Bigot Brother: Reality TV and White Denial, Pt.2

Reality TV celebrities Aaryn Gries, GinaMarie Zimmerman, and Amanda Zukerman are receiving some attention for their bigotry on CBS’s Big Brother, as we explained here.

Still, a measure of that narrative is largely missing. There is a particular burden of responsibility placed on racial minorities in the Big Brother House.  Following his eviction on 1 August, Big Brother host Julie Chen asked Howard Overby, who is black, why he “didn’t confront [the racism] head-on and say, ‘I’m not going to put up with this?’”  He replied, “It’s probably the hardest thing in the world.”

Above: Big Brother 15 HouseGuest GinaMarie Zimmerman speaking about fellow HouseGuest, Candice Stewart. (Image source)

Various media sources have gone so far as to dub Howard, “Coward”, for allegedly choosing to remain silent in pursuit of the $500,000 prize. In other words, not only are racial minorities assumed to be solely responsible for speaking out against racism in the Big Brother House; they are reprimanded when they allegedly refuse to do so.  And, as we have seen (see Part 1), they are dubbed by white HouseGuests as unreasonable, antagonistic, and intellectually narrow-minded when they confront racism.

Indeed, why have the white HouseGuests (with the exception of Elissa Slater) remained bystanders (at best)?  Why is it the responsibility of racial minorities to educate whites on racism?  Why is the onus of challenging racism placed on racial minorities?  Why is the broader context of racism omitted from most media discussions of the issues?

Dr. Ragan Fox, who was part of the season 12 cast of Big Brother in 2010, and who is an Associate Professor of Communication at California State University, argues that CBS has ignored the broader context:

“Racism and homophobia are unfortunately common, ordinary, everyday phenomena. When Big Brother constructs a narrative that suggests anti-gay and anti-people of color speech is extraordinary and relegated to a single person [i.e., Aaryn Gries] … the show misses the point … Ratings jumped by over a million viewers when they initially included racism into the plot. Viewers are clearly ready for a more nuanced discussion about race and sexuality in the House….”

 

As for the HouseGuest who has received the most attention for her bigotry, Gries suggested that she is likely being portrayed unfairly on television as a “racist bitch”.  She more recently speculated that she might be portrayed as “misunderstood”. When talk in the Big Brother House turns to racial slurs, Gries argues that she would not make racial slurs because it would be “dangerous” once she left the reality show.  The fact that racism is immoral, unjust, and cruel seems lost on her!  In defense of herself, Gries says she got caught in the middle of being a “mean girl” because she thought people were against her and she was just trying to fight back.

Despite her apparent awareness of how she likely comes across to most Big Brother fans, Gries continues to utter racist slurs. As seen on the Internet feeds on 1 August, talking about Candice Stewart, she commented: “Hey Aunt Jemima, make me some pancakes”.

Recently, she asked other white HouseGuests, “So, you guys think I should do a tweet that says ‘white power?’”  A white HouseGuest advised her not to do so. In response, Gries laughed and said she was kidding, proceeding to discuss the Confederate flag. She explained that some people think the flag is racist and added, “You can’t do anything. You can’t breathe or you’re racist.”

Gries claims she will not read anything about herself in the press once she leaves Big Brother because she will be too affected if what is said about her is “mean.”  Reportedly, she will have some assistance in controlling the consequences of her appalling behavior now that her mother has hired a PR firm to help with spin control.

We suggest she hire a critical race theorist to tutor her.

Indeed, through denial and spin control, Gries may largely escape what she perceives as unwarranted meanness; unfortunately, racial minorities are unable to escape the “reality” of racism. 

Big Brother demonstrates this.  Just ask Stewart and Overby.  Overby says that the racism was “disheartening,” but he was kind of prepared for it, “I was kind of [expecting it]”.

~ This post was written by guest bloggers April Blackbird, sociology honours student and politics major at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada and a First Nations activist; Shanise Burgher is a sociology honours student at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada; and Dr. Kimberley A. Ducey, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg.

