Hyperreal Lives: Made in Chelsea and The Seductive Politics of Boredom

There’s a certain uneasy, shifting quality at the centre of Made in Chelsea that reminds one of the later work of Samuel Beckett.

Martha Gill

For a show in which a character actually says “Charles Dickens wrote Winnie the Pooh. No, Pride and Prejudice,” you might be shocked at any comparison raised between Made in Chelsea and the world of literature. And yet, there is a sense of unease that haunts the famous Channel 4 show which documents the financially-flushed lives of trendy twenty-somethings partying and gossiping themselves around London. A sense of unease that is usually reserved for the realm of the literary text, specifically the postmodern literary text, which evades fixed meaning and narrative closure. That leaves us in some sort of existential crisis. And so what is this Beckettian quality that haunts the flashy world of ‘yahs’, of immaculate blow-dries and fancy cars? Is it the sheer vacuity, the absurdity, the meaningless and endlessly repetitive plot lines? The bizarre seduction of its pointlessness and dragged-out pacing, the lingering shot on a face of shaky acting that aims to convey some kind of deep significance, but instead trails us into nowhere?

There is something strangely seductive about Made in Chelsea. I thought maybe I’d struggle to write this article, given that I have only watched a handful of episodes from a show that has run for seven seasons. My mother watches it, my brother watches it. They don’t watch much else on telly, so there must be something in it that lures them in. That lures us all in. Indeed, maybe there are people out there who genuinely anticipate new episodes, as if there really was some plot development to look forward to. There must be some reason why Channel 4 bother advertising narrative ‘tensions’ in their new episode teasers. Yet I find it difficult to establish the significance of any story arc in Made in Chelsea: each episode rolls over with an intrigue that evaporates like the champagne sucked so readily from its characters’ glasses.

But wait, you may say: Made in Chelsea is not meant to be television drama, it is reality, albeit ‘structured reality’. We are, supposedly, watching a show about ‘real’ lives; these are ‘real’ people acting out things that have ‘really’ happened to them. Reality does not readily provide us with such arcs of climax and resolution that fictional scripts tend to yield up; reality is all about interweaving story-lines, little tensions that burst and dissipate under hushed storms of gossip – the sheer joy of calling someone an idiot behind their back. I suppose this is what Made in Chelsea really is: grownup children bitching and dissecting one another against the backdrop of glittering cocktail glasses and an effortlessly hip soundtrack.

Because of course, this is no ordinary ‘reality tv show’. The cast of Made in Chelsea are rarely seen smoking, vomiting, shagging. The ordinary things folk tend to do on reality tv shows; you know, Big Brother and the like. The world of Chelsea is one of perfected physicality: sculpted bodies, stylish clothes, the cool gaze of another blasé conversation, another stilted standoff between two characters. For this show is all surface, all talk. Not much changes, except for the setting: from beautiful London gardens with the perpetual tinkle of glasses to throbbing club scenes and the stunning backdrops of Venice and Versoix, from gleaming storefronts to pheasant shoots and country-club chic. We are invited to revel in the gorgeousness of panoramic camera shots, the afternoon light as it flickers from the sun between leaves to the glint of a wine glass. Perhaps we could watch this show on mute, with the characters becoming a kind of tableau vivant, and we may sate ourselves on the images of their flawless skin, their achingly white teeth. These are characters whose personalities shift with the wind of each new season, who perform themselves as they please.

And of course, there is the British obsession with class, particularly the surface forms which class may take. We have always loved observing the lives of the super-poor and hyper-rich, and from Dickens to Evelyn Waugh readers have been drawn in by artistic representations of both the struggling underclass and the excesses of the wealthy. Watching or reading about the extremes of poverty or richness makes us feel better: it allows us to reaffirm our own position, as somehow ‘normal’. We’re never that bad; we’re comfortably in-between. In a sense then, Made in Chelsea shares with shows like the BBC’s documentary-style show The Scheme its status as a form of class porn. Watching the ‘feckless’ lives of those in poverty makes people feel better; superior, even. Careful editing enhances the drama, adds turbulence to the characters’ lives and cuts out the ordinary hard work that may go on behind the scenes. Watching Made in Chelsea, I suggest, deflects the structural issues underpinning the status of the super-rich onto a series of mundane story-lines that focus almost exclusively around love interests. There is very little in the show to tell us how so-and-so got his or her fortune. And if the university degree, modelling career or entrepreneurship features at all, it is usually as a mere prologue to some form of romantic or consumerist intrigue. We are told to sit back and enjoy this form of lifestyle porn, without bearing a thought for the opportunities these people received to get where they are now.

