Big Brother 19 edits out racism, sexism.

The New Big Brother Is Showing Exactly How Reality TV Hides Its Most Political Material

The New Big Brother Is Showing Exactly How Reality TV Hides Its Most Political Material

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 18 2017 8:03 AM

The New Big Brother Is Showing Exactly How Reality TV Hides Its Most Political Material

Big Brother 19 kept some of Jessica Graf’s most controversial comments off the air.
Big Brother 19 kept some of Jessica Graf’s most controversial comments off the air.

CBS

Big Brother 19 was only a few days into the season when Megan Lowder, a dog walker and U.S. Navy veteran, decided to quit the show. After the broadcast of the season’s second episode, the show’s familiar 24/7 “live feeds” launched for digital subscribers, and fans quickly noted her absence. Rumblings confirmed that Megan had left—those remaining in the house cryptically discussed her exit, leading to unsubstantiated rumors on social media that she’d said something racist or merely cut her losses after realizing her days in the game were numbered. But Megan, upon returning to real life, decided to set the record straight: Her local paper, the Desert Sun, reported the next day that her departure was a result of her PTSD from a previous sexual assault, triggered by her confrontations with various men on Big Brother. One contestant, Josh Martinez, consistently attacked Megan, dubbing her a “snake” and her strategy “disgusting.” Another, Cody Nickson, targeted her for eviction and only gave her one reason to explain why: “I just don’t like you that much.”

Big Brother is the rare reality program where invested fans can observe how unedited action is packaged into mainstream entertainment. It can be watched virtually untouched, 24 hours a day, save for blacked-out competitions and ceremonies—and although the majority of viewers only watch the polished CBS program (which airs three times a week), what's ultimately left out is no less interesting than what makes it into the official show.

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Megan’s exit provided a prime example. The Big Brother episode that tackled her departure framed the problem around an argument over racism that Megan had inadvertently started. She thought she heard Jessica Graf, a rival contestant, refer to her ally Alex Ow as “panda,” and took it as a racial slur. She brought the information to Alex, who then confronted Jessica, who then insisted she never said such a thing. All eyes were on Megan. The animus around her, the episode implied, was enough to push her out the door.

But this narrative was misleading in multiple respects. For one thing, Big Brother never acknowledged Megan’s trauma or personal struggles, even though she’d gone public days earlier. The show instead minimized her confrontations with the show’s men and omitted the key reason for her exit. The episode also glossed over the latent racism that led to the blowup between Alex and Jessica. Jessica actually referred to Alex not as “Panda” but as “Pao Pao,” a nickname for a past contestant who also happens to be of Asian descent, and had also repeatedly called Dominique Cooper, the show’s only black contestant, “Da’Vonne,” in reference to another former player who was also black. Yet the episode downplayed the incident involving Alex, chalking it up to a misunderstanding—as if “panda” as a nickname would be racist but “Pao Pao” was not—and the series has still never shown or even referenced Jessica referring to Dominique as “Da’Vonne.” It was clear what we were supposed to take away from the edit: Megan misheard an innocuous comment, and she paid the price for drawing attention to it.

Reality TV is a ruthless, manipulative format that doesn’t really value truth—only the appearance of it. Nevertheless, there’s evidence that the form can yield groundbreaking conversations, as we’ve seen from An American Family, from The Real World, and from the most recent season of Survivor. The appeal of Big Brother, a by-design trashy escape that offers 24-hour programming during the dog days of summer, is similarly compelling on a sociological level: Putting a diverse group of people in a house for a few months, and simply watching them interact, should theoretically give rise to all kinds of provocative questions. Yet as Megan’s exit showed, the opposite can happen instead—bigoted behavior and difficult subjects don’t always make the final cut, even if they’re crucial to an authentic telling of events.

This season of Big Brother has also turned away from the more disturbing gender and racial dynamics between its cast in favor of selling a neat, whitewashed version of two contestants’ love story. Cody and Jessica emerged early on as a “showmance,” and through poor gameplay, they promptly slid into a perpetual “us-against-the-house” battle, clinging to survival on a weekly basis. (Jessica was evicted last week, and Cody was evicted this Thursday.) Though four other contestants had also already coupled up, the producers packaged Cody and Jessica as the season’s one true romance, with their bond only strengthened by their isolation. This may explain why Cody’s blatantly transphobic comments and Jessica’s racist nicknames have been absent from the show, even as the outcry on social media from those watching the feeds has been loud and consistent. The show positioned them as underdogs, and while things often got ugly with their competitors, their personal connection was what humanized them. More specifically, Cody’s efforts to protect his girlfriend cast him, at times, as an archetypal male hero—and bigotry doesn’t fit that narrative.

Perhaps the most jarring erasure came a few weeks ago, when Paul Abrahamian—who, given his “fan-favorite” status as a returning player, producers have resisted depicting in a villainous light—zeroed in on supposed ally Dominique for eviction. Dominique caught word and suggested, as the only black person in the cast, that her race played into why she was singled out. (This is a familiar phenomenon on mainstream reality shows.) Her argument with Paul played out both on the live feeds and in the broadcast show as one of the season’s dramatic high points. But where Dominique made many constructive and reasonable points that were left out, Paul took the vitriol to such an extent that he publicly, amusedly considered wearing his “blackface” mask to intimidate her at an upcoming meeting. (What he meant, precisely, was debated by fans—he wanted to take on the image of a snake, since Dominique insulted him as such—but he repeatedly used the term “blackface” with glee as he discussed strategies to faze her.) The moment went viral, with aforementioned former contestant Da’Vonne Rogers calling Paul out on Twitter, but Big Brother never showed it or alluded to it. Instead, the build-up to Dominique’s eviction depicted her as angry, misguided, and a victim of her own big mouth—a not-so-subtle spin on what Da’Vonne called the “ABW” (angry black woman) edit.

While Big Brother has the material for juicy, interesting drama and the impetus to stay relevant, the priority remains clean narratives that don’t provoke or offend—soap opera romances, against-the-odds heroes, loudmouth funny guys, cartoonish villains. Only when the real, disturbing drama happens do we see the structure for what it is, as something both deeply disingenuous and surprisingly limited.

The show has been on the air for a long time now, and with viewers searching for escapism in this unusually newsy summer, ratings remain robust. That producers are making such calculated choices to keep the show as apolitical as possible feels not only like a missed opportunity, but also like a poorly timed strategy. Reality TV’s insidious power is rooted in an escapist, game-like appeal, and it can have a wicked influence—it reaches millions, blurs the line between documentary and entertainment, and relies on the most irresistible and familiar of storytelling tropes.

It’s the medium that allowed Donald Trump to reinvent his public image, after all, and it’s the frame through which his presidency is still often discussed. Big Brother puts on display what we should have all already known: The reality we see on TV often conceals much uglier things said off the air.