems from the fact that she hasn’t played by the rules. Rather than sticking it out in the house like most of the has-beens and wannabes who appear on “celebrity” reality shows, in the vain hope that it might boost her career, Greer articulately and assertively said she wanted out as soon as she tired of it.
Greer’s been in the public eye for 30 years. She doesn’t need Big Brother to build her career and she’s savvy enough to know that a well-timed publicity stunt goes a good deal further to attract attention than sitting pretty in front of a television camera hoping to win friends and influence people. She’s been around long enough to know where and how to use the media to her advantage, and that sometimes it’s better to take your money and run, rather than to stick it out.
Catharine Lumby was right when she wrote in the Herald (and published in On Line Opinion) recently that “the lure of fame and the power of popular culture are forces you would expect Greer to understand”: all signs would indicate that she still does. If, as some have claimed, Greer’s early exit from Big Brother was indeed a publicity stunt, it doesn’t prove her lack of engagement with contemporary media so much as it does her ability to exploit the exposure it offers while refusing to be exploited by it herself.
What could be more 21st century than that?
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