Also, there is a certain pleasure in indulging in one’s prejudices. The cast of Made in Chelsea embody a certain form of gap yah privilege that many of us enjoy mocking in this day and age where the class divide is wider than ever. While watching shows about the ‘underclasses’ often makes uncomfortable viewing, documenting the frequently distressing scenes of life on the breadline, watching Made in Chelsea involves both succumbing to the passive pleasures of spectacle and an exercise in mockery at the dandified lives of its characters. We may poke fun at the absurdity of some of their dialogue: the accent, the ‘totes’, the ‘yeah boi’, the gestures that seem to separate these people from the rest of the human race. As the notorious Mark Francis quips, ‘I once knew someone who owned a sleeping bag’. Yes, quite: a sleeping bag; those cave animals from the world beyond, with their horribly proletariat existence. Indeed, these beautiful beings, the Chelsea Set, are not like the rest of human kind. Not like the rest of us watching, half allured and half bemused.

Onscreen we watch these glimmering cyborgs, as they fashion their real lives right before our eyes.

And yet, the Chelsea Set are not untouchable beings. They splash themselves over pop culture: doing photo shoots, exclusive interviews, making innocuous appearances as guest-star DJs in clubs. We are asked to see them in the flesh, as if we too can reach out – if only briefly – to touch their precious stash, the solid gold of their lifestyles.  We may look them up on Wikipedia to find out more; these characters are hypertexts, whose ‘real’ lives are perhaps preceded in a Baudrillardian sense by the simulations they portray onscreen. They have built up their empires of personality which branch out from the TV series to magazines and online articles documenting details of their fabulously elaborate yet ultimately vacuous existence. As Jon Dovey puts it: ‘reality TV is the ultimate expression of the simulacrum in which the insistence upon realism is in direct proportion to the disappearance and irrelevance of any referential value’. Yes, the disappearance of any worthwhile meaning; that sounds familiar. Are these ‘real’ people, or mere masks – postmodern burlesques of the generation of ‘bright young things’ which once lit up the 1920s Jazz Age, but now dissipate into the no-place of mundane conversation? The sexiness of Made in Chelsea is perhaps undermined by the sheer obviousness of its facade.

Yet when we watch these individuals perform their ‘selves’, do we passively absorb their world as if it were merely a stage-set, or can we pierce this world, burst the bubble on their champagne-scented version of reality? If there is an almost erotic allure in the mere spectacle of the lives of the rich, then allowing ourselves to be sucked into the simulacrum of this show constitutes a new, if slightly sickly, opium for the masses (or at least, those who bother watching). So, perhaps, let us covet the aura of affluence, of shimmering lives and expensive spaces, while at the same time reminding ourselves of the poverty and inequality that must exist to support the glamorous boredom of the rich and famous. Or maybe we could turn off the telly, and go camping instead.

Sources: 

John Dovey (2000). Freakshow 

Martha Gill, http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/05/made-chelsea-totes-postmodern

The Contemporary Carnivalesque

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Picture a Saturday night high street. See the bare limbs, flesh glaring biscuit-orange under canopies of street lamps and the neon flashing of signs for pubs and clubs. All is bewildering, all is bright and vivid and searing. High heels and crumpled blazers, unbuttoned shirts and bodies stumbling all over the road, shrieking and laughing and throwing blind curses to the sky. There are people conversing in drunken slurs, echoes of animal-sounding noises, shadows of disaster thrown up the walls. At the weekend, with sun-down comes turmoil: the interruption of the normal.

