Why Reality Shows Like ‘Big Brother’ Shouldn’t Screen Out Racists And Homophobes

CREDIT: AP Images/Ryan Miller

Andy Denhart, who I think is one of the best reporters covering reality television, has flagged a very funny video from Robyn Kass, the casting director for Big Brother, offering advice to hopefuls about how to make their audition videos:

But Andy flags a couple of things that Kass left out, particularly after a summer when Big Brother became controversial for racist and homophobic comments a number of the contestants made on air. Some of those comments, captured on the live feeds from the house, were edited out of the broadcasts of the show (though not all of them). Host Julie Chen even did an interview with one of the contestants who was prone to such remarks that focused specifically on the impact of the language the younger woman had used.

“After last summer’s cesspool of bigotry, there is no mention of using prejudiced language or illustrating what a moron you are,” Denhart notes of Kass’ video. And he observes that the application you have to fill out to be considered for the show doesn’t do anything to try to raise the level of education contestants bring to Big Brother: the form “asks for ‘highest degree of education,'” he writes, “for which one of the options is ‘grade school.'”

A similar question about mission and execution in reality television came up during CBS President Nina Tassler’s executive session at the Television Critics Association press tour on January 15. In response to the Big Brother controversy, a reporter asked Tassler “Will you be making any changes to ensure that perhaps contestants are not as dumb or mean next year?” Tassler’s answer was revealing, and I think important.

“It is a social experiment,” Tassler explained of the show. “You are taking people from very disparate walks of life and confining them in a house for a finite period of time. I sit in those auditions and I sit in those interviews and you’re talking to people and you get one perspective on their personality. You ask very probing questions and you develop an opinion about that person. You do the requisite backgrounds checks on everybody the same way we’ve been doing it on all of our shows for years, obviously upgrading as more and more resources are available to us. But at the end of the day, we felt that the producers handled it responsibly, dealt with it as well as they could. So I think you have to recognize that, yes, this is that show and it is a social experiment and the contestants go through a pretty aggressive process of screening.”

It would have been interesting for Tassler to define that social experiment further. In the early years of pioneering reality program The Real World, putting people of different backgrounds together in a house may have been intended to illustrate what happened when Americans were exposed to people whose life experiences were unfamiliar to their own, and to suggest that such exposure could breed tolerance and even solidarity.

Whether or not Big Brother intended to test a different theory, the most recent series of the show produced a finding that’s relevant far beyond the realm of reality television. Big Brother‘s casually bigoted contestants were an important reminder that, as many legal and social strides towards equality as we’ve made, there are still many people who feel comfortable saying racist or homophobic things, or aren’t aware that their sentiments are racist and homophobic at all.

It’s easy to believe that people feel freer to express such ideas from behind the protective cloak of internet anonymity. But the contestants on Big Brother weren’t hiding. They had, in fact, committed to an unusual degree of exposure: being filmed and broadcast live online twenty-four hours a day, an edited version of which is broadcast on television to a much larger audience. And yet, this level of visibility didn’t seem to encourage some of the Big Brother contestants to edit themselves. Maybe it’s that they were literally so ignorant that they didn’t understand the stereotypes and language they employed to be bigoted. Maybe it’s that they understand a truth illustrated by the rallying behind the Duck Dynasty cast after the patriarch of that family made racist and homophobic remarks to GQ: that there’s a market for bias. But whatever their reasons were, Big Brother ended up reminding us of the uncomfortable truth that the journey towards a clear public consensus that racism and homophobia are wrong is far from over.

As I wrote during the Duck Dynasty controversy, giving offense and managing the offender has become part of the reality television business model. But even setting the profit motive aside, if we want reality television to be about reality, not all of its projects will be inclusive, and the parts of our society it shows us won’t always be positive.