For we are young and free
What is the definition of “Australian”? For years, world-weary Aussie travellers have spent less time discovering the sites of other nations and more time trying to convince the citizens of those nations that we do indeed have cities. And houses and dogs and cats, much like the rest of the world. And we don’t we carry knives or fight crocodiles. In fact, Australia is becoming more and more like Little America every day. This hit home yet again yesterday morning when I opened up to the fashion pages of a major metropolitan newspaper with a spread headlined Patriot Games, where I encountered several models wearing clothing marked with sparkling U.S. flags.
What it means to be Australian has never really come across in television programming either. While we are famous in Europe and parts of Asia for long running soaps such as Neighbours and Home and Away, these shows offer the same bland and so-very-conventional characters, lacking genuine Australian attitudes (though a pub is always a centrepiece in them). For those of us bored to the point of being offended by these shows, absolutely anything showcasing real Aussies promises to be a breath of fresh air.
Big Brother Australia is and is not that breath. A “game show” mixed with “reality,” its first version aired every weeknight, with the following schedule: On Tuesday, housemates nominate two people for eviction, their first choice receiving two points and their second receiving one. The producers tally the votes and three nominees are named. The viewing audience then has until Sunday night to vote who they want evicted.
This structure, among other things, made me skeptical of Big Brother. I wasn’t so concerned whether or not it would be interesting to watch 12 Australian strangers locked in a vacancy for three months. I was more focused on how long it would take the housemates to start drinking themselves senseless and sleeping with each other. The people at Southern Star Endemol were banking on just that. Attempting their own definition of “Australian,” they found 12 supposed representatives of the different Aussie stereotypes—gay Johnnie, hippie-ish Todd, black Lisa, arrogant Gordon, sports-crazy Ben, confident and sexual Andy, boisterous Sara-Marie, bitchy Sharna, supermodel Jemma, cute and naive Blair, quiet Chrissie, and blokey Peter—and threw them into a luxurious Queensland home with co-ed bedrooms, no outside contact, no music or television, no writing implements, a limited hot water supply, and 24-hour-a-day video surveillance. Then they waited for Young Australian Culture to run wild.
And run wild it did, for a while. Big Brother‘s producer, Peter Abbott (playing his own role in the show as “Big Brother,” the “voice” of the house), has all but admitted to giving the housemates alcohol to get them to reveal the most intimate of sexual details. And for the first two weeks, they got drunk and horny. The first Big Brother episode I watched was the first Uncut version, screening late Thursday nights, for adults only. I witnessed my new drunken friends discussing penis size, blow jobs, and how they best enjoying fucking, interspersed with live footage of the guys and girls in the shower, completely nude. All this happened before the dominatrix of the group started dripping candle wax onto the hard nipples of resident hunk, Gordon. Titillating though this may have been, I shuddered to think that this was the image of Aussie life being presented around the globe. Forget knives and crocodiles. Getting drunk and having sex appear to be the national pastime.
It was following this initial taste of Big Brother that I decided I would watch the first eviction and that would be it. No more. I watched resident sexual goddess, Andy, walk out onto the eviction stage. Then I saw highlights of her two weeks in the house, segments documenting her antics and desire to be naked at every opportunity. Seeing all this and reactions to it from her housemates—as well as my own friends, who were sitting with me in my living room—had me hooked.
After Andy’s predictable first-week eviction, the show changed for me, from annoying television crud to a fascinating study of human existence both inside the house and out. The five stand-out characters were Andy, Sharna, Todd, Gordon, and Sara-Marie. And one by one, they were voted out during the first five weeks, until only Sara-Marie remained. At that point, viewers realised they were kicking out the show’s core. Gordon left after apparently trying to sleaze onto Jemma. The following day, his absence (combined with the absences of everyone with a personality) made it seem like tumbleweeds were about to roll through the living room. It was too quiet. Sara-Marie was the only mess-maker left and audiences made sure she stayed.
