How “Big Brother” was finally forced to confront a cringeworthy racial history
OPINION: The hit CBS show always seemed to have contestants who got away with micro- and macroaggressions, but the time has come for them to be confronted about it
Wednesday, CBS’s popular reality show Big Brother ended in an awkward set of confrontations and a firestorm of controversy after host Julie Chen used the highly rated finale as an opportunity to tell contestants that (unbeknownst to them) viewers had been pissed all summer about their blatant displays of racism and misogyny.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Big Brother is an international phenom that isolates a group of contestants inside a custom-made house for about 3 months, while they are monitored 24 hours a day by cameras that not only collects footage for weekly episodes but also streams a live online feed for super fans.
Before I continue, I would be remiss if I didn’t fess up that I am actually one of the aforementioned super fans of the show. I have watched the Canadian, Australian and British versions religiously online and have kept up with all 21 of the American seasons when they air stateside.
And one thing I can say from viewing this program over so many varied markets is, even though Big Brother is meant to examine what happens when you put a cross section of different people under one roof — aside from the versions filmed on the continent of Africa (which unfortunately are harder to find decent streams of) — the show is usually comprised of mostly white participants.
In some places, like super-civilized Canada this isn’t a huge sticking point, but in ‘Merica, where the “good ole country boy” and “meathead jock” archetypes seem to make the final cut for Every. Damn. Season, this has lead to an increasing instances of racial bias that is sometimes coded and other times shockingly blatant.
Was it all a misunderstanding?
Wednesday evening when Chen confronted finale contestant, and resident cowboy Jackson Michie (who ended up winning the show by the way) about complaints regarding his deeply condescending way of talking down to women, and penchant for making racially insensitive jokes with his fellow housemate Jack Mathews, he seemed sincerely flabbergasted.
“I know who I am and I know who I’m not, and I respect women more than anything. I’m very abrasive and I have a lot of energy and passion in everything I say and do. And I’m that way toward everyone,” he told EW.
“And is it right? No,” he continued. “I know that I need to work on it and tone it down in a lot of areas, but I don’t see race or gender or anyone when I’m having a conversation. And if someone upsets me, they upset me the same way that a guy would.”
While the man who would later end up winning $500,000 that night swore up and down that we all just misunderstood his humor and apparent passion for racism, no one, including host Chen herself seemed even remotely moved by the explanation.
Which was both awkward and hilarious to watch for those of us who spent the whole summer waiting for this man to get called out on his behavior, but low key assuming it would never happen.
Michie’s innocent act was impossible to swallow given incidents like that time his bromance buddy Jack said that he would “like to stomp a mudhole through her chest” in reference to Kemi Fakunle, the only female African American houseguest on the show, then mockingly used the phrase “rice pudding” when referring to the only Asian-American contestant.
It was also suspicious that in a house brimming with formidable opponents, four out of the five minority contestants (who were arguably pretty meek in stature, and mellow in disposition) were among the first ones evicted as “threats.” The one Latina who remained, plus sized model Jessica Milagros, was constantly called fat by the eventual winner.
The receipts tell a story of their own
Since its premiere in 2000, race has been a topic that producers of the show just can’t seem to get their hands around. In fact, in 2013 while speaking in reference to African American houseguest Candice Stewart, fellow participant Aaryn Gries was caught warning someone, “Be careful what you say in the dark, might not get to see the bitch.”
At one point Gries even got physically aggressive and flipped over Stewart’s mattress while mocking her in a stereotypical Black accent. That same season she said to an Asian-American contestant, “Shut up, go make some rice,” and also used a homophobic slur to describe another houseguest.
Nothing about these moments are subtle and issues like this continued for years, seemingly unchecked. But in this age of Trump when minorities have an extra low tolerance for bigots talking to them crazy with bass in their voice, this year viewers clapped back at the show with a fury unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
This anger was particularly fueled by claims that contestants weren’t the only ones being problematic and that producers where also guilty of trying to play up negative stereotypes behind the scenes.
This season after weeks of abuse, Fakunle told the whole world during a live feed that she felt uncomfortable with the way she was constantly encouraged by a certain member of the Big Brother production team to use a hood Black accent for a soundbite in the show’s confessional “diary room.”
In response CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl informed the press that he and other network executives had “heard things on the show that we are not comfortable with, that we have not enjoyed hearing, and we will absolutely, after the season is over, take a look at the show.”
Thom Sherman, the senior vice president of CBS Entertainment also assured the public that the producer in question had been “reprimanded” and made to take “unconscious-bias training.”
So why does this matter?
For those who aren’t fans of the show you may be wondering, “Why does this matter?”
The answer is simple: whether we want to admit it or not, what we consume via entertainment has a domino effect on what is normalized, and subsequently accepted in society. It would be great if we were all these free thinking mavericks who are completely immune to influences from outside forces. But that simply isn’t how human nature works.
Any marginalized group that has ever made strides in this country, first had to be humanized and empowered informally by public sentiment before making any advancements via policy and civil rights.
We live on a planet where perception is reality and thanks to Al Gore’s internet that adage is more true than ever. As of today there have been 448 seasons of Big Brother broadcast in over 54 franchise countries and regions across the world. It is arguably the biggest reality show experiment in television history.
If there was ever a platform where calling out bigotry and misogyny could be impactful in a really meaningful way, on a global scale, this is probably it.
— Global TV (@GlobalTV) September 26, 2019
While some cynics may think I am overstating the facts on this, anyone who saw the embarrassed and mortified look on Michie’s face last night, and how he found it impossible to smile or rejoice even after it was announced he had won a half million dollars — knows that the world now has at least one obnoxious white man who has been frightened out of his skull about ever talking crazy to a woman or person of color again.
As a wise man once said, “Sometimes you gotta shame the devil,” and while I won’t go so far as to call Michie or even Jack a demon, the insidious disease of racial bias that perhaps unwittingly was allowed to fester inside both of them, was just stomped out in a way that we all know will haunt them forever.
Let’s hope their “bros” back home were watching the whole mortifying exchange and took note, to also watch their mouths moving forward. Big Brother is (quite literally) watching.
Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric