Friday, June 15, 2007

Big Brother’s Harem

I’m actually quite surprised it took them 8 years to do what I suspect was something they’d had in the pipelines since its conception: creating the inverted harem. A preoccupation and cause for fascination throughout history, the harem was characterised by its impenetrability, by its secrecy and closure. So it is an inversion of the concept, since Big Brother is, of course, the opposite of all that. Or is it?

The physical BB harem itself is anything but secret, and is utterly penetrated by the outside world… except that we can only watch – we cannot physically go inside – and we know almost nothing about the entity that is ‘Big Brother’. We do not know who s/he/they is/are. So what we have is the modern version of an Orientalist painting: a vision of a world we can see and imagine but not touch. The harem inhabitants who, though theoretically are the hidden ones, in reality become the most visible ones. Whereas the forces behind the creation of the harem, as well as the painter of the picture, or the eye behind the camera and television, are the ones who remain anonymous and omnipresent.

Harems have a special place in the imagination of the west. They have been re-imagined in western art and film from the 18th century onwards, when we fed upon everything coming out of the Ottoman Empire. I find it a very telling paradox that one of the most defining cultural events of the 21st century – the conception and realisation of Big Brother – the definitive mark of the televised, digital age of voyeurism and surveillance – should be taking as its conceptual base an ancient world of containment that is no longer in effect in the worlds where the phenomenon originated.

Although Big Brother is certainly not alone - the harem is very much alive and kicking in other contemporary art forms (especially in anime it would seem) - it's surely the most influential and visible form.

And, of course, what’s so significant about this resurrected concept is that it focuses on the lives, behaviour and bodies of women. We claim liberation and gender equality and then, when given half the chance, reveal in gaudy, abrasive, decadence all that still lurks in the (apparently not so deep and not so far below the surface of the) recesses of our social and cultural imagination. Oh certainly women are no longer hidden – they are very visible – very, very visible. In fact, we cannot not look at them. In fact, we can see every movement, every action, every piece of momentarily unguarded flesh. And in the case of BB, there is containment. When we watch, we are Big Brother…

The Ziggyman Empire:

And at the centre of this excess of female bodies and feminine culture, is Ziggy. Ziggy is not Big Brother. Ziggy is like Elvis Presley in Harum Scarum: he’s the one we watch watching! He’s the Harem King. This is the Ziggyman Empire. This is the dark Lord we, on the outside looking in, do our slave trade with!

The entrance to the harem of Gerry and Seany has been no threat to Ziggy’s throne. In most harem cultures, and most certainly in the historic Chinese harems of the Forbidden City, males that could pose no sexual threat were placed in the harem as protectors and guards. In early modern history these would be castrated men. Big Brother (despite often appearing to be beyond censure) hasn’t quite gone as far as castrating its male contestants (although I wouldn’t put it past them!) opting for gay men instead: they diffuse some (although not all) of the excessively feminised environment, hone its borders a little bit, whilst not in the least bit depriving Ziggy of his ultimate position as Head of State and Ruler of Kingdom.

Although I have a feeling that today’s eviction will see the beginning of the end of the King Ziggyman era…

On a way more superficial note: I don’t buy all this Ziggy-praise that’s knocking about on Big Brother blogs. He’s a slippery character as far as I’m concerned: he is blatantly in his thirties, whilst Chanelle has barely outgrown the pram she keeps throwing her toys out of. He is also arrogant, judgemental, subtly sexist and dismissive. I absolutely can’t stand it when men (and women) dismiss an argument – without necessarily knowing what it’s about – that is occurring between two or more women, as ‘girly bollox’. Somehow being female discredits any heated and passionate debate going on if that debate does not involve a male. Take two men fighting about football: in my opinion = ‘blokey bollox’, in society’s opinion = legitimate argument about an important event! Argh!!

Also contrary to general popular opinion at the moment, is that I currently favour Nicky. Ok she moans, but most of the time I completely relate to everything she moans about: apart from Carol, Nicky’s about the only one in the harem who isn’t concerned purely with his/herself, and his/her own wellbeing. She’s cynical, wise and witty, and she’s seen straight through Ziggy. Although it’s Gerry who’s gunning for the post, it’s Nicky who’s my harem queen!

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goosefat101 said...

This post is really insightful and engaging. I think you have a very good point about the whole thing.

I don't watch TV so I am not seeing this years BB but the premise of it (and the clips I just watched) make this inverted harem concept a sadly apt way of describing it.

jennifletzet said...

Hi goosefat, it's good to hear from you again! Thanks for all of your comments. I'll try to give them the attention they're due.
One of my friends after reading this post also made an astute point; about how not only are these TV harem concepts based on ancient Eastern traditions, these are also traditions, and a way of life, that we're currently fighting against in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just goes to show the schizophrenic western imagination - and its hypocrisy - condemning some aspects of a society, whilst aspiring to others!!