‘Big Brother’ Afterthoughts: The Season of the Racists?

[9 September 2013]

By Cary O'Dell

Now that the most recent season of CBS’s annual Big Brother summer reality show is over and the “winner” will soon been declared, it might be good to look back at the arch of the season and process it, now that the reality dust has settled.

Despite the fact that some interesting new twists in the game occurred this year—the incorporation of the “MVP” and MVP nomination and, finally, the rising up of some truly decent female pairings and alliances—Big Brother 2013 will no doubt go down in history as the season of the racists.

Of course, it’s a rightful moniker thanks to various houseguests and some of the truly ugly utterances that emerged from their mouths this year during the three-month run of the show. 

Still, I think Big Brother, is getting a bad rap. Attempts to blame the show or its producers for these occurrences obscure a larger issue, turning reality TV into a scapegoat that (this time at least) it doesn’t deserve to be.

First, I find it impossible to believe that out of 20+ seasons of Survivor, The Amazing Race, The Real World and other competitive reality TV shows, this season of Big Brother was the first to feature racist and insensitive contestants. It’s just that, on those other programs, ugly remarks can easily be hidden from viewers by being banished to the editing room floor. Big Brother, though, by its very identity, is a different animal:  here the show is always being broadcast live someplace, hence, the warts and all of its players are far more visible to the public. No one can hide. 

Second, like all “reality” shows, participants are of course cast to create maximum drama and “good TV”. As always, this year, Big Brother producers went out of their way to cast people who were neurotic, narcissistic, loud, unfiltered and seriously uncouth. That said, I doubt part of their casting notice was:  “ALL RACISTS PLEASE APPLY.”

Aaryn, this season’s chief perpetrator of stereotypes and offensive language (though she was not, by any means, the only one), I’m sure was not cast for her potential offensiveness. The petit, young blond was, instead, I’m pretty sure, cast as one of this year’s female “eye candy” contingent. Her ugly, clueless views, which arrived early on, came as a shock and surprise to many viewers. I think they even came as a surprise to show’s producers; the network’s belated and rather clumsy response to her and the comments of other house guests certainly seems to suggest as much.

Therein lines the lesson and sadly, the truth. Hate can come from some unlikely places. The true shock of much of what transpired in that house this past summer isn’t that these words and slurs were necessarily broadcast, but that they were said in the first place, so openly and so freely. 

While life in the Big Brother house can be stressful, the behavior and the statements that occurred weren’t brought on by unusual extremes or by any egging on by the show’s producers. Therefore, to cast the show itself as the responsible party is to kill the messenger. It’s a distraction technique, the way that years ago some tried to indict Jenny Jones (and, by extension, all of talk television) after one of its guests murdered another. 

Yet tragic as that incident was, it wasn’t murder-by-media. Rather, it was a pretty stereotypical and garden variety hate crime, pure and simple. Similarly, attempts to blame Dr. Drew (and, again, reality TV) for the overdose death of various celebrities also clouds the true issue: the deadly seriousness and sheer tenacity of drug addiction.

The incomparable Betty White, when once speaking about the role of television within society, probably put it best. “What’s wrong with it, is what’s wrong with us,” she said. 

Reality TV (its producers and purveyors) didn’t create the racism in evidence this season on Big Brother. They had just found themselves in the unwitting, undesirable role of reminding us that racism still very much alive and well within society today.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/big-brother-afterthoughts/