Comments

  1. gnakagawa

    Many thanks for your insightful postings about the ongoing racialized and racist (as well as sexist and homophobic) interactions in the Big Brother 15 house. Your analysis of the hegemony of Whiteness and the persistence of the White Racial Frame, in Joe Feagin’s terms, rightly calls attention to the micro BB culture and climate that manifest and reproduce macro social forces. Also, the complex racialized expressions and performances in both “frontstage” and “backstage” (Picca & Feagin) settings demonstrate the pervasiveness of the everyday practice of racism and power. It’s worth noting that outside the house, for the viewing audience, the boundary between frontstage and backstage contexts is porous and permeable. The BB audience, thanks to the 24/7 feed, has access to all public and faux “private” interactions among the Houseguests. The spectacle of the Houseguests’ oppressive words and deeds are available for all to see at any and all times, where public and private become diffused into a voyeuristic space where everything that can be seen and heard will be seen and heard, with occasional “real” consequences (e.g., the firings of Aaryn and GinaMarie from their respective jobs).

    The elephant outside the room (and the BB house) is, of course, the CBS Corporation. Among the world’s largest media conglomerates, CBS in 2012 grossed over $14 billion (with over 60% coming from its entertainment division), exceeding the respective GDPs of Cambodia, Albania, Senegal, Nicaragua, Iceland, among numerous other nations. BB 15, one of CBS’s highest rated summer programs has been and is a mainstay source of year-round revenue for CBS. Consequently, any response emanating from CBS is guaranteed to protect its highly profitable investment, and as the old saying attributed to Phineas T. Barnum goes, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” (It’s worth noting that BB 15 ratings spiked immediately after the initial disclosure about Houseguests’ racist conduct and remained consistently high since that time.)

    So what was CBS’ vaunted response to the public outcry around the Houseguests’ overtly racist, sexist and homophobic words and conduct? A program-opening disclaimer declaring that “At times, the Houseguests may reveal prejudices and other beliefs that CBS does not condone. Views or opinions expressed by a Houseguest are those of the individuals speaking and do not represent the views or opinions of CBS.” The brilliance here lies in CBS’ self-eviction strategy. By “not condoning” certain “prejudices and other beliefs,” you can inhabit, or in social justice parlance “occupy” the high ground, while simultaneously not ever having to exercise responsibility and take socially conscionable actions. An ingenious tactic for evicting yourself from accountability for foreseeable and (un)intended consequences! This way, you can reject both the sin and the sinner without ever having to say or do anything that would exact any virtual or real world consequences. Likewise, the “personal” outrage expressed by CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves and by BB 15 host Julie Chen is no doubt sincere and heartfelt. And while we can appreciate their expressed concern, their abject failure to intervene decisively and professionally only serves to support the increasingly problematic trend toward privatizing and personalizing racism, rather than recognizing its always already public face and institutional grounding.

    “Two-faced racism” (frontstage and backstage) persists not only in the nitwit rants of Aaryn or GinaMarie or Spencer or Amanda or even in the complicit silence or infrequent meager and meaningless opposition of their equally mindless housemates. Racism persists first, last, and most perniciously in the Big Brother/CBS Corporation’s hands-off, perversely self-aggrandizing inaction. But thanks to its disclaimer (a classic “empty signifier” if ever there were), we rest in the consolation knowing that “CBS Cares.” And as always, we know exactly what CBS cares about.

    Thanks again for your excellent postings!

    • Joe

      Thanks for sharp comments. You are right , the much bigger issue is that white male corporate elite’s support or all types of media racism, overt and covert. Profit over all, indeed because of the racism they make big money. That is how systemic racism persists.

    • Tessa and Kimberley

      Thank you gnakagawa!

      Your reply is the best and most important analysis of “Big Brother” that I have read; and, I have read much of what has been written about season 15. I hope all “Big Brother” fans, especially those who refuse to be bystanders, will read your words and more fully understand what is truly going on here.

      I will share your response with my sociology students come fall term 2013. I will encourage them (and myself) to aspire to the kind of analysis that you offer.

      My students/co-bloggers, Shanise and April, are most grateful as well.

      Joe and Jessie: thank you for launching and maintaining RacismReview and making this dialogue possible.

      Warmest regards and much thanks, Kimberley in Winnipeg Canada

      • gnakagawa

        Thanks for the kind words! Your thoughtful two-part post came at an especially opportune time for me. I’ve been working on a brief essay about CBS’s Big Brother disclaimer as emblematic of an ethic (or lack thereof) of neoliberalism and social Darwinism. Here’s a short excerpt from the in-progress piece:

        “The ascendance of cutthroat free market individualism has captured the day, and nowhere is it on display more conspicuously (24/7, if you follow the live feed) than in CBS’ quintessential hands-off, non-regulatory response to a program that elevates mendacity, Darwinism, Ayn Randy-ism (the “y” is not a mistake – the sexual vibes and hookups are off the hook, dude), mercenary greed, vulgarity, and privatization of racist, sexist, and homophobic expressions and actions to unimagined heights in the reality TV pantheon.”