Writing several decades ago, Mikhail Bakhtin coined the term ‘carnivalesque’ to refer to the nature of carnival, a time in which normal social regulations and restraints are temporarily suspended. This includes social hierarchies and associated cultural expectations and mores. Carnival is a brief period, an interruption of ordinary life that opens up a space outside of regular time, enabling freer, closer social interaction between those who would normally ignore one another (a peasant sharing a toast with a lord; a banker arm-in-arm, sharing a heartfelt singalong with a construction worker at a music festival), the acceptance of bizarre and outlandish behaviour which exposes the underbelly of humanity, the intermingling of opposites (the sacred and profane, high and low, young and old, classy and trashy) and finally carnival is a sacrilegious experience, devoid of holiness and instead a mockery of all things godly. Bakhtin suggests that the state of carnival is valuable in its ability to produce a social condition, however fleeting, of equality and freedom, a reversal of all the cultural norms that carefully structure everyday lives. In short, carnival means the ordinary world thoroughly shaken and flipped upside down:

Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectators. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act… The laws, prohibitions, and restrictions that determine the structure and order of ordinary, that is noncarnival, life are suspended during carnival: what is suspended first is hierarchical structure and all the forms of terror, reverence, piety, and etiquette connected with it… or any other form of inequality among people [From Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, my emphasis added]

Think of the example Bakhtin provides: the medieval carnival. Lords and ladies would mingle with the peasantry, sharing rich feasts (think wild boar, think excess, think decadent berries, slabs of cheeses and intricate pastries – the burger stand and the Waitrose meal-deal of the Middle Ages), there would be grotesque entertainment, where jesters provided relief from the humdrum boredom of everyday labour. There would be wrestling, archery, hammer-throwing, dancing and general disorder, raucousness and debauchery. Think long wild spirals of medieval hair, clothing being ripped by trampling feet, misfired arrows, shouting, chaos, a sense of triumph and a sense of defeat. A state of pure pleasure and excitement and unity, where all sense of time and habits is lost. These activities aren’t policed; there are no authorities, just a rupturing occurrence of equality.

A key feature of carnival is the grotesque body. This refers to the human form made disgusting, abject, exposed. Inevitably, this involves the opening of bodily orifices, an exposure to shit and piss and sick and blood. Julia Kristeva, in her essay Powers of Horror argues that what these substances (and other triggers of revulsion such as the weird skin that forms on warm milk) is their exclusion from the ‘symbolic order’: being neither subject nor object, these abject fluids draw us ‘toward the place where meaning collapses’, and to put it simply, remind us that everything structured, everything familiar – ‘identity, system, order’ – can collapse, can momentarily be lost. The losing of these necessary familiarities causes discomfort because it reminds us not only of our own mortality (there is blood, we have blood, therefore we live and one day will die) but of the ‘fragility of the law’ that binds us within the symbolic order of social and metaphysical distinction. What is real, what is imagined, what can be touched, what can be lost – all thrown into confusion.

Considering the nature of medieval carnival then, where eating is loud, messy and public, manners are absent and bawdy humour is rife, it is easy to see how Kristeva’s theory of abjection links in with Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque. The explicit exposure of grotesque, sweating, expanding bodies and their apertures (eaters, circus entertainers, fire-eaters, dancers, nudists and other performers) creates the collapse of social regulation, internalised politeness and cultural restrictions that preserve normality and define how we live, who we are, what place we occupy in the rigid hierarchies of the world.

The grotesquery of the carnivalesque haunts not just history but also contemporary life. What springs to mind for me are TV shows like Embarrassing Bodies, The Biggest Loser and Supersize vs. Superskinny revel in their exposure of grotesque bodies: bodies that upset the social order, that overspill, that violate expectations of the ideal self. Through their television screens mass audiences observe with fascination and horror the layers of flabby skin, the genital warts, the rashes and the hair loss and the gaping, hungry mouths. What is so compelling about these programs, which seem to delight in their own scatology? I would argue it is their exploration of the abject, their emphasis on the materiality of the human body and self, as well as the fluidity of this materiality – and not only its mortality but also its ability to change, to become thinner, fatter, more tanned, spottier. There is a similarity here to the public autopsies which literally dissected the nitty-gritty of human flesh before an entranced audience. When we watch Gillian McKeith in You Are What You Eat poking around examining someone’s shit, we are confronting our strange, precarious existence as physical entities, as Kristeva puts it: ‘These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.’

