How Courtney Act in the Celebrity Big Brother house is shifting the public mindset on gender and sexuality

Drag and activism: how Courtney Act is shifting the public mindset on gender and sexuality

credit: Magnus Hastings

Former star of RuPaul's Drag Race has proved to be a positive force on CBB

After close to two decades of Big Brother and its many spin-off series, the debates surrounding the value and prominence of reality TV in our lives rages on. Some believe that we've reached a point of saturation as a result of the increasing number of scripted and unscripted shows that regularly appear on our screens, from fly-on-the-wall dramas like Made in Chelsea to nationwide competitions like X Factor and The Great British Bake Off. The appeal largely lies in the community aspect of watching, the idea of being invested heavily in someone's story, career or indeed, life. But such shows have also fuelled criticism for their potential harm to younger viewers, with some politicians and figures even blaming reality TV for having a negative affect on the aspirations of young people.

Though Big Brother has held a significant position in UK popular culture for some time, it's true that this has been dwindling, especially with the rise in competition for ratings. Nevertheless, when it was announced that the new series of Celebrity Big Brother would initially feature only women, in a nod to the 100th anniversary of (some) women winning the right to vote, there was an overall feeling that a shift was occurring in terms of what we consider to be the role of reality TV in our lives. Is it always just about entertainment? Or could its wide appeal be a relevant factor in the shaping of public opinion on important issues?

As the series has progressed, with men eventually entering the house, it's not the drama that has kept people tuning in, it's the range of voices, opinions and discussions taking place on topics such as feminism, LGBT+ rights and the distinction between sex and gender. This has predominantly been heralded by the arrival of drag superstar Courtney Act, also known as Shane Jenek, who has been praised for opening up the public conversation on how gender and sex are perceived and understood.

Drag and activism: how Courtney Act is shifting the public mindset on gender and sexuality

Drag is an art form but it's also activism; a look back at LGBT+ history and culture validates this. Drag queens were at the heart of the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and similarly, the British chapter of the Gay Liberation Front was at the forefront of the the fight for LGBT+ rights in the UK, with drag queens playing a huge role in their most effective action in 1971. The GLF disrupted the launch of the church-based morality campaign Festival of Light at the Methodist Hall in Westminster, with a number of members utilising 'radical drag' to subvert public opinion.

The British public is certainly not unfamiliar with drag, thanks to stars like Lily Savage and Dame Edna, along with the concept of pantomime dames, which have had a long tradition in the theatrical world. It is, however, the arrival and popularity of RuPaul's Drag Race that has really resulted in the art form being taken seriously not just among the LGBT+ community but by the wider public, for whom drag has become more than a form of theatre or comedy. Drag Race is an example of reality TV that legitimately changes lives, having a profound impact not just on the show's contestants but on viewers on the whole. As the Washington Post argued, it's 'more than a TV show. It's a movement.'

Things have unquestionably progressed within film and other areas of TV, from the inclusion of more diverse characters like Laverne Cox's Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black to storylines that deal specifically with LGBT+ history such as Dallas Buyers Club and The Danish Girl. But RuPaul and the queens that have appeared on the show over the years are undoubtedly responsible for the increased tolerance among the public in discussions of sex and gender. So it would make sense then that it would be one of its former stars carrying forward the 'RuPaul effect', shaking up people's mentality in an entirely different realm with arguably, a more conservative audience on board.

Courtney Act first made an impression with Australian audiences, when she appeared on the first season of Australian Idol back in 2003. Her stint on season six of RuPaul's Drag Race catapulted her to worldwide fame, becoming a finalist and fan-favourite in the process. Despite being known for her stunning vocals and always sickening good looks, in recent years, Courtney has picked up an avid following for her insightful social media posts and videos in which she discusses topics ranging from politics to sex with an intelligence that encourages debate and introspection. History is littered with drag queens who have utilised their position as performers and artists to become advocates of change, and as drag increasingly heads towards the mainstream, we are now seeing more queens using their podiums to fight inequality and challenge homophobia, racism and sexism all over the world.

In the short time that Courtney/Shane has been in the Big Brother house, she's legitimately changed people's perceptions of what it means to be gay, trans or a drag queen. Fellow contestant India Willoughby, who is transgender, revealed early on that she had a 'phobia of drag queens' so naturally, when Courtney entered the house, there was an expectation that sparks would fly in typical Big Brother fashion. But the opposite occurred, with Courtney/Shane taking the time to understand India's point of view, while educating the other housemates on sexuality and gender. As Jenek explained in an early exchange with India;

'We know that a lot of people just see us the same and we both know that that's completely incorrect...I think the tricky thing is that my feeling is that gender does exist on a spectrum.'

He then continued the discussion by acknowledging that people's opposition to the idea of gender fluidity is largely down to an unfamiliarity with the concept that there are more than two genders. This conversation continued with other housemates, when they questioned the difference between Courtney and India.

'I think the thing she struggled with is that people might see me and see her and think that we are the same thing', he noted. 'She'd never identified as a drag queen. Drag is more performance-based, hers is about gender identity. She was never a man but she had a male body.'

It may seem like these conversations are inconsequential but they are transformative for many. These kind of discussions don't regularly pop up on mainstream television which is why Courtney Act is such a breath of fresh air for so many viewers of different ages, backgrounds and points of view. A quick search on Twitter reaffirms this:

Big Brother has had trans contestants on the show before, including Nadia, who was the first transgender winner in 2004. But conversations relating to gender fluidity and identity politics have never been aired out in such a manner and in such unambiguous terms. Courtney/Shane is gradually shifting mindsets and turning people's attention to the complexity of gender and sex, without resorting to heated arguments. Celebrity Big Brother may seem like unlikely ally in the push for equality in the UK but it highlights the fact that reality TV is still a dominant force that can be used to positive ends, as previously emphasised by RuPaul's Drag Race. It seems fitting then that drag continues to remain at the heart of LGBT+ activism.

Celebrity Big Brother is on Channel 5, every day at 9pm.

Courtney Act

Australian drag queen, pop singer, entertainer and reality television personality.

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