Instead, we began kicking out the quiet ones, until the only housemates left were Sara-Marie (soon famous for her bum dance, liberated manner, and the Bunny Ears she wore on her head), Ben, and Blair. The millions of folks throughout the country donning Bunny Ears was only one indication that the prize would go to Sara-Marie, the girl who taught us how to be ourselves no matter what. She was the true representative of what it meant to be Aussie. Sara-Marie was the most talked about of the housemates. She just had to win.
Or did she? The night before the Big Brother finale, Sara-Marie was evicted, leaving Blair and Ben to compete for the grand prize. Of course. Silly us, we should have known. Loud, fat chicks don’t win!
And gay men don’t win either, as housemate Johnnie found out the hard way, early on. Holland’s Endemol big-wig Paul Romer says that Big Brother is manipulative by definition, intimating that housemates should be aware they will be presented in whatever light makes for good tv. In what became a double whammy for the show’s producers, Johnnie’s eviction caused a stir in that the “Johnnie Rotten” label awarded him (by media) was a farce. Regular viewers knew Johnnie was just being himself when he hugged his opponents after voting against them. The nation sat stunned when Johnnie walked out the big brown doors (with 70% of the public voting him out), and two of his remaining housemates—two buff Aussie blokes who probably hadn’t spent any time whatsoever with a gay man before—broke into tears.
Johnnie’s story is just one of the many that had viewers up in arms, about the difference between what was being presented to us and what was really going on. Gordon appeared to be sleazing onto Jemma (both with mates waiting for them on the outside), but upon eviction, he was stunned at the idea. Gordon told me recently that what was cut out of the show made all the difference. He was shown stalking Jemma, uttering lines like, “I need a hug,” but he now says that he was actually saying, “I miss my girlfriend. I need a hug.” Another victim of editing was Todd, labelled “smelly,” due to an exotic massage oil he preferred. When this detail was played up for viewers, Todd was voted out that very week. His eviction was the first to show the housemates they were not in control, as none expected it. Obviously, the “smelly” thing meant nothing to them.
We, the viewers, were being manipulated, in different ways than the housemates. We would see just 25 minutes in an episode, supposedly representative of the behaviour of 12 people over a 24-hour period. It was completely obvious that only the “good stuff” went to air (though, the odd scenes of inmates exercising or relaxing in the pool did become strangely intoxicating). And even when the storylines weren’t captivating, the people were—their reactions, thoughts, and feelings, how they took on this environment and either made it their own, or let it swallow them whole. The definition of what it means to be Australian could very well be that alone: the ability to adjust to any situation, get on with any one person regardless of that situation, place, or time.
While media manipulation, by both the Big Brother editing and the page 3 stories in the tabloids, played an enormous role in who left and who stayed in the Big Brother house, it cannot be denied that the show was watched by more people than anyone could have dreamed possible. Whether or not the housemates were an accurate representation of Australian life became increasingly irrelevant, as viewers played along, taking pleasure in their God-like ability to oversee all. The housemates’ antics and discussions, the challenges set them by “Big Brother,” and our own peeping tom thrills, were too addictive.
Big Brother‘s 21-year-old winner, Victorian Ben Williams, came out richer of course, but also looking like an extraordinarily nice character. He appeared to be an honest, friendly, funny, loveable (not to mention heterosexual) Aussie bloke, the perfect person to prove that nice guys can finish first. Ben’s only fault, reportedly, was his incessant need to repeat the same lame joke over and over again. But while this fault was discussed tirelessly by evicted housemates, we never witnessed it in the half-hour episodes. For us, Ben never caused a stir, was always polite and encouraging to his fellow housemates, and seemed genuinely interested in them. He also confided in them as to his rare eye disease, which might cause him to be completely blind by the age of 30. How could he possibly lose? The challenge for Big Brother became less focussed on defining “Australian,” and more about how incredible it was, sometimes life-changing, to watch 12 very different minds and bodies come together, breaking down their own stereotypes to become close, loving friends.