So the grotesque forces us to face up to the abyss of possible meaninglessness that besets our very existence. Carnival is a stage for celebration and freedom, but it is streaked with this dark note of the sinister limits of humanity (or could it be called unhumanity?).

I am led now to think back to debauched goings-on that characterise British nightlife. It is quite easy to compare, at least to some extent, the club scene and the music festival with the medieval carnival. Think of all the sweaty bodies thrown together: lawyer, banker, prostitute, mayor, all dancing outside of their normal clothes, their normal dispositions, their normal souls. Collapse of order. Entertainment has not evolved much in civility: one only has to take a trip to an inexpensive British-dominated seaside resort abroad to discover carnival wonders. Grotesque strippers whose very anatomies have been adorned with the alterations of plastic surgery; whose very bodies violate and confuse the (socially constructed?) definitions of human and inhuman, male and female, real and fakery; whose very bodies are abject in themselves, who violate all symbolic hierarchies. The ordinary citizen puts on a dress or a t-shirt and sheds temporarily their identity, dives into the sea of disruption and debauched, drunken catastrophe.

I think of so many human bodies scattered like ants, half-naked on the street. We dance, we dance, but together we fight, we spit, we are sick. Are we free? The rich snort cocaine in the toilets while the poor share their escapism in drink and junk food, and gradually the substances are passed down the food chain, and either way all normal reality is collapsed. Whether in the bar, the cinema, the club, the street. Yet always there is a going back – the freedom is only temporary.

Perhaps it is worse in these post-recession, cut-ridden times. Where to find relief from the mundane trawl of economic news, of job-hunting, of fitting one’s life into a monotonous form? The more human life is repressed into artificial structures and rigorous norms, the more the pressure builds to release, the more our indulgences become more disruptive, the more we binge and cause chaos and feast.

Can we find carnival at a rave?

Can we find carnival in the graffiti that sticks like smears of sick to the graves of urbanity? The need to upset borders, make violent, meaningless marks.

Is carnival an intrinsic part of our humanity?

Perhaps there is a carnal need for escape, for explosion.

Another example of carnival suggested by John Fiske in Understanding Popular Culture is that of the television game show. The presenter tries to assert domination by ridiculing contestants, but contestants respond by ridiculing the presenter. All hierarchies are upset, as money becomes not a currency of earning but something that can be won at the spin of a lottery, the opening of a mystery box. Jokes are rife, people often cry, music fills the atmosphere with a carnival sense of celebration and ridicule. Onlookers watch on with perverse fascination, anticipation, sometimes revulsion, sometimes boredom.

I was recently talking to a friend about the big Scottish music festival T in the Park, and he said that it was one of those things that ‘you kinda hate at the time, but love it afterwards’. I think this sums up the experience of carnival quite well, in some ways. The stress of the occurrence of carnival – the intensification of sensory pleasures and horrors (the live music, the colours, the portaloos, the mud that seeps in through your trainers) perhaps makes the carnival (festival, gig, club, drunken night at the pub/disco/park) hard to absorb at the time. Perhaps because you are too busy experiencing and participating. Too busy actually feeling exhausted, exhilarated, intensely confused and disorientated. But on reflection, the upset social norms can be ignored, and the experience is fitted snugly together by the reason-seeking mind. We remember the good bits, and the bad seem good, and everything is a great whirlwind of excitement and pleasure that sticks because up against normal life the value of the event cannot be measured.

There is also something in the fact that grotesque experiences provide a kind of social glue or bonding through stories. People go out to lose their inhibitions: to get roaring drunk and behave ‘appallingly’, or at least in ways that upset normality. But, fundamentally, they mostly forget. It’s up to their group of friends to get together and fill in the blanks, often chipping in with their own fictional missing pieces. Stories that live on and are retold and recycled and not only provide valuable conversation fodder but serve as a way of uniting and reinforcing friendships. It takes a night of disorder, disruption and eventual recovery (an adventure, a taste of the carnival) to enjoy normality again, to be reminded of who is there and who you are and how everyone relates to you.

