'Big Brother': The problem with loving 'The Character You Love To Hate'

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Big Brother has been a summertime guilty pleasure for me for years. I’ve skipped some seasons (three episodes a week for nearly three months is not always a commitment I am capable of making), but I couldn’t tell you which ones without consulting Wikipedia. The seasons fade from my memory or blur into fuzzy recollections of other seasons minutes after host Julie Chen announces the results of the final vote and the “Houseguests” wave goodbye to the cameras that spied on their every whisper, argument, cuddle, swim, smoke, flirt, folly and fart for three months.

I remember the rogues best — the characters we love to hate. The smug, showmancy puppet masters of Chilltown. Duplicitous Danielle and her diary room downfall. Demon dad Evel Dick. I watch Big Brother for the soapy sensationalism derived from stupid people plotting intricate conspiracies of lies, betrayal, and emotional abuse to win a week’s worth of power and chase a meager pot of prize money. Last year’s runner-up Dan Gheesling pulled off one of the greatest fork-tongued ass-saving scams in reality show history with a devious deception that involved feigning the appearance of Biblically-inspired contrition and traumatizing his closest ally with phony allegations of treachery. Delicious. It’s like watching the callow hedonists of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers play Mafia for three months, with a couple nerds, geeky professionals, and parents (who clearly need a break from their kids) thrown for diversity, and a dash of humanity.

I never watch Big Brother alone. Much of the fun I get from the experience is talking about the show with friends, like-minded schadenfreuders who love the bloodless UFC of relational violence produced by an increasingly fraying fellowship of morally dubious ding-a-lings. Our emails usually begin: “All of these people are such loathsome idiots!” Okay: Most of my emails begin that way. I love the speed hits of self-righteousness Big Brother gives me. It’s the closest thing I will ever come to vampirism. I want some more. Am I really saying this out loud? No, I can’t defend Big Brother. No, wait: I can. I just choose not to. I simply enjoy the spectacle of watching. I understand my affection for the show does not flatter my humanity. I should probably care. I haven’t. Until now.

Late Monday night, less than a week after CBS launched the 15th season of Big Brother with possibly its biggest, sexiest, most odious and outlandish collection of personalities yet, reports began to spread via social media that several contestants had been expressing racist, homophobic and misogynistic sentiments and language. (The bile and bigotry was viewed by super-fans who choose to watch the show’s live, uncensored Internet feed.) By Tuesday morning, media outlets were posting reports on the controversy, and a former BB contestant, Ragan Fox, called on CBS to use the footage on the network show ASAP. From his website: “‘Big Brother’ I LOVE you, but, if you really want to provide a groundbreaking twist, SHOW CBS VIEWERS HOW SOME STRAIGHT, WHITE PEOPLE talk about gays, Asian Americans, and African Americans…” (Emphasis all his.)

CBS did not hide the fact that viewers were outraged. At least, not from its online followers. At 3:23 pm Tuesday afternoon, these comments — streamed from the show’s Facebook fans — could be found on the show’s official website:

“CBS stop the hatred, bigotry and racist remarks being made by the HG!! I am disgusted that you have allowed the comments to go on this long!!!” By Kim Parr, 7/02/13 @ 03:01PM

“its a sad day in America, CBS should take a hint from the food network” By Mike Brady, 7/02/13 @ 07:56AM

“I strongly encourage CBS to show how horrible these people are and not edit out all the conversations with racist and hateful remarks. I am disappointed in the casting this year. They all seemed so nice in their interviews with Jeff but as soon as they got in the house they started showing their true colors. CBS needs to have a talk with them or just start evicting people” By Deb Knapp, 7/01/13 @ 09:18PM

CBS also issued a statement on Tuesday afternoon:

“BIG BROTHER is a reality show about watching a group of people who have no privacy 24/7 — and seeing every moment of their lives. At times, the Houseguests reveal prejudices and other beliefs that we do not condone. We certainly find the statements made by several of the Houseguests on the live Internet feed to be offensive. Any views or opinions expressed in personal commentary by a Houseguest appearing on BIG BROTHER, either on any live feed from the House or during the broadcast, are those of the individual(s) speaking and do not represent the views or opinions of CBS or the producers of the program.”

