Despite its name, reality television has often offered its viewers more fantasy than reality. That's probably why the genre remains so popular. But sometimes reality TV can be just a little too real.
That's certainly what it feels like on this summer's Big Brother, the hit CBS reality competition television show in its twenty-first season. Each year, the show assembles a group of mostly-white, mostly-hot twenty-somethings, locking them into a sealed house where they live under constant surveillance for several months and vote each other off one by one. The isolation and competition that drives Big Brother resembles the premise behind CBS' other megahit show Survivor, although Big Brother's houseguests certainly enjoy better food and comfier beds than Survivor's castaways. But the particular nature of Big Brother, including the 24-hour footage of the house that diehard fans can watch online, has always given the show an air of social experimentation. What can we learn when we cut off a group of Americans from the outside world and see how they behave?
Perhaps too much. Once again, what we've seen is that members of the Big Brother cast can't stop themselves — even knowing they are under continuous observation — from letting out their prejudices. Racism and other bigotries have long plagued the Big Brother franchise — and reality TV more broadly — but this season's ugliness feels particularly pointed and problematic given our political moment. Meanwhile, CBS's mishandling of its show demonstrates the complicity of network television in fomenting the very conditions that encourage racism while doing everything it can to cover it up, and reflects the broader casualness with which white Americans dismiss or ignore the very real racism all around them — not just on television.
Big Brother's problems this season started on the first episode when three houseguests were immediately nominated for elimination. That all three cast members were non-white — out of a cast that includes only five racial minorities — and that they had been put on the chopping block by Jackson Michie, a muscled good ol' boy from Tennessee, suggested dark days ahead for the show. In a new twist for the program, the contestants who were voted out in the first three weeks didn't have to immediately leave the house but were instead sidelined to Camp Comeback, where they could compete to return to the game. But hewing to Big Brother tradition, the white majority house sent one non-white cast member after another — two African-American players and one Bangladeshi-American competitor — into purgatory before unceremoniously kicking all three out in one fell swoop last week, a brutal visual for the show. On Thursday night's show, the house stayed consistent, voting out Isabella Wang, a Chinese-American player from New Jersey, leaving only one non-white contestant out of 12 left in the game.
The cast's rapid whitening of the house has happened alongside a steady stream of racist comments from some of its members, something that has been well documented by those following the 24-hour live feeds. But you would hardly know that from watching the episodes of the show which run in primetime three nights a week. Instead, Big Brother's producers have stripped the broadcast of those racist comments and, even more importantly, cut the episodes so as to give the white offenders what Nicholas Caruso over at Pop Dust has called "nice-guy edits." (Off-camera, Big Brother producers have reportedly warned one particularly egregious cast member about his racist comments, a move that seeks to protect the contestant as much as it does the show itself. Publicly, CBS executives released a statement this week saying they "share some of the viewers' concerns.")
Equally troubling, on several occasions CBS has switched the live feeds away from houseguests whenever they begin discussing racist incidents in the house. Meanwhile, Kemi, an African-American woman who was eliminated last week, has claimed the show's producers tried to goad her into playing the part of the sassy black woman. "They were like, ‘Oh, why don't you, like, wag your finger and be like, ‘Uh uh girlfriend'," Kemi said.
That wouldn't be surprising for a genre that has relied heavily on typecasting and racial stereotyping. A 2018 study found that African-American reality contestants, especially women, are overwhelmingly portrayed as angry and verbally aggressive. Whether that's a function of casting, editing, or prodding almost doesn't matter. The result is a television landscape awash in demeaning depictions of African Americans.
Perversely, that problem has only grown worse with the diversification of reality television casts. When reality television emerged nearly 20 years ago, one of the biggest criticisms lodged against early shows concerned how few non-whites appeared on many of the programs. On competition shows, that frequently meant that the token African-American contestant was among the first to go. From 2002 to 2016, for example, no black contestant on either The Bachelor or The Bachelorette made it longer than five weeks on the show — and almost 60 percent were escorted out within the first two weeks. Last year, under pressure, ABC made Rachel Lindsay the first African-American star of either franchise, a move that also prompted the network to put together its most diverse cast ever. Yet even that decision only reinforced how expendable persons of color have been on most reality shows.
Reality television, of course, isn't alone in treating non-white persons as extraneous or depicting them with simplistic caricatures. Rather, those are persistent problems of the larger media — and, indeed, of American culture generally.
You don't have to work too hard to see the connection between the Big Brother producers' generous editing on behalf of white cast members on one hand and the extensive efforts media outlets have made to profile Trump's white working class supporters on the other. The consequence of both efforts means that white bigotry — and and white bigots — continues to benefit from nuanced, even sympathetic, portrayals in the media while non-white Americans — the very victims of that bigotry — continue to be overlooked at best and, far more often, typecast and demonized. The whitewashing of racism on Big Brother takes place in the same media universe that hesitates to call Donald Trump's constant racist words exactly that.
This summer, that obfuscation is happening on both the television airwaves and from the Oval Office. Trump has often been described as our "reality TV president." But with children locked in cages at the southern border and the president ordering non-white congresswomen to leave the country, it's almost unreal how true that now seems.