In a world where the Chancellor of the Exchequer attempts to show he is a ‘man of the people’ by tweeting a picture of a burger and fries he intends to have for dinner, it is no wonder the world requires remedying through brief disruptions. As disillusionment filters through the everyday mist of reality, perhaps public craving for the carnivalesque has increased, as the thirst for the abject relates to our need to prove that there is a point, a borderline which enables the dissolution of meaning. Where everything seems more and more absurd, where money seems a mere plaything of gambling bankers, so easily borrowed and so easily lost; where our everyday lives are structured by euphemisms and business jargon and lies, it is no wonder we seek to obliterate social norms in alcohol, clubbing, violence and lust. And with the internet, who knows where the exhibitionist and border-crossing nature of carnival behaviour might end up?

Bibliography:

Bakhtin, M. (1929) Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.

Bakhtin, M. (1941). Rabelais and his world

Fiske, John. (1989) Understanding Popular Culture.

Goulding, C., M. Saren, J. Follett (2003) ‘Consuming the Grotesque Body’ in European Advances in Consumer Research Vol. 6, pp. 115-119

Kristeva, J. (1982) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.

Gaming Gender

Feminism and video games are not two concepts often linked together. However, after reading recently about the shifting representations of Lara Croft and her potential as a ‘feminist icon’ I was inspired to reflect on my own experience as a gamer while growing up.

I was never one for playing hard-hitting action games like Tomb Raider; I was more of a Nintendo – and sometimes Sega – girl myself. My childhood was a fusion of Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, and then as I got older games that demanded more of my time, games that immersed you in their alternative worlds. The ones that spring most vividly to mind are Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon. Finally, a preteen, I dabbled in the exciting Playstation 2 games that my brother owned – Grand Theft Auto and a number of car-racing games which I cannot recall the name of.

It’s an interesting thing, thinking back to all those virtual scenes you encountered in childhood, and trying to recount the representation of gender within them. The really retro games played on brick-like black-and-white Game Boys become submerged by the pastiche of all the newer, technicolour versions, with 3D characters that had realistic clothes, voices, breasts.

Yet when I do think of it, I realise just how gendered my whole video-gaming experience was. Certainly, there was a dearth of what might be (cringingly) called feminist heroines. Even the very early Mario games, which involved navigating a barely perceptible pixel man over a flat world of fatal drops and question-mark boxes, bore out the signs of gender stereotypes within their very narrative. Rescue the princess. I remember the motivation for getting to the next level was the little cut-scene where Princess Daisy (or was it Peach) would proclaim helplessly ‘Oh Mario!’ and transform shockingly into a spider-like creature, hopping away as if cursed to a land to be later rescued. This story is hardly surprising, given the perpetual presence of damsel-in-distress narratives within our culture, and I’ll admit that throwing an Italian plumber rather than handsome prince into the works is a little subversive – but Mario is always a good place to start.

Maybe Sonic is a little more interesting. Although the characters are weird, anthropomorphised talking hedgehogs, echidnas and the like, they still carry conventional gender distinctions. Well first there’s Amy Rose (strangely enough, that was almost my name), the pink-haired hedgehog with the obnoxious girly voice who is desperately in love with Sonic, the hyper-cool protagonist who frequently shirks her advances with an air of embarrassed affront. The game thus dramatises a kind of courtly love, but in parody, with Amy represented as silly, indeed somewhat ridiculous, in her affections for Sonic – who is evidently so totally out of her league. The unequal power balance reinforces ideas about female irrationality, and the deprivation of agency in the face of love. I won’t go too far with this though; after all, I didn’t play all the games, or watch the TV show. Maybe Sega threw a bit of kick-ass feminism into Amy’s character somewhere down the line?

They did have one character, at least in my favourite game, Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, that could give Lara Croft a run for her money. Rouge was a lipsticked bat with knee-length leather boots, a sassy, femme fatale always teasing Knuckles – the dread-locked echidna always punching the air and grunting to show his strength. Although she had her shortcomings, being on the dark-side of the game’s narrative, Rouge was perhaps one of the first feminist video game characters I encountered.

