Reality TV’s Enduring Racism (and Other Proclivities)

Sometimes, reality TV lives up to its name and casts “by the numbers”. Most of the time, however, it casts according to race and sexual orientation.

Since their launch onto the American television landscape (c. 2000, with the debut of season one of Survivor), the great appeal of reality TV programs have been their promise of unpredictability.

For various generations raised on television (which, at the moment, is almost everyone), so many fictional series had, by the time of reality TV’s arrival, become so predictable that it created a chasm large enough for reality to root itself and foster, offering up an unexpected type of TV where villains often triumphed (see: Richard Hatch in Survivor‘s first season), “good guys” had feet of clay, and “right” and “wrong” became irreparably muddled.

But now, after almost 15 years on the air, even reality TV is decaying by clinging too closely to a few badly aging tropes. This is most evident in the casting aspects of various shows, where a handful of “types” have made even the newest of reality programs seem like just another rerun.

Certainly, MTV’s Real World, in some ways the granddaddy of reality TV, has been casting its yearly group of “seven strangers” according to a strict template for many years. Every season we always have to have the Hot White Hunk for the tween girls to swoon over. But just in case Hunk #1 is considered too good looking to some, too remote, the producers always hedge their bets and cast that Secondary White Hunk, one that’s a little more accessible and a little less threatening. His job is to attract the devotion of the girls not soaked up by Hot White Guy #1.

Once these two studs have been cast, the Real World planners then set their sights on finding that season’s “Julie”. The “Julie” character, named for the young, brown-haired Southern-bred dancer from the show’s inaugural season way back in 1992, is always that season’s innocent, the one that’s relatively new to the “big city” and via whom we are supposed to learn about “life” and, you know, minorities and stuff.

Then the overt tokenism sets in. To round out the cast the show needs: the one black guy, the one black girl, and the one gay guy. A few other popular types of various “other” ethnicities will round out the group, followed then by maybe a stereotypical “punk” or “bad boy” tossed in for good measure and additional internet discussion.

The Real World has had such success with this formula of typecasting for so long that they seem to show no desire to, as yet, divert from their standard recipe.

Meanwhile, other reality shows have followed suit. CBS’s Big Brother is now a (sometimes controversial) summer TV institution. Every season a certain tried-and-true predictability is evident in their casting, too. It’s not just that everyone is usually relatively young and pretty and single (the better for potential hook-ups and “showmances”); the larger problem is that a certain tokenism wins out. The possible reasons behind it still says something unsettling about both TV and those of us who watch it.

For example, in the history of Big Brother there has never been in any of their seasons more than one black man per cast or, for that matter, more than one African-American woman. Though African-Americans are always cast, they are always, basically, one of a kind on the show, alone when it comes to others of their same sex and race.

Similarly, though openly homosexual men have been welcomed on the show since its second season, they too always seem to be cast only as single, one-off entities. So far, in Big Brother history, no two gay men have ever occupied the house at the same time.

These issues are not just limited to Big Brother. Both CBS’s Survivor and MTV’s aforementioned Real World also seem to cast their respective seasons with a checklist that allows only one black man, one black woman, and/or one gay/lesbian person per season. Though there has been some exceptions to this unwritten rule, they have been few and far between, extremely rarely have we seen any sort of “double occupancy” when it comes to the races and sexual preferences of show participants.

The producers of these shows can, of course, fall back on certain statistics. If 13 percent of America is black (according to the most recent US Census) and 1 in 10 adults is gay or bisexual (per a popular, oft-cited statistic), then the small groups of people that make up the casts of these shows can be considered, at least in a mathematical sense, as representative of the nation. One can almost hear the producers shout it out as a defense: “What do you mean, ‘Tokenism?’ Our casts look just like America!”

But when has TV, reality TV especially, ever cared about representing anyone or anything accurately? Hence, what is Big Brother, et.al., trying to say or do with their careful, racially hyper-specific casting and limited LGBT selections? What are they afraid of?

Do networks fear that the presence of too many black cast members run the risk of rebranding their series, of turning these general audience programs into “black shows,” better suited for BET or the old CW than, say, CBS? And what if the presence of more than one person of color on a show causes them to align along racial lines for an in-show alliance? How will this play out and come across and will it exacerbate the sometimes already simmering racial tensions that get played out in these on-air games? (Again, see last season’s racial tensions in the Big Brother house.)

If so, it wasn’t something Survivor seemed to worry about back in their 13th season on New Zealand’s Cook Islands, which began with their tribes divided up by ethnic backgrounds.

And what of LGBT tokenism? I think the reasoning behind this norm is a little more obvious. Networks and producers are probably, even in 2014, fearful of the gay romance or the potential gay hook-up. While homosexual romance might be tolerable on smaller cable channels like Bravo or on family-oriented sitcoms like Modern Family (where, in terms of the latter, male-male sexuality can be carefully staged and controlled), the thought of it playing out on the unscripted air is just too much for some TV executives to want to face.

Ultimately, these precautions are foolish at best and more sinister at worst. Other reality shows, Project Runway, for example, have featured more than one gay person at a time and those shows have never devolved to crude oversexualization.

Of course, part of the appeal of reality TV has always been the mixing up of different people—different sexes, races, backgrounds, economic levels—and throwing them altogether to see what sort of fireworks erupt—if any do at all. This is the basic idea behind everything from Real World to Wife Swap. But if these shows are supposed to be, in some sense, something of a social experiment, then they habitually defeat their own purpose. An experiment that is this controlled isn’t an experiment at all. And when it’s this excluding to so many people, it actually becomes something else: discrimination.