The Soapbox: On “Big Brother,” Racism & Scapegoating
On last night’s episode of “Big Brother,” 22-year-old Aaryn Gries was given the boot by her fellow houseguests and, as is customary, sat down for her live post-show interview with host Julie Chen. Over the past two-and-a-half months, Aryan Aaryn, as she’s jokingly been called online, has said a number of offensive and ignorant things about people of other races, all of which were caught on tape by the show’s 24/7 live feeds. She’s not the only one — almost half of the initial 16 houseguests have said one or more highly questionable things about race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. Under pressure from viewers to show what was really going on in the house, CBS finally made a point of addressing offensive statements in their edited episodes, with Aaryn’s remarks receiving the vast majority of the attention. So, when Aaryn emerged out the front door, to a subtle chorus of audience boos, and sat down next to Julie Chen, I expected that the topic would be addressed, but only briefly as Aaryn is now a member of the “Big Brother” jury and will continue to be sequestered from the outside world until the season has come to an end. That usually means continuing to be kept in the dark about what’s going on outside the house — including how she’s being perceived.
But I was wrong. Chen went there last night, actually reading some of Aaryn’s worst remarks aloud. Aaryn — who, in fairness, was not completely clueless that she was being seen as racist — was flustered, saying she didn’t remember saying those things. She initially made excuses about being from Texas and not meaning the things she said and blah blah blah. The audience laughed at her over and over. Aaryn teared up and looked utterly crushed. It was awful. And awkward. I was uncomfortable.
Let me be perfectly clear right up front. I do not in any way shape or form condone a single solitary offensive thing Aaryn has said. I abhor racism and homophobia. I think Aaryn is among one of the most ignorant people I’ve seen on a reality TV show. There are consequences for our actions and Aaryn certainly will face hers. She’s lost her job. “Big Brother” fans and non-fans alike hate her. And I suspect CBS hopes that Aaryn will be upset enough by her conversation with Julie that she’ll walk off the show, forfeiting her jury stipend and appearance at the finale, so they can officially wash their hands of her. Regardless of when she emerges from the “Big Brother” bubble, Aaryn is in for a rude fucking awakening when she gets home, and I hope that she takes the criticism to heart, looks within, and uses this as an opportunity to evolve into a better person.
But this is not just about Aaryn. The show’s way of “handling” the bigotry in the house — which CBS only addressed after it became a PR problem — as well as the audience reaction to it says a lot about us as a culture. That’s what we really should be talking about.
I watch the live feeds. When I’m at work, I usually have the feeds on in the background, just incase something crazy happens that I don’t want to miss. When I’m at home, they’re on too. People think I’m crazy, but the live feeds give you a rare, relatively unfiltered view of people’s “survival” instincts at work. (And keep in mind, the “Big Brother” houseguests are ultimately playing a game that requires that they lie and backstab and manipulate in order to win.) With cameras running 24/7, you can see the experience taking its toll on everyone. You also see various facets to the houseguests personalities; in previous years, when I didn’t watch the feeds, the HGs always seemed more like one-dimensional characters to me. I loved or hated them. This season, after watching their every move for two months, I sometimes feel like I know them, and I can neither love nor hate any of them. Including Aaryn.
In the “Big Brother” house, relationships develop quickly, guards are dropped, and, it’s clear, cameras are at times forgotten about. Paranoia and stress abound. Shitty, stupid things are said in anger. Shitty, stupid things are said jokingly. But, in the case of many of Aaryn’s remarks, these are shitty, stupid things that a significant portion of the population not only says but also believes. The most shocking thing to me about the bigotry on display in the “Big Brother” house? That the viewing public was seemingly so surprised that people felt and talked this way. Spend just a little time on Twitter or the comments on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Why is anyone shocked that a young Southern woman raised in a conservative household would have less-than-PC things to say about race or sexual orientation?
Yet I haven’t been surprised that viewers — specifically white viewers — have taken up the bigotry on “Big Brother” as their cause. Aaryn, with her “Racism For Dummies” potshots, has made it easy for both CBS and the public to make an example out of her. Her fellow houseguest GinaMarie Zimmerman has also said some heinous things — including referring to welfare as “n***er insurance” — but she makes for a less convenient scapegoat. While they haven’t showed this on the edited show, GM has an eating disorder and that, coupled with her absolutely bizarre breakdown over her crush Nick being evicted on week two, makes her too fragile a target for a public takedown. The fans needed someone to answer for the bigotry and CBS decided Aaryn would be it.
But I have to wonder whether those (again, white) viewers calling for Aaryn’s head have been as worked up about other less obvious but more impactful examples of racism at work in the United States. The death of Trayvon Martin, stop and frisk laws, or the chipping away at the Voting Rights Act, for example. Somehow I doubt it. Those issues are nuanced and complicated and hard to talk about and even harder to solve. But a blatantly racist girl on a reality TV show? It’s not only easier to make an example out of her, but it also allows people to distance themselves from the far more insidious ways racism is embedded in our culture and in our own actions and views.
A lot of people actually believe or at least want to believe that we live in a post-racial society. We have a Black president, after all! The bigotry on display in the “Big Brother” house should make it blatantly obvious that we still have a long way to go. Instead, the bigotry is being seen as an anomaly, that it just needs to be slapped down, made an example of, and moved on from. But it’s not.