On Wednesday morning, a Big Brother fan launched a petition at change.org asking CBS to remove one contestant, Aaryn Gries, 22, from the show. (Number of signatures: 4000 and counting.) Later in the day, Gries was dropped by her modeling agency, and another contestant, GinaMarie Zimmerman, 32, was fired from her job at East Coast USA Pageant. Per Big Brother policy, Gries and Zimmerman will not be told of their change of employment status until after they leave the house.

The unfolding hullaballoo over Big Brother’s latest crop of hateful, hatable Houseguests set the stage for Wednesday night’s live eviction show: Would the producers and Julie Chen acknowledge and discuss the controversy? The answer: Nope. Aside from what seemed to be a knowing comment from Chen (in her introduction, she mentioned that the contestants were beginning to show their “true colors”), Big Brother let the scumminess slide. Justice went unserved. And the fall-out continues. On Saturday, Union Pacific Railroad, which employs BB15‘s Spencer Clawson, 31, released a statement saying that comments made by the contestant  — including gay and misogynist slurs and a qualified defense of Hitler — “do not at all align with Union Pacific’s values.”

In this way, Big Brother produced exactly what a reality show needs to hook fans for the long-haul: A strong crop of ‘characters we love to hate.’ Spencer belongs to a larger alliance of smug and bullying boys called “The Moving Company,” and the much-talked-about Aaryn has been privately dubbed “the biggest bitch in the house” by another contestant (although if that’s true, then it’s not by much; there’s no shortage of jerks this year). We did get to see Aaryn suffer a little bit on Thursday when her showmance with dopey-deluded mop-headed surfer dude David imploded following his ouster. We eagerly await her downfall… but not before a long, dramatic reign. Right?

Was CBS wrong to stay silent? The show was certainly in a no-win situation, albeit one that doesn’t deserve much sympathy. Acknowledging the trashiness of the cast would have risked hurting their appeal, or, conversely, invited criticism that the show was exploiting the controversy. Moreover, showing the offending clips on national television would have only amplified their impact. While I don’t doubt that the “views or opinions expressed the contestants do not represent the views or opinions of CBS or the producers of the program,” I do believe CBS and the producers are responsible for the content they put into the culture…

Although for that very same reason, you could argue that Big Brother should have publicly grappled with the toxic spill of its cast: It’s just the right thing to do. They still might: It’s a long summer, and sooner or later, Aaryn, Spencer, and every single one of the Houseguests will have to sit next to Julie Chen on live television and answer some questions. But there’s a few strong arguments to be made for “sooner.” This season, fans are being allowed to directly influence the show’s narrative and gameplay by voting for an MVP — their pick for the week’s best player. This honor gives the chosen one a significant power: MVPs get to nominate an additional player for eviction, and they get to do so with minimal risk, because the identity of the MVP is kept secret from the other contestants. The winner of the first MVP vote was Elissa, who played a pretty boneheaded game during her first week*, but most likely got the MVP because she’s the near lookalike sister of Rachel Reilly, a certifiable “Big Brother legend” (a distinction the show’s contestants — all of them fans turned players, most well versed in BB history — take seriously and aspire to) and another one of those ‘characters you love to hate’ types. If the MVP award is going to be a popularity contest in which personality or celebrity is a more compelling than game intelligence, then viewers deserve to know just what kind of personality they are honoring. I don’t want to vote for a toxic racist homophobic bully. Do you?

*Elissa tried to hide her sibling connection during her first week in the house, irritating and alienating the other Houseguests who quickly cottoned to her truth and were suspicious of her non-disclosure. She seemed to be a goner when McCrae put her on the block after winning the Veto competition. So give her credit for using her MVP power to smartly put up David for eviction, because the move kept her in the game: David was a legit threat in the competitions, and the more everyone in the house thought about it, the more they realized they should vote him out, not Elissa.  

In addition to cultivating conscientious gameplay, many believed Big Brother should have reported on the racist, anti-gay bigotry of its contestants because it would make for more substantial, relevant television. In an essay entitled “‘Big Brother’ Isn’t Just A Terrible Show, It’s A Wasted Opportunity,” Linda Holmes of NPR made this strong argument:

“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… 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.”

