Ethiopian-born Contestant Shows the True Colors of Israel's 'Big Brother'

Tahunia Rubel symbolizes the current state of that genre of TV shows: Hanging on by the skin of its teeth.

Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam
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Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam

“Big Brother” is dead, they tell me: This is a boring season, there’s no one to love, everyone is nasty, nothing happens. And moreover, reality TV is dead. “A Star Is Born” ‏(the local version of “American Idol”‏) is dead. “The Voice” isn’t interesting: They’ve run out of singers. “Master Chef” is too treacly. “The Amazing Race” isn’t taking off. “The Bachelor” isn’t getting married. “Blind Date” has run its course, and this season’s “Survivor” won’t be able to outdo the “Survivor V.I.P.” series.

So how you do explain the almost-40 percent ratings for Keshet’s “Big Brother” − twice a week? Is there nothing else to watch? No, I don’t think that’s the situation. People simply crave the proverbial tribal campfire, seek it out and always find it. Shared love is awesome, but shared hate will also do. And nobody symbolizes the current state of the genre in general better than Tahunia Rubel on “Big Brother,” who is to say, hanging in there, but by the skin of her teeth.

I don’t watch Channel 20, which broadcasts the show 24/7, because honestly, there is a limit, but even I, who tries ‏(with partial success‏) to miss shows at every opportunity, have noticed that this is the season of Tahunia, the gorgeous Nubian princess. Or as my partner likes to call her: Petunia.

The truth is, it’s a little unfair to the other tenants. She has a superb starting-off point: a big mouth, divine figure, presence ‏(aggressive, passive and active tendencies‏), a moving life story ‏(born in Ethiopia, raised in poverty‏); she’s a street cat ‏(during the big prank, when the show’s producers tried to convince the tenants that a second house existed, she sussed out the fraud by means of the quality of the manicure of the actress who was sent in‏), and also someone who we have learned in recent weeks is capable of being not only a freedom fighter or a depressive who hides under the covers, but also an innocent and happy little person.

The controversial complexion and the guilty feelings that spur so many text messages certainly haven’t hurt, at least where part of the population is concerned. And the abuse and criticism she suffered in the beginning − whether unjustified ‏(the racist comments of the Miley family‏) or justified ‏(she yells, good Lord, she yells!‏) − certainly inspired empathy for her early on, and helped position Tahunia as someone in need of protection from the viewers at home, from the tenants ‏(the sane ones‏) in the house, and from the producers, who keep scrupulous watch over her and make a point of showing her when she’s in a regretful mood ‏(“I see myself now and I am disgusted by myself to the point of, like, yechh.”‏)

It’s all true, but there is something more to her. It’s precisely the certain something that is lacking from reality TV. Something new. Or rather, a lack that demands to be fulfilled.

There is demand in the TV viewers’ market, perhaps mainly in the female market, for someone like Tahunia. We’ve met strong and beautiful women before on the show; one of them even won the first season. We’ve met strong and assertive women like Frida Hecht, for example, but she did not break down, get devoured or express weakness so spectacularly ‏(yes, even when she cries, she is beautiful‏). But we had yet to meet a woman so strong she doesn’t give an inch, who is constantly waging a battle − against the other tenants, against prejudice, against herself − and who combines such feminine vulnerability with such masculine resolve. Or perhaps it would be better to say violence.

Tahunia isn’t a team player, and Tahunia isn’t a friend, and she doesn’t listen to anyone except herself. “I could care less.” “I don’t feel like it.” “That’s not gonna happen,” she keeps saying ‏(or shouting‏). “I don’t give a crap,” she says. “Even if I have to live here like a lone wolf, I’ll live here like a lone wolf.”

She simply refuses to play the game, maybe because it isn’t a game to her: She is fighting for her life, for her identity. Maybe that is why we identify with her so much. We too are royally fed up with the game, with the Big Brother on television and often also with the one in real life. And we too are trapped inside, and what else can we do but scream?

Tahunia reminds me of Tinkertank, the heroine of the children’s book, “Tinkertank,” by the divine Nurit Zarchi, ‏(with dazzling illustrations by David Polonsky‏). It opens with the words, “Move, move, Tinkertank is coming!” ‏(or, as Anat, the annoying lesbian, says to Tahunia: “You’re like a ticking bomb!”‏).

To make a short story shorter, Tinkertank is banished from fairyland after breaking three clouds and the fairy queen’s birthday cake. “I think I’m by mistake,” Tinkertank tells an expert, a professor, on Earth. “If I’m heavy, why am I a fairy and if I’m a fairy, why am I heavy?” The man enters the data in a calculator: “fairy, thinks, wants, gets confused, gets scared, takes off, laughs, collides, is excited, stubborn, cries, lands, fast, slow, heavy ... Eureka!” shouts the professor. “She’s actually a little girl!”

Can Tahunia win? I’m afraid at the moment she can’t. To beat Bijo, the kind-hearted Georgian, Yaniv the empathetic-intelligent guy, and Levana, the lesbian with a heart of gold − she will apparently have to do something about herself, see someone other than herself, undergo some change beyond acknowledging her faults. And, to get back to Tinkertank ‏(let me get back to Tinkertank, please!‏), she must carry out a scientific survey: In other words, study the world outside and decide whether she wants to be part of it.

“And do you think I’ll fit in?” Tinkertank asks the professor one final question. “Oh, of course. All little girls ask themselves that question.”

So it could be that reality TV is dead. It almost certainly needs some refreshing, a new − or at least not overused − format, something that will keep us glued to the screen and not because there is no other choice. Something that will give us the sense of unity that is so lacking here, something refreshing and summery and only semi-used. Like a little social protest, for example. Because if that doesn’t work, we will have no choice but to go to war. In any case there isn’t anything to watch on television. But hey, pass the remote, there’s a new season of “Being Erika.” Life is good.

Tahunia Rubel.Credit: Patrick Lindblom / Sleek MakeUP

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