        If you’ve any interest, I’d be glad to send you a copy.

        Finally, I’d like to add my deep appreciation to Joe and to Jessie Daniels for their oversight of Racism Review, which offers consistently incisive and provocative (in the best sense) postings from an excellent group of contributors. Kudos and thanks!

        • Tessa and Kimberley

          Thank you gnakagawa.

          Your essay about CBS’s disclaimer as emblematic of an ethic (or lack thereof) of neoliberalism and social Darwinism is clearly an important work and one I would very much like to read. I anxiously await its publication so that many others can benefit from your wisdom. I would appreciate very much a copy of your work. Thank you sincerely.

          In the meantime, in case you have not read it, you might want to check out “Real Racism: What Aaryn Gries Reveals about Reality TV” at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/08/25/real-racism-what-aaryn-gries-reveals-about-reality-tv.html.

          Here is an excerpt:

          “Reality television programs are produced to maximize audiences at a comparatively inexpensive price,” says Dr. Bryan Denham, Professor of Communications Studies at Clemson University and co-author of a 2008 academic paper about reality TV called Survival of the Stereotypical. “They do so,” he explains, “by reproducing social stereotypes.”

          Dr. Denham doesn’t believe this happens on purpose, rather, he points out that the show runners, judges, and network executives are most likely white people with the same pre-existing assumptions. These ideas about races are so ingrained they might not even notice what they are doing. But some viewers have pointed out that it’s quite a coincidence that contestants with extreme racial viewpoints just happen to be on one of the few seasons of BB to feature three contestants of color. Certainly, the controversy has created more buzz around this season of BB than any in recent memory, giving a big boost to ratings—though Song and the Sistahs have stopped watching in disappointment, and it’s not hard to imagine other people of color have done similarly. But has the controversy actually done anything about racism? Not really.

          Aaryn Gries deserves the fallout for what she’s said and done. But the idea that by dealing with Gries we will “deal” with racism on reality television is ridiculous. She becomes a sacrifice whose very punishment is the thing that allows us, the mainstream audience, to continue watching, snug and smug inside our own non-racist self-conceptions. Turning racism into a story with a villain—instead of an underlying force of our existence—guarantees that any resulting conversation will go nowhere, mean nothing, and quickly be forgotten. Indeed, despite the anger at Gries inside and outside the house, all of the contestants of color have been sent home, while she remains. Given the chance to put someone up for elimination, America has repeatedly chosen other houseguests.

          The problem with crucifying someone is that they rise again. All Gries had to do was keep her head down and play well, let other “scandals” happen inside the house, and leave the rest to the producers. Already, conversations about race and racism have receded into the background. In a Very Special Episode on August 18th, we watched GinaMarie (BB’s “other racist”) befriend houseguest Helen Kim, giving us a nice hint of a Hollywood movie ending, where getting to know a person of color instantly erases centuries of racism. But even if GinaMarie’s mind changed at all in that conversation (which I doubt), that’s just a personal growth moment for a white person, and all the contestants of color are still gone.

          Aaryn Gries is racist. But calling her out on her racism while ignoring our own? That’s racist too.”

          In closing, sincere thanks gnakagawa for your inspiring and important work.

        • Tessa and Kimberley

          gnakagawa, did you see this? It is from July but I did not come upon it until yesterday.

          By Kolten Parker

          July 17, 2013

          SAN MARCOS — A student group at Texas State University is calling on administrators to punish and possibly expel student Aaryn Gries, a contestant on “Big Brother” who was recorded making derogatory remarks on the reality TV show.

          To continue reading this story, you will need to be a digital subscriber to ExpressNews.com.

        • Tessa and Kimberley

          Thank you for your question Joe. Slice TV in Canada is currently casting “reality stars” for the second season of Big Brother Canada. The first season was a big hit. I have not been able to find any written sources, thus far, about America’s current season of Big Brother in the Canadian press. But interestingly, back in 2012, on-air bullying, racist comments, and the description of one of the housemates as a “r*tard” led to complaints about the U.K. version of Big Brother from reality TV producer Endemol. U.K. media regulator Ofcom received more than 1200 complaints over its content, which reportedly lead to trouble for Britain’s Channel 5.

        • Tessa and Kimberley

          The “Toronto Star” has a brief mention this morning about the latest evicted HouseGuest, but no comments on anything substantial.