The kind of cultural product Holmes describes is something we should want. But why? Because authenticity is good? Because censorship is bad? Because Big Brother could be a mirror to society that inspires us/shames us into being better people? Yes, yes, and probably not, but sounds good! Okay: Sold. Still, what I dislike about this call for warts-and-all, honesty-in-the-raw from Big Brother is that it still allows “evil” to flourish needlessly, and does nothing to discourage it. Big Brother is not journalism, documentary, or anthropology. It has no obligation to impartial reporting, editorial detachment, or non-interference. The producers are not commissioned officers of the starship Enterprise; there is no Prime Directive to honor. Big Brother isn’t even a “reality show.” It’s a reality-competition series, which is a just a fancy way of saying “game show,” one with absurd, arbitrary rules. One of them could easily be: “You can be an a–hole, but you can’t be a racist, sexist, homophobe or hate-espousing bigot of any kind.” (Another rule should be a “b–ch” ban; the slur comes way too easily from the current cast.) When pro athletes make offensive comments, sports leagues punish them with financial penalties and force them to apologize. I don’t see why Big Brother can’t adopt similar policies without undermining the [eye-roll please] “integrity of the game.” Here are some suggestions:

Punish the Houseguests with sensitivity training. Which should be televised. Afterward, there should be a test. A collective minimum score must be met. If it isn’t, it’s slop, cold showers, and the Have-Not room for a week for everyone.

Punish individual contestants by docking potential winnings. Every comment deemed offensive hate speech will result in a $500 deduction. A scoreboard inside the house will be updated daily so the contestants always understand where they stand, what’s at stake, and just how big (or small) of an enemy of progress they are.

Expose the Houseguests to online feedback. Each week, the sequestered denizens could be given a report of what people are saying about them at CBS.com. Now that the audience is being allowed to act as participants in the game via the MVP feature, it seems only fair that the Houseguests be allowed some insight into those of us playing with them — or against them. Reading a comment like “Hey, Aaryn! You’re a f—ing racist!” would enlighten and improve her gameplay, and perhaps other, more important parts of her life, too.

Of course, this is not the first time that Big Brother has been called out for the antics of its cast. I think. Again: Blur. And I am totally lame, hypocritical, and [insert-your-indictment-of-me-here] for suddenly caring about this now. But the staggering amount of egregiousness generated so far by BB15 contestants even… well, staggering. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised: The casual, cavalier insensitivity of the houseguests echoes the coarse pop culture to which they belong, and now help produce. It’s amazing how quickly the people in the Big Brother house forget that every moment of their day is being filmed. It’s frightening to consider that they never forget, and they choose to live uncensored, anyway. Do they not care? Do they think they’re being funny? Do they they assume that everything say and do in the House simply doesn’t matter, because after all, Big Brother is just a ridiculous, meaningless game show that no one takes (or should take) seriously? Regardless: Did they not read about Paula Deen before they went into the House? Did they miss the news about gay marriage before the season’s first broadcast on June 26, the very day of the Supreme Court ruling? Who failed to give them the memo that now more than ever, there is zero tolerance for intolerance and a price to pay for being on the wrong side of history and human decency…

Oh, wait. There is no price to pay. Not in the Big Brother house, a safe zone of Despicable Me-ness, where letting loose with your worst self is an acceptable tactic for making a mark, advancing in the game, becoming “a legend.” But we in the audience carry some of the blame when contestants like Aaryn and the rest go too far and cross the line with loutishness. For too long, we’ve let Big Brother and other reality shows rely on douchebags, dips–ts, and devils to capture our attention. We’ve let them do this, because time and again, directly and indirectly, we tell them that what we want most from reality shows is what we want from scripted shows: A shameless, outrageous, boundary-pushing force of antagonism. When they go looking in the real world for folks that fit that part, we shouldn’t be too surprised when they give us authentically awful personalities who just might hold some genuinely dumb and dubious attitudes and beliefs about other people. Yes, every good drama — scripted or unscripted — needs a good villain. But we need to worry when our appetite for ‘characters we love to hate’ allows hateful character to flourish in our culture, and in ourselves. Do I want to see Big Brother confront Aaryn, Spencer and the rest for their offensiveness and piggishness because I love justice? Maybe. But I also need catharsis for the animus they are cultivating in me — an animus that I savor as much as I abhor. I love hating these hateful people. Is that a pleasure worth feeling guilty about? I’m not sure. Ask me again when the season’s over.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

 

 

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