Rape and Reality TV

On Sunday night 15th January, an alleged rape was broadcast live on the current, twelfth season of Big Brother Brazil. Meanwhile, one week later, in the UK Celebrity Big Brother House one housemate pulled down another’s trousers. Both events raise questions about gender, power and reality in contemporary society.

In Brazil, two contestants, Daniel Echaniz, and Monique Amin, have been removed from the Big Brother house while police investigate claims that Echaiz raped Amin after an alcohol-fuelled party on Sunday night. Infrared night cameras filmed Echaniz getting into Amin’s bed and then  appearing to have intercourse with her. Throughout the incident Amin does not move – she appears to be asleep or unconscious and she remembered little when questioned about it the next day in the diary room.

As in Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, Billy Corben’s documentary about another alleged rape for which there is a video record, there’s no consensus in Brazil about what ‘really’ happened. Many, including Echaniz’s mother, have accused the show of racism in their treatment of mixed race Echaniz and the accusation against him of raping white Amin. Even Amin herself says she was not raped and is not pressing charges, although, because of the public nature of the event, the police are continuing to pursue the case.

The producers did remove Echaniz from the house but only after being given an ultimatum: they either kick him out or stop broadcasting the show. They’ve said that his behaviour “was seriously inadequate” but have steered clear of accusing him of rape. As with the controversial racist bullying of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty in the UK house in 2007, this incident raises questions about the show’s existence and value. Should it be banned or is it helpful to open up public discussion around issues like racist abuse and sexual violence? How do we allocate responsibility for what happens in the house between the housemates, the producers and wider society? In Brazil, as Victory Oyeleke asks, did producers create a sexually charged environment (and fail to intervene that night) to meet the viewing public’s desire for drama and the TV company’s demand for ratings?

In the UK we too seem to have problems dealing with sexual violence. Although estimates suggest that only 5% of rapes are even reported to police, of those that are as few as 6% result in conviction. Celebrity Big Brother UK is coming to its end and, while much less controversial than the Brazilian show,  I think that an incident in the house can can shed light on this appallingly low conviction rate.

On Sunday night, the then remaining four female housemates were drinking and talking when, as a rare treat, producers played music into the house. As Cyndi Lauper sang Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, they danced. Actress and TV presenter, Denise Welch, pulled up her top to reveal her bra and then she pulled down ex-playmate Karissa Shannon’s trousers. Shannon was offended and it all kicked off with other housemates becoming embroiled in a bitter argument during which three of the women asked to leave.

I don’t think that Welch intended any harm but what I find most interesting and disturbing is the public reaction to the event that’s circulated via the celebrity media and the associated discussion show Big Brother’s Bit on the Side. For many the fact that Shannon has acquired her fame by using her body, as a Playboy centrefold and occupant for a long time of Hugh Heffner’s Playboy mansion, seems to take away any right to be upset by Welch’s behaviour. The logic seems to run: she’s taken her clothes off for money and has traded on her body so she has lost her right to object to having her pants pulled down on TV. Nicola Mclean, another housemate and an ex-topless model, challenged these judgements both inside and outside of the house. She’s someone I’ve never thought of as a feminist but who, unusually for a young woman, does use this label about herself. She pointed out that to question Shannon’s right to object to what was done to her is analogous to saying that a stripper can’t be raped. If a woman who’s done glamour modelling loses her right to consent to being stripped on film then how many must be the myriad ways in which a woman can be seen by a jury as losing her right to consent to sex.

Heather Mendick, Brunel University, UK

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