Watching ‘Big Brother’

When one is a chronicler and complainer of the myriad times when things in the American culture are done wrong, one is especially grateful for, and duty-bound to report upon, the instances when things are done exactly right.

I must confess that I have never subjected myself to a single episode of the CBS reality series Big Brother.  It’s nothing personal.  I have never subjected myself to any other reality TV series, either.  The genre has never much appealed to me, as witnessing a group of silly, exhibitionistic goobers locked in a giant house yelling at each other somehow is not my idea of an enjoyable evening in front of the old set.

However, I concede that for millions of Americans, the exact opposite is the case.  In light of the controversy that erupted on the set of Big Brother in recent days, I can almost understand why.

The kerfuffle involves a duo of participants in the program’s 15th season, which premiered on June 26, who apparently do not think very highly of their non-white fellow competitors.

As first revealed in the show’s live feed—the Truman Show-like setup that paying customers can access via YouTube— a cast member named Aaryn Gries has completed such charming turns-of-phrase as suggesting the show’s Asian contestant should “shut up [and] go make some rice,” and musing that a gay contestant might win the competition because “everybody loves the queers.”  Another cast member, GinaMarie Zimmerman, has uttered similar slurs against Asians, as well as referring to welfare programs as “nigger insurance.”

There are plentiful other comments by Gries and Zimmerman—and by others, for that matter—that we might cite, but I dare say a rough sketch of the atmosphere on the set has been sufficiently rendered.

That is the setup.  The question is how the various involved parties would react.  To a person, they have all performed precisely as they should.

CBS, the network that produces the program, did not air every last racist, sexist and homophobic barb that has crossed the transom (there aren’t enough hours in the day), but it included an impressive cross section in the episodes in which they occurred—enough of them to prove that network executives are prepared to stand behind the content of their reality TV project, no matter how offensive it might be to the unsuspecting viewer.

(Naturally, CBS was compelled to release a disclaimer that the views expressed by Big Brother cast members are not necessarily those of the network.)

Let us not delude ourselves into thinking the decision to enforce a no-holds-barred policy toward its programming is motivated by anything other than money and ratings.  Conflict and bad attitudes are the lifeblood of reality TV, and there is nothing particularly noble about embracing and exploiting it when it becomes especially ugly.  (Thus far, the show’s ratings have held steady.)

Indeed, the premise upon which Big Brother is founded is designed to generate precisely this sort of controversy.  For the uninitiated:  The program is a series of contests among its group of misfits, who live together in a mansion under continuous surveillance, are “evicted” one by one, and until then are completely isolated from the outside world.

CBS would be disingenuous to feign innocence about what it was getting itself into in green-lighting such a concept.  The network has resisted, seeing its conceit through to its logical, wretched conclusion.  To that extent, it deserves our grudging respect.

In that same spirit of openness and intellectual honesty, people like Gries and Zimmerman can be said to have done the world a service by revealing themselves to be the almost comically awful human specimens that they are.  There is a special sort of gall in saying what no one wants to hear in the full knowledge that everyone is listening.  It shows character, albeit the poorest, most reprehensible sort.

As the icing on this sad, sorry cake, we find that among those listening were Gries’ and Zimmerman’s employers—a modeling agency and a pageant planning company, respectively—which relieved the women of their duties shortly after their poisonous comments became known and widely distributed.

Were they wrong to do so?  Is a modeling agency duty-bound to stand by one of its cover girls after she is shown to emit racial slurs on camera with no apparent regret?  Don’t make me laugh.  The First Amendment allows contestants on a game show to say stupid things, but it does not prevent disagreeable consequences to befall them as a result.

In sum, this Big Brother business is a sordid, silly affair with no great cultural significance, except as an illustration—as I suggested at the top—that sometimes the messy minutiae of such squabbles play out precisely as they ought to.  We should rejoice when such phenomena occur.

Well done, everyone.  Keep up the good work.

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