Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Big Brother, Pilgrimage and the Ndembu of Zambia: Examining the Big Brother Phenomenon through the Anthropology of Religion

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Big Brother, Pilgrimage and the Ndembu of Zambia: Examining the Big Brother Phenomenon through the Anthropology of Religion

Article excerpt

Edward Croft Dutton, University of Aberdeen

Abstract

This article will examine the Big Brother television series through the prism of the anthropology of religion. It will examine the ways in which Big Brother is comparable to a pilgrimage on the one hand and a tribal initiation ceremony on the other. In this regard, Victor Turner's research on these subjects, and related criticisms, will be discussed in detail. It will argue that one possible reason for the popularity of Big Brother is that it is a modern liminal phase in which contestants undergo suffering to attain the status of celebrity. This, it will argue, is pertinent because modern society prizes celebrity so highly. Thus, it will argue that the Big Brother programme appeals not only to voyeurism but to a kind of religious or tribal structure–that those who endure suffering have their status raised.

Introduction

[1] The reality television series Big Brother has been one of the most successful television franchises of recent years. It has been sold around the world and there have been Big Brothers in most European countries, the United States and even a "Big Brother–Africa." In many countries, such as the UK, there was originally only going to be one series, but that series' success was such that many more were commissioned (BBC 2001). In each case, there are thousands of applications for the few places on the show (The Age 2005). This article will examine the popularity of Big Brother through the prism of the anthropology of religion. It will argue that one of the reasons for the popularity of Big Brother, in a celebrity-driven culture, is that participation in Big Brother is, in many respects, a kind of modern, voluntary Rite of Passage, which is comparable to the violent initiation rituals of many tribal religions such as the Ndembu, studied by Turner (Turner 1968). It will also present evidence for a comparison to Pilgrimage but will favour the former interpretation overall. In a complex, fragmented society, Big Brother, as a television phenomenon, fulfils this function on a broad level. This renders it compelling viewing, because traditionally status-raising rituals of this kind happen away from society's gaze. It also allows us to understand the profound desire, on the part of many, to take part in it. As with Ndembu ritual, and to a lesser extent Pilgrimage, participants undergo suffering and thus have their status raised, in this case to that of "celebrity." [1]

[2] This article will firstly provide an overview of the Big Brother phenomenon. Thence, it will discuss previous research on Big Brother and Reality Television more broadly as well as research on Rites of Passage that are not overtly religious. Having examined this, the methodological body of the article will examine Turner's (Turner 1969, 1982, 1992) and Turner and Turner's (Turner and Turner 1978) discussions of the liminal phase and pilgrimage. It will also examine the criticisms levelled by Eade and Sallnow (Eade and Sallnow 1991) and others (e.g., Lewis 1971). It will also look at more recent discussions of pilgrimages and rites of passage. Thereafter, it will discuss in detail a number of British Big Brothers drawing mainly upon media coverage and the programmes themselves. [2] It will examine the various ways in which Big Brother is congruous with the various models of pilgrimage discussed and the ways in which it is not. In looking at Big Brother through this anthropological model, the article aims to foster a better understanding of why the phenomenon has become so popular in the contemporary media and among the public.

Big Brother: An Overview

[3] The first Big Brother was aired in the Netherlands in September 1999. The programme was produced by Dutchman John de Mol and the production company Endemol. The following year a version was produced in the UK and, at the time of writing, seventy countries have had their own Big Brother, with many others, such as Russia and Poland, producing their own programmes that are heavily based on the Big Brother format. …

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