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Bucking a growing academic trend, I am not one to see reality TV as a microcosm of American society. Mainly because, unlike reality TV, real life doesn’t come with hosts, commercial breaks, “physical challenges”, immunity idols and other reality show staples. But the current season of CBS’s Big Brother (and many of its prior seasons as well) has me re-thinking some of my stance.
By now you’ve probably heard about the rampant and ugly racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments that are being made in the house by various “houseguests” this season. It’s alarming on a variety of levels: that in this day and age people still hold such cruel and backward thoughts; that they are so open and willing to share them especially when they know they are microphoned 24 hours a day; that no other houseguest has chosen to challenge them on their views; and that CBS is, by and large, taking such a laid-back approach to the entire situation.
Though not quite as disturbing as all this hate speech this season, other typically unsavory elements of the game/house have, once again, come to the fore.
Big Brother, like its more high-rent relative Survivor, is a show about alliances. If you want to make it to the end of these contests, you better work with at least a couple of other people along the way. But what is noteworthy about the variety of successful alliances that have formed over the years on various seasons of BB is how they almost always divide along gender lines. Secret or not, the game always devolves into men vs. women. So far, on this season of Big Brother, a five-member all-male alliance has already emerged. Shocking, I know! This same dynamic also often occurs on MTV’s endless, seemingly indestructible Challenge franchise (a regular series made up of former cast members of Real World and the now defunct Road Rules series which pit various “returnees” against each other for eventual prize money). On Challenge, too, often quite early on, the game also becomes the “guys” vs. “girls” with male cast members often speaking of their female co-competitors in the most vile and reductive terms possible.
What this seems to suggest—at least to me—is that despite our public faces and statements to the contrary, deep down (or maybe not so deep down), the two sexes still don’t trust each other or, for that matter, even seem to like each other that much beyond basic procreational needs and pleasures. But as alarming as this self-imposed division of the sexes might be, so too are some other “givens” about what results from them.
At least on reality TV, men tend to form alliances first, and far more frequently than women do. And the women, rather than uniting in sisterhood to take on any all-male, anti-woman opposing force, instead, usually just turn on each other. And, sadly, often their reasoning to take down fellow female competitors are straight out of a Mean Girls playbook—one of the other girls is considered too pretty, one is too popular, one too friendly with the guys. Hence, she has to go! If feminism is dead or close to non-existent on all the Housewives shows and many other catty reality programs (Bad Girls Club, Pretty Wicked Moms, et al), it isn’t any more alive on Big Brother, MTV Challenge or other competitive reality fare.
And speaking of male alliances… interesting as well is that no matter how many gay men might be in the mix (in the house, in the cast) they almost always get omitted from any of the all male teams mentioned above. These teams, at least unofficially, are only for male heterosexuals. Eric, a married, muscle bound fire fighter, who was a contestant on the sixth season of Big Brother, said as much early in his season when he was attempted to build a all-male alliance which purposely did not include fellow competitor Beau who was openly gay. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the girls!” is what Eric had to say on the matter. If we have yet to have trust or respect for the opposite sex, we also haven’t gotten any closer to truly tolerating those with “alternate” lifestyles either. We can give them the right to get married, but we still don’t consider them “one of us”.
Of course, there never seems to be more than one gay man at a time on a Big Brother cast anyway. Since the beginning, their yearly casts have never included more than one gay man or one lesbian; it’s an either/or position. Similarly, African-American or other minority characters are also limited to one per season. Is this tokenism? It certainly is. Do the casting directors sit there with a check list and once they find their required singular black or gay, simply dismiss the rest? It sure seems that way, like they’re saying, “No thanks, we’ve got our one, we got our ‘other’.”
MTV’s Real World has followed this strict casting formula since it began way back in 1992. With rare exception each season’s group has been careful to contain only one black man, one black woman, one gay man and/or one gay woman. Duos need not apply. (The series also likes to cast its white cast members along certain lines too—one uber-hunk; one slightly less handsome but still cute male hottie; one hot chick ;and one cute but slightly innocent child-woman, the latter the “Julie” persona for that season.) With such limited “diversity” being practiced one wonders is this really diversity at all?
Sadly as well, until we viewers learn the names of particular players on the show we usually refer to them, in water cooler talk or in e-mails, via the use of racial and lifestyle shorthand—the “black guy”, the “black chick”, the “gay guy”. Though to be fair, visual superficiality serves as the identifier of everyone in the beginning as everyone get tags with monikers like “the blond”, the “hunk”, or “the “fat one”, etc.
Though reality TV’s modern incarnation—which I date to debut of Survivor in 2000—is a relatively new phenomenon, making it TV’s newest genre on the block, the behaviors of many of the people who produce it and participate in it shows that it’s far from modern and certainly not progressive at least not in the way it often plays out over the airwaves. In fact, sometimes, it’s as sadly old-school and “throw-back” as you can get, and not in a good way.
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POSTSCRIPT: In keeping with its well-worn motto to “expect the unexpected”, so far this season Big Brother has delivered a few surprises that have managed to buck its own history. Though an early all-male alliance was formed, it has already petered out (as most of these early alliances tend to do). Though most of the current alliances are not gender specific, various women within this season’s house do seem to be emerging as the show’s major power players and be working together effectively. Notably, as of this writing, the first three evictees from the house have all been young and male.
Unfortunately, little change has occurred in regard to the racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and sexist comments that this group of houseguests has indulged in off and on during the season. Hopefully, with time, however, that sad, new tradition will also be expelled from the series.
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