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Turkey Slapping

February 28, 2010

Long ago, back in 2006, a scandal took place in the world of Australian reality television, that spilled over into greater society. This is an incident that is still well-known in my homeland, and what inspired me to my initial passionate defense of the genre. 

Back home, the show Big Brother enjoyed relative popularity. The show is different from the format used here in the US, and rather than a once a week show that is a scheming, crazed sort of Real World, it is a seven-day a week crazed, alcohol-fuelled, sex romp sort of Real World. The basic premise was that 16 people are locked in a house with cameras on them at all times. They have no contact at all with the outside world, have to participate in various bizarre tasks and once a week nominate housemates to be evicted, whom the public vote out. They aren’t allowed to scheme, or discuss any of this with other housemates, and the last person in the house wins $250,000 (up to $1 million in the shows later seasons).

I tried not to be (like with all my reality endeavours), but ultimately ended up being hooked. Unlike with many of the other shows I watch however, this one had almost no redeeming qualities. It didn’t bring up any real issues of quality, it wasn’t a terribly representative slice of Australian life. I just liked watching loud, lazy people sitting on the couch complaining about other loud, irritating people not doing the dishes/disrespecting them/taking the good beanbag next to the pool in between talking about orgasms. Then came the turkey slapping incident.

In Big Brother 6, two of the housemates, Ash and John were playing around with another housemate Camilla. John held Camilla down, while Ash slapped her in the face with.. well, the part of his anatomy that vaguely resembles a turkey. The incident never made it to TV, but was streamed over the internet as part of the show’s 24 hour live screening. Both Ash and John were removed from the house immediately, Camilla was offered counselling, and the chance to press charges. While I don’t condone what the boys did, it was clear that this was an act of messing around with friends, as opposed to a violent act. It displays a somewhat negative attitude towards women, but was not an act of sexual aggression. Judge for yourself:

Camilla didn’t press charges, wasn’t troubled by the act and was upset that her friends had been kicked out. But this is not the point. The show acted accordingly, the did not condone the actions of John and Ash, and I am not here to support them. But the Australian media was up in arms. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, everyone was calling for the cancellation of the show, and condemning everything that it stood for.

What they failed to do was look at the big picture. Everybody in the nation was engaged in this debate, or had at least heard of it, and had an opinion. Women’s advocates, and people who worked against domestic and sexual abuse came out to discuss the issues at hand. The coverage of women’s issues, specifically assault against women, was sizable. The incidence rate of assault against women, what to do if you are assaulted, how we can combat the problem, were all messages hidden in the greater barrage of how to get this trash off TV. Any public broadcaster, documentary or news article can try to bring this issue to the forefront. Sometimes it may even succeed. But the focus that was placed on violence against women due to this “low point” in Australian television was far greater than any one-off educational program. So maybe even trash TV has its benefits after all.

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