Big Brother is the Vegemite of reality TV: Either you love it, or you find it so noxious and distasteful it’s impossible to comprehend that anyone else would willingly, let alone happily, ingest it. For the past 13 years—every single summer since 2000 and one ill-conceived February—a dozen-odd people have willingly isolated themselves for three months inside a floodlit Panopticon made to look like a home, their every move broadcast over all-day livestreams and condensed into three prime-time hours per week, all for a half-million-dollar prize. The participants on Big Brother are, of course, not “here to make friends,” and regularly engage in all sorts of scheming, manipulation, and histrionics. On this show, when one player calls another a liar, another can safely reply, “Yeah, I don’t know what game you’re playing, but I’m playing Big Brother.” But this season, the show’s 15th, some Big Brother contestants have plumbed a new nadir of atrocious behavior: blatant racism.
Almost as soon as this season began, close watchers of the various Web streams began to catalog racial slurs, as well as homophobic, sexist, and anti-Semitic ones, that were not making it to air. CBS has historically sanitized the livestreams for prime time: Big Brother has a long history of contestants being racist—if not this racist—but CBS has previously claimed that such comments do “not meet the network’s standards” and it would cut them out of the network airings, leaving them to the hawk-eyed thousands closely monitoring the livestreams. Not this time. In this summer when Paula Deen and Trayvon Martin are on front of mind, instead of ignoring its contestants’ racism, Big Brother has made it one of the major storylines, giving audiences a front-row seat not just to the sort of hateful mindset and speech that usually occurs behind closed doors, but to the self-delusion of bigots.
About half the cast has, at this point, engaged in some kind of casual hate speech, but there are two major culprits. The first, Aaryn Gries—yes, her name really is an anagram for “Aryan”—is a blond-haired, blue-eyed, Texas-born carapace of pure vileness. Aaryn insists she is a “good” person. She has also put on an “Asian voice” to joke about getting her nails done; said that Helen, the only Asian-American on the cast, should “go make some rice”; and remarked that one should be careful in the dark around Candice, the only African-American woman on the cast, “because you might not see the bitch." She has also taken issue with pediatric speech therapist Candice’s pronunciation of the word “asked.” GinaMarie Zimmerman, a loud Staten Islander who is Aaryn’s blunt, uncouth attack dog, has said that Helen “should be kissing our ass and serving us some fucking rice”; declared that Candice “gets that fucking blackness”; and in one of the more surreal clips referred to welfare as “[N-word] insurance” by whispering the word into the ears of the two men she was speaking with, apparently aware that she shouldn’t be saying it but unwilling to stop herself.
The derogatory language, which Aaryn and GinaMarie had previously used only in front of other white cast members—you know the saying, evil flourishes when less evil people do nothing because they are trying to win a game show—made it to prime time when Aaryn provoked a flabbergasting scene that caused the house to turn against her. (She’s up for elimination this week; GinaMarie is not.) In a fit of pique, Aaryn flipped Candice’s mattress off the bed for no reason. When Candice asked who had done that, Aaryn began to snake her head and taunt, “What you gonna do, girl? Where’s yo class, girl?” GinaMarie, escalating, got in Candice’s face and asked if she “wanted the black to come out.” (There’s a class component at play here: GinaMarie’s bigotry is classically white working-class, a reflexive xenophobia that’s more out there but less frightening for it. Aaryn is genteel, racist but knowing enough to not get busted saying the N-word. Hers is the racism that usually knows how to hide.) The incident ended only when Howard, the other African-American in the house, carried Candice out of the room. Crying, Candice said to him, “They have called me ‘Sheniqua,’ flipped my bed, and I am supposed to go into another room and hide?” Howard implored her to keep her cool: “This game doesn’t care about what’s right.”
One would think that only someone extraordinarily stupid would say these things in a house covered with cameras, where there is so little privacy, players change their underwear underneath a towel. But it’s more insidious than that: Big Brother generally encourages bad behavior, and these women seem to think that their behavior is no worse than the standard shit-talking, slurring, scheming and gamesmanship that regularly goes down. Aaryn isn’t hiding her true self, not simply because she is dumb, but because she is privileged and sheltered and doesn’t think she’s being that racist and she imagines that everyone watching at home will see it the same way. They won’t: Aaryn and GinaMarie have both already been fired from their jobs.
Soon after the mattress incident, Candice came upon GinaMarie sobbing on the couch, with Aaryn comforting her. Candice, finding almost supernatural reserves of compassion, sat down and began to rub GinaMarie’s back. Aaryn took the opportunity to apologize. “Candice, I’m sorry,” Aaryn said. “Anybody that knows me knows that just because I’m Southern, and I say things that probably aren’t appropriate all the time, I have nothing against any other race. And if I make a comment that seems like I do, I don’t want it to be taken that way, and I don’t want to offend you.” This is the kind of thing, distasteful as reality shows can sometimes be, that would be almost impossible to plausibly fictionalize, even though it is a fact of life all over America. The racist who believes she has nothing against any other race, who apologizes largely because it is strategically sound while still thinking of herself as an open-minded person, who is a cruel bully until she becomes self-pitying and defensive, is almost too ridiculously grotesque.
Big Brother has congratulated itself a bit for putting all of this on air: When Julie Chen, the host, spoke about it on her talk show The Talk, her co-host Sara Gilbert said, “I’m happy that CBS and Big Brother aired the comments, because I feel like it’s good for people to see it, and let these people deal with the consequences when they get out of the house.” But Big Brother plays a part in all of this, even if it was just giving Aaryn the rope with which to hang herself.
Contestants on Big Brother are all, to a startling degree, students of the show: They are intimately familiar with past seasons and the various strategic moves necessary to win. This year, a helium-voiced yoga instructor who is the sister of a past winner tried to keep her sibling-ship under wraps. Within a day everyone on the cast had figured it out just because of the family and vocal resemblance. As Big Brother scholars, Aaryn and GinaMarie could have reasonably expected that CBS would keep their worst behavior out of prime time—the network has never outed anyone as racist before, even though there have been former incidents.
And there is a larger issue, which is how the show is cast: GinaMarie described Candice and Howard as “tokens,” a nasty thing to say that also, if you look over the past casts of Big Brother, appears to be true. As with ABC’s The Bachelor, which has been unsuccessfully sued for its obvious bias against people of color, Big Brother has racially problematic casting. The show usually has exactly one black woman and exactly one black man on cast. One year there were three African-Americans. There have been seasons with just one. A little less than 40 percent of America is not white; Big Brother’s cast does not come close to reflecting this. The series can disavow the behavior of its contestants, but it continues to cast the show like white people are the ones who have the right to be there. This season the show cast people loathsome enough to verbalize that privilege. When Aaryn and GinaMarie get kicked out of the house, they are going to have lots of explaining to do. But so will Big Brother.