          Here a few older links of international news discussing Aaryn Gries:

          Germany:
          http://m.focus.de/panorama/prominente-verlierer/verlierer-des-tages-aaryn-gries_aid_1034690.html

          France:
          http://soirmag.lesoir.be/%E2%80%9Cbig-brother%E2%80%9D-usa-scandale-suite-%C3%A0-des-propos-racistes-2013-07-04-30996

          Italy:
          http://www.tvblog.it/post/347119/grande-fratello-u-s-aaryn-gries-polemiche

          Spain:
          http://www.vertele.com/noticias/despedidas-por-comentarios-racistas-en-gran-hermano-usa/

          Bloggers, and other news sources, when they mention racism on Big Brother nowadays seem to rely on less recent comments made by HouseGuests, while some bloggers consider discussions of racism “old news”. However, if they listened to the LIVE FEEDS daily they would hear racist slurs continually uttered.

          Interesting side-note: GinaMarie is now hanging out with Elissa (Aaryn, who has been her ally, is likely to be evicted this Thursday – she was nominated for eviction by Elissa) and has started to openly discuss Aaryn’s racist comments (GinaMaire seems oblivious to her own comments and is clearly in white denial mode). Just yesterday on the LIVE FEEDS, GinaMarie explained to Elissa that she is starting to see the racist attitudes of which Elissa has been outspoken (such as Aaryn recently saying there is a “swarm” of Black people in Texas).

          But meanwhile on the LIVE FEEDS on 25 August at
          12:56am, “Aaryn says they can’t have fried rice anymore because she evicted the only Asian in the House and no one else knows how to make it. She and GinaMarie laugh hysterically. McCrae is laughing too, but trying not to show it. GinaMarie asks him ‘You don’t find this funny?’
          Aaryn replies, ‘He does. He just doesn’t want to laugh in front of America.'”

          Meanwhile, Amanda’s – McCrae’s Big Brother girlfriend – comments and behavior grow worse and yet, she continues to receive a favorable edit from CBS (the Amanda the TV audience sees is not the Amanda we, the LIVE FEEDERS, see). Elissa, who I would argue has been the only white non-bystander in the Big Brother House (and she has endured the wrath of other white HouseGuests again and again as a result) was bullied endlessly by Amanda two days ago because Elissa nominated Aaryn and Amanda’s boyfriend for eviction. Amanda admitted on the LIVE FEEDS that her behavior towards Elissa is an attempt to get Elissa to self-evict. I believe production, from what we got to see on the LIVE FEEDS (CBS cuts to a fish tank and a “please stand by” notice when they want to block anything that’s said or done from the LIVE FEEDS) firmly “asked” Amanda to stop. But like everything else with Big Brother, bullying is apparently “entertaining”, great for ratings ($$$), but can be omitted from the TV episodes as if it did not happen if production deems that necessary; thus, it’s a win-win situation for CBS. Plus, the Big Brother rule book does not prohibit such behavior unless it becomes physical.

          As a final point, I think this Thursday will be a BIG ratings pull for CBS because, right now, it looks like Aaryn will be evicted. This means she will come face-to-face with Julie Chen (Chen interviews all evicted HouseGuests on LIVE TV), who has spoken out about how hurt she has been by Aaryn’s comments about Asians and other racial minorities. Surely bloggers, the media, etc. will be listening closely to the exchange between Aaryn and Julie. Julie Chen had recently said that when she does come face-to-face with Aaryn she will remain the “neutral” journalist.

          From an online media report:
          “It is tough, and the toughest one hasn’t happened yet, which would be Aaryn,” Chen [said]. “Like anything else emotions run high, whether you’re in the [‘Big Brother’] house or you’re watching as a viewer who’s appalled or offended, as I have been at times this season —and also as the show’s viewers have been. I have to take a beat and say to myself, ‘OK, what’s my job here? What’s going to happen once that person does his or her three-and-a-half-minute live interview with me?’ A lot of the behavior this year can be chalked up to ignorance, youth and immaturity and I’m hopeful I can approach it in the right way — that I can plant a seed in that person’s head where they walk out and, instead of being humiliated or furious or embarrassed, they think, ‘Wow, was I that girl in the house? Was I really that ugly?’ I know everyone wants me to tell them off, but that’s not my job,” Chen says. “Trust me, plenty of other people will do that once she walks out of the house. I have to be a bigger person and a mature host who’s going to be neutral when all is said and done.”
          Source for Chen quotation: http://forums.jokersupdates.com/ubbthreads/showthreaded.php?Board=bbnewsandrumors&Number=20538081#ixzz2cgaGQdxT

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