Following my Sonic and Mario phases, there was a period where Harvest Moon took over much of my Friday nights. I loved this game; it had a slightly surreal, old-fashioned atmosphere, with its sweet music and appealing graphics, but reflecting back the gender question is pretty damning. You played a young man who ran a farm, and got to grow your own crops, milk your own cows and keep the village tramp, Murray, out of your food-stash. Moreover, one of the central aims of the game was to choose and court a wife. There were three options, each embodying female stereotypes of a sort. First there is Celia, the warm-hearted farm-girl who can be easily wooed by presenting her with flowers. She is a bit pathetic; she wasn’t even offended when I gave her a bit of ragwort. Then there was Muffy, the blonde barmaid in a red-dress with a ‘fun’ personality. I don’t think I have to elaborate much further there. Lastly, Nami, a kind of New Age type with vivid red hair, who was a bit more interesting – a wandering traveller. The whole ‘wooing’ process, looking back, is a bit farcical – not just quaint but pretty hilarious – but I realise that maybe for the young children to whom this game was designed, playing a game that trains you to court a wife by giving her flowers is probably not the healthiest of socialisation processes. On that note, there was a Harvest Moon game where you got to play a girl, but I couldn’t comment as I have never played it.

A similar style of game to Harvest Moon is Animal Crossing, where you owned a house in a village of charismatic animals. The chief aim of the game was to pay off your mortgage, a fact that you were constantly reminded of by the maddening presence of Tom Nook, the local entrepreneur who you are forever in debt to. Animal Crossing lets you play either a boy or girl protagonist, and I would argue is a little bit more deconstructive in its representation of gender roles. At least, it gives you a lot more power over your character. Gender is less prominent – although the villagers occasionally make stereotypical comments, Tom Nook is patronising to your character whether you are a boy or a girl and the hair salon allows you to experiment with an array of bizarre hairstyles which undercut traditional gendered appearances. Playing Animal Crossing allows you to feel in control, to experiment. You can even design your own t-shirts, and decorate your home with a myriad of furniture (at a cost). No, I think this game would be better read from a Marxist perspective (Tom Nook as evil petit-bourgeois tyrant).

This leads me finally on to the more obviously problematic gender representations in games like Grand Theft Auto and all the racing titles. Women are stereotypical, red-dressed, often voiceless prostitutes (indeed, ‘picking up’ is often part of the storyline), or else draped over flash cars, offered as rewards for race-winning but never racing themselves. Indeed, I’m sure there was one game where the amount of money you had from winning races determined the kind of ‘girlfriend’ you could have. Persistently, women are absent from the action except as hyper-sexualised commodities. 

What seems consistent in the very different games that I played throughout my childhood is both their underrepresentation of women and their portrayal of women as objects. In Mario, the princess is the goal object, spurring the player onto the next level. In Harvest Moon, women are presented merely as potential brides, whose courting is in itself a ‘level’ to be achieved. In the more violent (and should I say 18+) games, women are basically sexual commodities to be bought and abandoned at the player’s will. In Sonic, female characters have more autonomy, but still fall back into stereotypical roles: helpless, childish lover-girl and femme fatale. Perhaps only Animal Crossing offered a bit of transgression of rigid gender binaries, with its largely asexual characters and emphasis on player choice in terms of outfits and style.

My readings, I’ll admit, are of course narrow, and perhaps all of the games have now not only changed with the times (it’s been a good few years since I’ve picked up a game console) but even the ones I played may have had exceptions to the gendered rule. The point of this article is to flag up the more obvious problems video-games present for feminism, in reproducing highly-conventional stereotypes in their representation of female characters. Achieving gender equality is difficult when children and adults are like are literally immersed in virtual realities where characterisations mirror all too vividly the limited representations of gender that have for decades pervaded society. Art and life are always going to bounce off one another, and this is why, reflecting back now with the maturity of a critical mind, I am able to realise the stereotypes I was exposed to – stereotypes which back then probably seemed normal and natural. I am sure there are numerous games which dissolve stereotypes in their representation of gender, and maybe Lara Croft could be a postmodern feminist icon. I won’t know until I play.

Read more:

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/art-imitating-life-how-sexism-in-video-games-mirrors-reallife-gender-imbalance-8381426.html