In the past few days, British TV has graced our television sets with several distinctly working class-focused reality TV shows: celebrity chef Michel Roux’s Service on BBC2, Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and BBC4’s Snog Marry Avoid?. Each one of these programmes featured a set of predominantly working class young people, each of them being either ushered into a more ‘respectable’ environment, or in the case of Gypsy Wedding, documented in a stark manner to highlight cultural differences between the lifestyle of the average Brit and the ‘traveller’ society.
It’s compulsive viewing. Each program has its showreel of “oh my god, did that really just happen?” moments, clearly designed to rile up the Twitter audience. Service features the cliché snidey ‘urban’ girl from London, standing slack-jawed and sullen in the midst of a Parisian bistro. Gypsy Wedding has young girls in questionably revealing outfits shaking their thang to Beyoncé. Snog Marry Avoid featured a ‘ring girl’ from a cage fighting tournament whose main qualification for the role seemed to be the ability to wear hotpants and hold up a card. See, I’m falling into the producers’ trap even now by cynically attacking the ‘stars’.
Car crash TV is nothing new, and it’s the reason reality TV has so taken off with a public obsessed with people. America – for all its paparazzi, Hollywood starlets, coke binges and narcisssm – has nowhere near the level of obsession that Britain has with celebrity itself. There’s no American equivalent to Jordan, or any number of our ‘stars’ famous mainly for being famous. Why is that? The producers of these TV shows must know, because they’re tapping into that UK obsession with gossip, intrigue and scandal by giving us a set of gormless cretins to gawp at so we can forget the mundanity and embarassment of our own lives.
Thousands of people flocked to Twitter and Facebook to condemn the gypsy mothers for allowing their daughters to dress provocatively, missing the larger issue highlighted by the ‘grabbing’ ritual which saw borderline sexual assault excused as a teenage courtship ceremony. We’re all falling over ourselves to laugh at the gangster girl on Service and the clueless bimbo getting them out for the lads on Snog Marry Avoid? to notice the real issues. The latter show attempts to ‘solve’ the woes of the ring girl by giving her a ‘makeunder’, toning down her makeup and hotpants. Perhaps a better problem to solve would be the situation where women are still willingly objectifying themselves in the 21st century, but instead we’re just left to sneer at her fake tan and boob job. Michel Roux’s plebs on Service are castigated for their lack of attention for detail, but we’re not challenged to think about why these kids have turned out this way in the first place. When did it fall to reality TV to pull deprived youngsters out of broken homes and sink estates?
Perhaps midweek television is the wrong place to criticise for failing to engage with the wider social issues it hops onto the back of. But when we’re busy patronising the ill-educated, poor, abused or unaware, there’s probably something wrong a little closer to home, too.