Big Brother and the cult of voyeurism

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The eight season of Big Brother Africa (BBA) is already a couple of weeks old and several of the original housemates already evicted as part of the game. The BBA show, run by Multi-Choice the premier satellite TV provider in Africa, has become unequivocally the biggest show on TV in the continent, galvanizing and holding spell-bound viewers across the DSTV universe of Africa.

Modeled after the world-wide Big Brother franchise developed in the Netherlands in 1997, and styled after the infamous ‘Big Brother’ from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the reality TV show – which Nigeria has dominated in recent years with three winners – always creates a pan-African buzz that has united the continent towards a common goal, sometimes more than the AU. Purists can dismiss this assertion but in all eight seasons of the BBA, I don’t think I have heard a cry of protest or perceived a notion of inequity when the winners are announced.

As a programme that is steeped in pop culture and promotes the concept of ‘cool’, one can surmise categorically that come to the African continent, Nigeria is the capital of ‘cool’ (3 winners in 4 years). As we say in the local parlance: “Naija get swagger.” The Nigerian candidates have always got a cult following, akin to the type accorded to the national football teams. So much so that Prezo, the Kenyan ‘wannabee’ from season 7 did not do his chances of winning any good after his romantic tryst with the late Nigerian housemate and pop star, Goldie Harvey. For the records, the Nigerian votes are usually impressive and influential.

The simple ‘peeping Tom’ structure of the Big Brother reality show makes it addictive and also lends it to instant popularity. As curious beings, humans have an insatiable voyeuristic instinct and want to know “what the Joneses are up to?” The Joneses being a number of Housemates whose ‘survival’ is in the hands of the viewer cum voter. Social media has created a multiplier effect with the show leveraging on the online social networks. Each new year continually returning massive viewer numbers. Each new media serving our voyeurism.

Africa being a conservative continent, the success and popularity of the BBA is indicative of the changing scenes in the continent. Young people have enthusiastically embraced this, to use a cliché, Western themed programme, that promotes laissez-faire attitudes to sex and nudity. Critics have lambasted the ethics and etiquette of the show, forcing the providers to initiate measures like requesting specifically for access when the show begins and moving the bathroom scenes online, to the DSTV website for a fee. And here lies the conundrum as observers have queried the notion of paying a fee to access female (who else?) housemates taking their baths. Paradoxically, feminists have remained mute at this blatant take of unadulterated male voyeuristic chauvinism.

Many countries have versions of the Big Brother show, usually tilted to fit the sensitivities and cultural innuendos of the viewing society. The African version has tilted towards a liberal, post-modernist direction. Maybe, it reflects the sensitivities and ideologies of the average DSTV subscriber: the well-educated, middle class, upwardly mobile urbanite with post-modernist aspirations.

The BBA show has been a runaway success providing well orchestrated entertainment and sheer glee, with only the nerve wracked housemates suffering a bit of genuine tension. The feel good nature of the show negates the fact that Orwell’s Big Brother was a monstrous, authoritarian icon, whose omnipresence was as illusory as it was real, with an all pervading influence that bestrode Oceania like a colossus and struck fear in the hearts of citizens of that dystopian society. If Orwell were to magically come back to life, he will see that the African iteration of his fearsome creation, Big Brother, goes by the pet name ‘Biggy’ and now fully engages in doing diary sessions and marketing bathroom scenes for a ‘dollar a minute’ online. If this is not utopia, what is?

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