Reality TV as Escapism
I came out to find some drama and I’m honestly feeling so inspired right now.
This year has just been shit, hasn’t it? Not even a global pandemic can convince some people in America to care about others; police brutality continues without any meaningful change or repercussions for the murderers; none of us know how this shitshow of an election will pan out in about a month; and more awful things seem to surface daily. Anyone with even a shred of empathy is burnt the fuck out at this point…and we’re only in October.
Everyone has had their own ways of coping (or not coping) with the chaos of 2020. We all know about the sourdough bread people. Many of my friends also become houseplant people. Some have fostered or adopted adorable animals. Some have done impressive DIY projects or have started their own small businesses. And a fair amount of us just simply went through varying stages of existential dread and depression. I fall into the latter category, though I have baked some bread! One of the things I’m weirdly grateful for in this clusterfuck of a year is that it pushed me to the edges of my mental health and FINALLY convinced me to seek out medication to deal with my depression and anxiety. I still can’t directly change many of the awful things happening in our world, but at least now I can cope with the feelings they bring a bit better.
I have always been one to use my hobbies or interests as escapism. I think many of us have similar experiences from our early days of spending dozens of hours playing The Sims or World of Warcraft, reading our favorite long-winded fantasy series (Eragon, Guardians of Ga’Hoole, Warriors, etc…choose your own animal adventure), or trying but never quite succeeding at becoming a neomillionaire on Neopets. Escapism has been a coping mechanism of mine since childhood, and books and video games are usually where I return to when I need to escape reality. This year, though, just hits different. I think my brain needs something stronger. Something so mindless and insignificant that I can get lost in it knowing the stakes aren’t as high as, I don’t know, having a fascist, racist wannabe dictator win the election?
And that, dear reader, is how I ended up watching the 17th season of Celebrity Big Brother UK.
I settled on the 17th season because one of my favorite YouTube channels to watch when I want to relax and have a laugh is Plumbella, and she is absolutely obsessed with Gemma Collins. I had never heard of this person before watching Plumbella’s videos, but I think after watching dozens of hours of content laced with GC quotes, I got the not-so-subliminal message and became quite endeared to her.
My specific brand of anxiety prior to taking medication was that I needed to feel like I was being productive at all times. I never have been one to watch movies or TV shows, because sitting idle staring at a screen usually sends my brain into RED ALERT and then I can’t enjoy whatever I’m watching anyway. With some of that anxiety subsiding, I found myself thinking, “I should watch more TV!” and immediately, Gemma Collins came to mind. I am only a few episodes in, but I have to say…what a gift reality TV is. Truly.
First of all, there is something comforting about watching media where I can forget for a moment that social distancing and masks are the new reality. Secondly, there is a huge range in the ages of the BB cast! I assumed Big Brother would be a millennial-centered reality show, but there were people younger than me and people that could be my grandparents that were supposed to live in one home doing strange challenges and, of course, creating drama. What a twist!
I was taken aback by the premier episode being broadcast live to an audience with a host and catwalk and everything — is Big Brother this big of a deal in the US?? Maybe I’m just unaware. Anyway, yet again I was reminded of normalcy as the crowd cheered (or booed) for each contestant as they walked into the house. First, naturally, was Gemma Collins. Beat for the gods with her signature bronzer, her random factoid before entering the house was that she has spent a large sum of money on a “designer vagina.” I have no idea what that means, but the auditory symmetry in that phrase alone is stunning.
Some other people that weren’t Gemma came into the house (and I spent this time guessing their sun signs since I had no idea who any of the others were except Tiffany Pollard, a legend) and eventually, a…politician(?) entered the stage. This politician came in hot, proudly touting the fact that he’s been in every major party in the country and yet…hasn’t been super successful in any? I’m not sure; I was confused by this seemingly “wild card” addition to the house among a cast of mostly people from other reality shows or the entertainment industry in general. The main point of this man’s entrance vignette, though, was that he would not feel comfortable if there was a gay man in the Big Brother house with him.
I don’t know if I’m just cynical after years of LGBTQ+ people having to fight for every single right that should already be freely given to all, but to my surprise, the entire live audience booed this man out of existence. He couldn’t hear the host because of how loudly they were booing, and I was living. A few days later in the BB house, the group is asked to do a challenge where they guess which random fact goes with which housemate. Sure enough, the ‘fun fact’ attributed to this clown was: “Has said that gay couples adopting children is ‘child abuse.’” [I’m choosing to leave his name out of this article because I don’t think he deserves the time of day.]
Again, to my surprise, almost everyone in the house openly condemned this guy. Gemma and Tiffany were two of the more vocal dissenters, but the vast majority of them said that belief was incredibly outdated, insensitive, disgusting, and generally cruel and unfair. This followed the politician for the next few episodes as he was voted to be up for elimination, and ultimately was chosen to be the first one evicted from the house. The evictions on CBB also take place in front of a live audience, so once again he got booed into oblivion as he walked to his exit interview, and this whole experience just…gave me a little more hope than I had before. The host also grilled him on his wrong opinions, and it was honestly a pleasure to see him squirm.
Maybe it’s because those of us in the queer community (and all communities, to be honest) have been progressively more nervous about the state of things leading up to November, and some members of SCOTUS have already made their intentions clear, but it was very heartening to me to see straight people stand against homophobia so publicly. Not even just the contestants themselves, but the audience, the host, the network itself — again, maybe I’ve been sheltered by my lack of TV experience, but I don’t expect such strong stances against these kinds of things generally. I came for Gemma Collins, but I ended up staying for the surprising anti-homophobia stance.
…but don’t get me wrong: the show dissolves into meaningless drama almost every episode (without any inspiring moral implications) that features a screaming match or almost-violence or a combination of the two. But weirdly enough, this no-stakes drama about people I don’t know personally provides such a nice little escape from our current reality in lovely 45 minute blocks.