Big Gay Brother
It was the most family-friendly Big Brother yet and still viewers voted an openly gay man as the winner. What does Benjamin Norris’ win say about Australian television, the broader public and the LGBT community? Mitchell Neems explores.
For many, the news that Channel Nine was resurrecting the once-mighty, perpetually criticised reality show Big Brother, was met with a quiet wave of concern and cringe. In its nine seasons, the flagship program has been responsible for all manner of controversies and introduced the nation to characters like Reggie Bird, the Tasmanian fish and chip doyenne and buxom bum-dancer Sara-Marie Fedele. But one thing it had failed to do was crown a gay winner. Until now.
When Benjamin Norris was crowned winner of Big Brother 2012, he created history in Australia. His triumph, on the same day that America re-elected its first president to ever openly endorse same-sex marriage, appears to be further proof that Australia has come to the big gay party. For what is Big Brother but a popularity contest? Politicians have long cowered behind unfounded assertations that same-sex marriage was not the prevailing wish of the people, but Ben’s win must surely inflict at least a chink in that rusting armour.
After all, Big Brother is a mainstream television show, averaging around one million viewers per episode and routinely winning its timeslot in ratings in the key advertising demographics of 16-39 and 18-49. Early estimates say 1.473 million people watched the winner’s announcement across Australia’s five capital cities – a figure that is expected to increase once regional viewership is included.
Add to that the fact that Nine has managed what many thought impossible in repositioning Big Brother as something of a family-oriented program – a move most notably signalled by its doing away with the scandal-plagued ‘adults only’ program – and the significance of Ben’s win becomes clearer. Here is an openly gay, often camp man, in a committed relationship, who has won a well-known, culturally-relevant reality television series that was repackaged to be family-friendly and is judged purely on personality, in a time when support for same-sex marriage has never been higher.
Of course, those who oppose same-sex marriage are likely not to be Big Brother’s target audience. Australian Marriage Equality statistics show support for same-sex marriage is 80 per cent among people under 24, but only 46 per cent among those over 50.
Beyond the routinely trotted-out statistics though, Ben has put a very human – and very popular face – on the same-sex debate. In a house hand-picked on stereotypes and engineered for maximum conflict and conjugation, Ben somehow managed to walk the line between being an undeniably camp gay man and the gentle soul of the group. For all his twirls and tantrums, he was an intelligent, complex and confident man; renowned for his love of gossip in the house, but also his sound guidance. His presence in the house – and though his status as the only gay housemate could be viewed as tokenism, Ben proved early on was not going to be simply ‘the gay housemate’ – exposed mainstream Australia to a gay man in ways that in the past would have perhaps been considered quite confronting.
In his interview with Sonia Kruger after the announcement, a near speechless Ben proclaimed to be ‘humbled’ by the victory. The victory capped off a ten-year process for Ben, who first applied for Big Brother in 2002 when he was 22 and ‘not fully out of the closet’. “The only way I could do it was come in here and be myself, warts and all,” he said.
At its exhilarating best and its cringe-worthy worst, Big Brother has been a mirror to the national psyche, and at last our reflection is looking more tolerant than ever before. While Big Brother and politicians share a rocky history – in 2006, then Prime Minister John Howard called for the program to axed in the wake of the ‘turkey slap’ incident – Canberra may be wise to sit up and pay attention to Ben’s triumph. If nothing else it’s a litmus test of the nation’s attitude to the LGBT community, and likely just as accurate a reflection of the national pulse as the various polls politicians now seem to live and die by.
For as jubilant as his victory was, Ben’s surprise proposal to his partner on live national television, also shone a spotlight on the disparity between popular views and policy.
Despite this, Ben’s triumph is a triumph for the LGBT community. One to revel in and draw strength from as the march to full equality inches forward. Coming as it did on the coat-tails of President Obama’s re-election and record high support within the community, it certainly speaks to mainstream media and society’s willingness to truly embrace the LGBT community and same-sex marriage. It won’t be the silver bullet that eradicates intolerance and homophobia once and for all, maybe such a bullet doesn’t even exist, but queer historians and observers may very well recall it as a watershed moment in the history of LGBT popular culture in Australia.