© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Big Brother' Isn't Just A Terrible Show, It's A Wasted Opportunity

Houseguest Judd makes a toast during the season premiere of <em>Big Brother</em>.
Cliff Lipson
Houseguest Judd makes a toast during the season premiere of Big Brother.

Here's how Big Brotherworks.

Producers throw a bunch of people into a house, where they're stuck for about three months. All day and all night, they're watched by cameras, and they can be watched online — these are the so-called "live feeds," which are sort of like watching the security cameras in the most boring juice bar in Los Angeles. (I wrote about touring the house in 2010; it's very creepy.)

Three nights a week, CBS edits together some of the footage and creates the prime-time television show Big Brother, which obviously includes only a tiny percentage of what they've collected. Of course, the difference between this show and other reality shows is the measure of transparency: people who watch the live feeds (and yes, a significant number of people watch them, meticulously log them, and discuss them all summer) know a lot more about what happened than what's put on the broadcast, and they can get very angry when they feel like the editing has hidden the truth.

But this isn't the only thing that distinguishes this particular show. More and more, Big Brother has set itself apart by the sheer average hatefulness levels among its casts. Shows like Survivoralways combine a few jerks with a good number of normals, because those are the people you're supposed to root for, and they're the ones who often win. Big Brotherdoesn't really bother with the normals anymore, nor does it bother with many people who don't look good in bikinis.

If you think about it, most reality shows require a commitment of maybe a month; Big Brotherrequires that you be able to be locked up all summer. That, too, encourages it to be full of idle people who don't really do anything with their lives to begin with. There are exceptions, but the rule is that people are on Big Brother specifically because nobody and nothing will miss them. They don't have the desire of Amazing Race contestants to see the world, or of Survivorcontestants to compete physically and try life out in the elements. They just want to sit here, on television, on a big set, doing nothing.

But in the last few seasons especially, it's become a regular ritual that every summer, people watching the live feeds report on breathtaking examples of racist, sexist, homophobic, and other outbursts that you can clearly watch if you're a feed viewer but that you will never see if you're tuning in on television.

Reality television blogger Andy Dehnart is among those who have followed this issue over the last few years, and he's actually asked executive producer Alison Grodner why racist rants are cut from the show in ways that sanitize players' behavior for broadcast watchers. Her argument was that when people say things that the producers "don't necessarily agree with and condone and want to put out there further," they don't show them. "And so for the most part, when this goes down," she said, "we keep that out of the show."

Whether or not you want to swallow that explanation of the motive for excising bigotry from the broadcast version of the show, the effect is to perpetuate a pernicious untruth: that the producers throw a variety of largely shallow, thoughtless people from different ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations into a house, lock them up for three months, and ask them to play a social game with a huge amount of real money at stake, andthose differences never come up, and even behind closed doors, in secret, when they're whispering at night, that kind of ugliness doesn't come out.

If you've been following this issue this season — which is only a couple of weeks old! — you know that there have already been reports of what Dehnart deemed "a torrent of racist, sexist and homophobic comments" from "almost half the cast." They include racial slurs (including, yes, some n-words), a couple of angry references to an Asian cast member suggesting she should go cook some rice, gay slurs, comments about a black woman making a bed smell bad (in which she was referred to as "black Candice" in case anyone missed it), references to not being able to see a black woman in the dark, and comments that black players were "tokens" who would always stick together. That's not all of it, but it's some of it.

It's not just that it sanitizes people who deserve scorn when this stuff doesn't make the show, though it does that. It's that it creates an actively dishonest narrative about the roles of race, class, gender and sexuality in the ways that people act in frivolous but also dead-serious situations in which they are frivolously grabbing for attention but dead-seriously trying to win a lot of money. What makes a show like Survivor, for instance, fun is figuring out the personal dynamics that cause rifts between people or bonds between them. And when race comes up on Survivor, they're not afraid to show it — they've done it. They've talked about how it affects relationships. They have people talk about tensions that come up over sexuality and gender and religion as well.

It's completely dishonest, even by the standards set by other similar competition shows, if they're removing the fact that people are making all kinds of racist comments about Candice, for instance, when they present the story of how she gets along with the group. Nobody who thinks black women smell bad can turn around and interact with them as if he doesn't. Nobody who calls you "Kermit the F-g" is otherwise treating you the same way they'd treat anybody else.

Removing this stuff leaves a giant sucking void where the prejudices in play here should rightfully be, and makes it appear that personalities are simply clashing, or that strategies are in conflict, when in fact, part of the reason some of these people don't get along with or don't trust the cast members of color may be that some of them are racists.The same goes for some of the men in their dealings with women and some of the straight people in their dealings with some of the gay people. Where that's the case, it's wrong to hide that; it's wrong to lie about it; it's important not to. It's incredibly unfair, for instance, to put a black woman in the house and make it look like she's not fighting people's preexisting prejudices when you know she is, or to put a gay man in the house and make it look like everybody's cool with him when you know they're not. It's bad enough to pack your cast with jerks; it's quite another to conceal the burdens you've put on the people those jerks treat poorly.

Bizarrely enough, this currently hideous exercise has the capacity to be interesting, because the cameras are on these people so much, so relentlessly, for so long, that they really do have no choice but to give in and act in ways they would really act. People might be able to hold back for as long as they're on TV for Top Chef or even The Amazing Race, but when you're in a human terrarium for 24 hours a day for months, people eventually see who you really are. And if a part of a person's pedestrian foolishness and superficiality regularly includes bigotry, it's a lie to say it doesn't; it's a lie to protect those comments from being revealed as a part of what drives the personal dynamics on the show.

It's seeing the way these underlying assumptions are woven into day-to-day interactions of respect, trust, social bonds, and other matters that ultimately casts some light on how they work in the real world. Live feed viewers pick up on really interesting things sometimes — they've been talking about the fact that a white woman who's been making nasty, racially insensitive remarks about a black woman behind her back stopped in the middle of an argument between them to correct her that it's "ask," not "ax", for instance. That — the analysis, not the comment — is kind of great stuff, sociologically speaking, if you're looking at the ways that prejudices creep into conversations that seem not to be about race. This is how it really works in a lot of situations; people know what they're supposed to say, and then there are the things they say to their friends when they're mad. There's the overt and the covert, and if you watch people for hours and hours — silly as it sounds — you'll ultimately see both.

It's a really dumb show, but it doesn't have to be evil. Nobody assumes the show is endorsing the rest of these dopey people's comments and behaviors and approaches to being a human being. It's not necessary to snip out this stuff. And, in fact, it's better not to.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.