The Roman poet Juvenal employed the Latin phrase panis et circenses (“bread and circuses”) to express his view that the populace had given up its interest in political involvement, caring instead only that they were fed and entertained. Today, cultural critics might accuse the West of devolving into a similarly truncated interest – perhaps best expressed as “beer and reality TV”. While I have my doubts that ideals of a fully politicised electorate are even plausible, I find the “modern circuses” of reality TV a fascinating phenomenon.
One of the most successful formats is Endemol's Big Brother, which airs in seventy different countries, enjoying its greatest success in Europe where relatively loose restrictions on broadcast media mean the show frequently features nudity, sex acts, swearing and even occasional outbreaks of violence. People in the US may wonder what the fuss is about, since the US version of Big Brother has been thoroughly neutered, but the European versions represent an utterly different proposition. On the UK show, which enjoys considerable popular support and is lapped up by a gossip-hungry tabloid media, we have witnessed a wide range of altercations and general weirdness, including spontaneous naked body painting, an incident that narrowly avoided domestic abuse, and perhaps most memorably of all, the near total mental collapse of two contestants who were sealed away in a private bedsit and given the access to the camera feeds to spy on their fellow housemates.
Crucial to the show's success is the fact that the housemates involved are sealed away from all other human contact, and thus must either interrelate with the exact same group of people day in and day out (which tends to become intolerable as the weeks roll on) or enter the diary room to bitch about them – essentially to the rest of the nation. Thus, contestants are robbed of their privacy – they cannot gain any alone time in the house itself, so their private outlet becomes talking on camera to the masses. It effectively elevates gossip to a sport, and engages the audience on a personal level by having them vote (and pay) to have individuals evicted each week.
The prize that putatively motivates contestants is a large cash purse offered for the “winner”, that is, the housemate most popular with the voting audience after the unpopular housemates have been eliminated over the space of about three months. However, as Big Brother has become such a cultural phenomena in both the UK and various other countries, contestants frequently view the show as a springboard for a potential showbusiness career of some kind (usually fallaciously). What is most curious about this is the naivete of most of the contestants, who often (despite having watched the show before) expect to be treated as celebrities while they are in the house, when in fact they are likely to suffer considerable stress and emotional turmoil during their tenure, as the organisers tweak all events for maximum dramatic effect.
The parallel with the Circus Maximus may seem overly dramatic – after all, the gladiatorial contests were generally fights to the death. In fact, once interest in such fights had reached its peak in ancient Rome the demand for gladiators outstripped supply and most of the fighters (especially the popular ones) were spared from death almost all of the time. Indeed, Emperors (such as Caligula) who did not spare the popular fighters when they lost became considerably disliked as a consequence.
The stakes in a reality TV show are lower, in that one cannot actually die as a result of the game, but are still comparatively high by modern game standards: an unpopular contestant faces considerable ridicule and psychological trauma; every housemate receives mandatory counselling after leaving the Big Brother house, since the effect of having been demonised both by the skillful editing of the show's producers (who via a media lens effect inflate the quirks of contestants into more dramatic forms) and by the tabloid media which delights in baying for the blood of those housemates whose weakest moments can be used to paint them in the most hated light.
Curiously, a great many of the people who make it onto the show feel a real sense of achievement for having been selected – they are validated by having been chosen, even though in many years the housemates are selected purposefully to form something of a freak show, or at least to give the best chance of romance or conflict emerging in the course of the show's run. Each contestant is the embodiment of Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame; instant celebrities created in a goldfish bowl solely for the entertainment value of watching them suffer emotional, physical and psychological stress and pain for the amusement of the audience.
In Bioethics in the Age of New Media, Joanna Zylinska turns her attention to one particular reality TV show, The Swan, and considers it from the perspective of Foucault & Agamban's notion of biopolitics, the ubiquitous process of life management which now plays a central role in our modern (Western) societies. She questions the biopolitical logic of modernity within which the “bodies and lives of others... are always already in need of a makeover”, singling out 'ugly' or misfit women (The Swan) or countries that 'are not democratic enough' (the “Iraq makeover”) as examples of biopolitics in action.
Big Brother also represents this biopolitical concept – the lives of the contestants constantly manipulated for entertainment value. But then, so were the gladiators in the Circus Maximus. The people today may have greater qualms about the death of contestants, but we are perfectly content to have other people's lives forcibly arranged, ordered, manipulated and misrepresented for entertainment. And even if we had ethical objections to what transpires (and since the participants are there voluntarily, it can be tricky to construct such arguments) it wouldn't significantly change the fact that what happens in microcosm in a show such as Big Brother happens in macrocosm all around us, every day. In a world of 24 hour news, satellite imaging and a horde of mobile phones that can deliver a video feed to an audience of millions on the internet, we are all inside a global goldfish bowl.
The Roman poet Juvenal also coined the phrase Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – often translated as “who watches the watchers?” Between reality TV and YouTube, the answer these days seems to be: we all do. The unanswered question might be: what we are able to do beyond merely watching?