Alexandra Burke and the trouble with reality TV and race

Hannah Ellis-Petersen
Alexandra Burke and Gorka Marquez on Strictly Come Dancing. They find themselves repeatedly in the bottom two. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC/PA

Few contestants have dominated the Strictly Come Dancing dancefloor like Alexandra Burke has this year. She received the first 10 of the season for her jive to Tina Turner’s Proud Mary, performed a flawless, Mary Poppins-themed charleston and impressed the judges with her salsa and her Viennese waltz.

Despite her technical brilliance, Burke has found herself repeatedly in the bottom two – as voted for by the British public. And some observers have perceived a contempt for her, from both the media and the public, that is unlike anything directed towards her fellow contestants.

This week Burke received an apology from the BBC Radio 2 presenter Chris Evans over the fact that she had been in the bottom two the week before. “I would like to apologise on behalf of Great Britain because we forgot to vote for you,” said Evans to Burke, who revealed that Strictly had told her people didn’t vote for her because they presumed she was safe.

But alongside that benign explanation for her underperformance is another more troubling interpretation – and one that has nagged televised popularity contests ever since the early days of Big Brother. By this argument, Burke’s surprising difficulties are linked to deeply rooted racial anxieties that will not go away.

Burke and Marquez. Burke has been branded a ‘diva’ and ‘difficult’ by the media. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC/PA

Despite Ore Oduba taking the Strictly crown last year, accusations of unconscious voter racism have long plagued the show, particularly after the row caused by the successive departures of black contestants Tameka Empson and Melvin Odoom. Subsequent analysis by the Guardian demonstrated that being black or minority ethnic increased a contestant’s chances of being in the bottom two by 71%, and being both black and female increased those odds by 83%.

Kehinde Andrews, a sociology professor at Birmingham City University and the co-editor of Blackness in Britain, said it was unsurprising that the British public were uncomfortable voting for Burke to win Strictly, a show beloved for promoting family values and a sense of British national identity, which many still see as being at odds with multiculturalism and diversity.

“Every time you see one of these reality shows, you see they get ethnically cleansed very quickly,” said Andrews. “These shows speak to how black and ethnic minority people are viewed with suspicion across Britain.”

Burke may have been the highest scoring contestant of the competition but across the media she has repeatedly been branded a “diva” and a “difficult” contestant, who “can’t stop bickering” and “screaming” at her dance partner, Gorka Marquez. It was then alleged that she went into “meltdown” after finding herself in the bottom two once again last Sunday, forcing Burke to issue a denial of the “fake” report.

Some observers said Joanna Jarjue, a contestant on The Apprentice, had received similar treatment before she was fired this week, having been persistently presented as unusually argumentative and aggressive. Lucy Mckeown, a makeup artist, tweeted:

When Jarjue left the show she said she was grateful to everyone “who has supported me, been rooting for me and seen beyond a narrative”.

Andrews said Burke’s characterisation in some parts of the media was typical. “We shouldn’t be surprised that this is what’s happened on Strictly,” he said. “The diva script is one of the only scripts that is put across on TV for reading black women.”

Melanie Hill, a mixed-race female contestant on the first series of Big Brother, said that she had experienced similar prejudice when she was on the show and added that misogyny often went together with racial stereotypes.

“It was all interwoven with sexuality from the beginning,’ said Hill. “The video clip of the show that I couldn’t escape was of me getting unchanged in the bedroom. It was the same behaviour as everyone else, it’s not like I was doing striptease, but it was my bum that got singled out.

“It felt like they wanted to reduce me to this stereotype of a overly sexual, aggressive mixed-race woman. And the press had a complete field day with me being this despised ‘black widow’. I was called a preying mantis. It was all so sexually loaded which couldn’t be further my own view of my own identity.”

It was a similar experience for Makosi Musambasi, a contestant on Big Brother 6, who described how she had entered the show believing people would see her for who she was, an articulate, well-educated nurse, and had been shocked to find on leaving the show that the focus was entirely on her as a “sexy black woman with big boobs”.

Makosi Musambasi, sixth from right, with the rest of the housemates on Channel 4’s Big Brother 6. Photograph: Channel 4/PA

“When I did it, it was awful. I just wanted to hide away after,” said Musambasi. “I realised people really can’t accredit anything else to black women but her body and in the Big Brother house there was no place for me as a smart black woman. They brought me into the house for my boobs and the script they had always intended for me was as a sexy black woman. The editing made that obvious – they showed me in the shower more than any other contestant, male or female.”

In a damning piece for Black Ballad, its editor, Tobi Oredein, described how this series of Strictly had once again seen flawed and damaging stereotypes foisted on a black reality TV contestant. “The ‘problem’ the public has with Alexandra Burke exposes the hypocrisy and racism that still has tight grip around the neck of the British nation,” she said.

Oredein said the treatment of Burke was indicative of how some members of the British public remained uncomfortable with a black woman outperforming the white contestants. “Alexandra is a self-assured black woman who is infiltrating a world of entertainment that is seen as an extremely white space,” she added.

“To the British public, how can this black woman be better than her white counterparts, show emotion and be beautiful?”

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