Big Brother Racism Controversy: What Reality TV Says About Prejudice

Sunday's episode of 'Big Brother' showed contestants making offensive remarks—and it's hardly the first time racism has entered reality television

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Monty Brinton / CBS

'Big Brother' houseguests Howard and Aaryn in the Have-Not room before the first Power of Veto Competition, Tuesday, July 2

Now that Big Brother is in its 15th season, the intricacies of the CBS reality stalwart should be pretty well known to its dedicated viewers. One of those twists is that, though the show airs on TV three times a week, the contestants are monitored around the clock, and true fans can subscribe to watch live feeds from the House.

Those extreme viewers have known something disturbing was going on at the Big Brother house for a while, something TV-only fans learned about last night. The live-feed cameras had caught several so-called “Houseguests” making racist and otherwise offensive remarks about their housemates. On the Sunday, July 7, episode, some of those moments were shown to the television audience. And, because audience votes can affect the outcome of the season, those clips may change the way the show shakes out. In the wake of the network’s decision to air the offensive moments, commentators have expressed relief that CBS has decided not to hide the facts from more casual viewers, some suggesting that the decision was due to outside pressure. (The network had already issued a statement, available at Deadline, distancing itself from Houseguests’ views.)

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The effects of the live-feed remarks are already clear for two of the Houseguests. Last week, TMZ reported that GinaMarie Zimmerman had lost her job with East Coast USA Pageant, Inc., because she could no longer serve as a role model for pageant contestants, and that Aaryn Gries had been dropped by her modeling agency, Zephyr Talent. Aaryn and GinaMarie are still sequestered on Big Brother, so they don’t yet know what’s happened to their day jobs. (Remarks about Hitler’s public-speaking skills made by Spence Clawsen have also caught the attention of viewers, but not to the same extent as Aaryn’s and GinaMarie’s.)

It’s not actually that surprising that two contestants on Big Brother could have racist views. The show has seen its share of bigotry in past seasons, and reality-television as a genre has a long history of putting prejudiced contestants alongside the people they hate, fear or just don’t know. (And that’s not even including the several instances when it’s been the show, rather than the contestant, accused of bigotry.) Sometimes there’s an effort to make something good come of the clash. MTV’s The Real World, for example, has had at least some success at getting participants, many of whom have had little exposure to people from different backgrounds prior to coming on the show, to accept that being different isn’t bad. The show’s ninth season even had an episode called “Race Matters,” in which audiences saw the benefits to the housemates of open-mindedness.

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What’s really surprising, however, is something that’s pointed out by one of Aaryn and GinaMarie’s housemates in the clip below, from the July 7 episode, which includes the offensive statements. After 15 seasons, it’s not just viewers who could be expected to know how the show works—those who applied to be on the show have presumably seen it before and were briefed about the cameras—so it’s startling that they don’t realize that, as people who are on a TV show that involves 24/7 surveillance, they shouldn’t say such things.

And it’s not just surprising; it’s disturbing. Aaryn and GinaMarie aren’t just two women with prejudices whose minds might be changed by exposure to housemates from varying backgrounds, and they’re not just two women who said things they thought wouldn’t be heard by their targets of their hate and ignorance. Even if they momentarily forgot they were being watched, some part of both must have known that what they said would probably be heard—and, therefore, thought that nobody who mattered would care. Unlike the MasterChef contestant who tweeted racist remarks to before her appearance on the show, the Big Brother contestants knew they were exposed to a massive public audience at the time they let loose.

While the persistence of racism on and off television is the bigger problem—it would be best if there were no racists to show up on reality TV, but that’s obviously not the case—what’s going on in the Big Brother house shines a light on another layer of prejudice. Good may come of exposing the true feelings of people like Aaryn and GinaMarie, but the social forces that conspired to bring about that exposure hint at the depth of the problem. Few people could reasonably think that bigotry in all its forms is a thing of the past, but it could be easy to assume that even those who feel it know that their views should be kept private if they want to get by, that society doesn’t condone their beliefs, that there are consequences to hateful speech or behavior. Ironically, it’s a lesson that could have been learned by watching any number of reality shows—including Big Brother Season 15. But, if that show is any indication, we can’t always count on television to get the message across.

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