I’m a Celebrity hit with flood of complaints

Bugging out: Insect controversies once again dog the long-running reality show.

Has “I’m a Celebrity” had its day? The finale airs tonight amidst a storm of controversy over cockroaches – among other matters. But public hunger for this kind of spectacle has deep roots.

With her head protruding from the medieval torture device, Ruthie Henshall faced the public. This year’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! featured the actress locked in a pillory while rotten tomatoes were hosed at her by a machine.

By the standards of the programme’s 18 years, this was tame. Contestants in the “bushtucker trials” have had to eat live spiders, let cockroaches crawl all over them and lie buried in a pit with snakes.

Doubtless, there will be something gruesome in store for the final episode of 2020, which airs tonight on ITV.

Entomophagy was retired from the show last year, but I’m a Celebrity and its bugs still managed to make the news during this, the programme’s 20th series.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, this series is being filmed in and around Wales’ Gwyrch Castle, rather than Australia. Outraged viewers called the police, worried about the chance of invasive Australian cockroaches rampaging into the woods of North Wales.

The new setting brought with it a medieval theme, as seen in Henshall’s pillory ordeal, though the castle itself only dates from the 1800s.

Anachronism aside, the image of the pillory is a fitting one. Some see a continuity between the pillory as a punishment, and the kinds of humiliation I’m a Celebrity forces on its contestants.

Anyone sentenced to the pillory was left at the mercy of the public, who would often pelt them with rotten food. The last person in the UK to be pilloried was Peter James Bossy in 1830. He chose the punishment over being transported to Australia.

I’m a Celebrity has historically combined both of these punishments, sending contestants to Australia to expose them to public scorn, sentenced to eat bugs by public vote.

Despite this degradation, many celebrities are keen to go on, both for the fee, and because it has boosted careers; it brought former one-hit-wonder Peter Andre back into the charts in 2004.

In 1703, the pillory likewise boosted the career of Daniel Defoe, an author in whose work some trace the stylistic origins of Reality TV.

After being pelted with nothing worse smelling than flowers, Defoe went on to publish one of the earliest and most influential novels in English, Robinson Crusoe.

It tells the story of a man alone on a desert island, struggling to survive. A similar myth of intrepid adventure animated early reality TV, including Survivor, from which I’m a Celebrity borrows heavily.

Just as important, however, was the fact that Crusoe – and Defoe’s later works – claimed to be the memoirs of real people. These fake true stories, coupled with attention to ordinary details, marked the birth of what is called realism.

It has long been argued that reality TV is less than real, but some think it is realism of a kind—the mix of adventure and the mundane—that lures viewers in to watch Mo Farah eat some beans and then rummage through maggots for stars.

So, has I’m a Celebrity had its day?

Bushwhacked

Get it out of here, say some. The format has grown tired, and reality television has been a terrible influence. Even on its own shallow terms it is old hat. The culture of celebrity on which the show draws has been replaced by the social media influencer, a different way of being famous that is both more realistic and more enthralling, and will soon make shows such as this obsolete.

Long may it continue, say others. Much like I’m a Celebrity, Robinson Crusoe was seen as crude when it was first published. Those who think the show could endure as long as Crusoe has can point to its scratching the same itch. The 2020 series has been extremely popular. The joy of seeing soap actors covered in cockroaches has survived a pandemic and will survive the judgement of critics.

You Decide

  1. Is it wrong to kill an insect for entertainment, considering that many people would kill a cockroach anyway?
  2. Are “bushtucker trials” more degrading to the participant than combat sports such as boxing?

Activities

  1. In pairs, come up with a reality TV competition you would want to watch. What kind of contestants would you have on, and what would they be competing to do?
  2. The French Philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, famously argued that the first Gulf War was chiefly intended to be seen on television, rather than to have a “real” effect on the world. Write a defence of paying more attention to media representations than to “real life”.

Some People Say...

“All crowd, who foremost shall be damn'd to Fame?”

Alexander Pope, (1688 - 1744) English Poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that the era of reality TV properly began in the late 1990s. This decade is when digital video made it financially possible to edit many hours of unscripted footage into a watchable episode. While there were many documentary entertainment programmes before that, and countless competitions and variety shows, it was in the ‘90s that the idea of sculpting a drama by forcing strangers into a common situation and filming the results spread around the world.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is whether reality TV is a defensible cultural production. While initially it was sneered at, and seen as a sign of mass culture dumbing ever further down, there have been many defences of the genre. Some see it as a harmless pleasure, while others point to its innovations in the construction of narratives. Critics, meanwhile, point to a recent reality TV star president of the USA as emblematic of the medium’s harmful effects on culture.

Word Watch

Pillory
A wooden frame, standing on a post, into which the head and arms of a person are locked. It has been used as a form of punishment since the 13th Century AD. The prisoner is shamed and exposed to public ridicule or mistreatment, and the term pilloried has come to mean widely criticised.
Bushtucker trials
I’m a Celebrity’s challenges where contestants are forced to endure or eat disgusting creatures and substances take their name from the word for food eaten by indigenous Australians. Tucker means food, and bush refers to the outback of Australia.
Entomophagy
The eating of insects. Many cultures eat insects currently, and the substitution of insects for more traditional meat has recently been urged as a way of promoting environmental sustainability. But the consumption of live insects on television attracted criticism on animal welfare grounds.
Gwyrch
The castle was built in the early 19th Century, on the site of a much older fortification, and it draws its name from the Welsh word for bristle.
Invasive
The cockroaches used in the programme have no natural predators in North Wales, so some fear they may breed and interfere with the surrounding ecosystem.
Anachronism
Something that is from the wrong time. Often it means something that seems like a relic from a previous era, but it could also be something futuristic.
Transported
Transportation was the penalty for many crimes in Britain from the 17th Century, when those convicted were sent to the Americas to work as indentured servants, through to the middle of the 19th Century, when Australia was the most common destination.
Survivor
This is one of the earliest American reality TV shows, and was based on a Dutch TV show named Expedition Robinson, after Robinson Crusoe.
Stars
The points system of I’m a Celebrity.

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