CBS Continues to Ride the Wave of Racism on Big Brother

CBS continues to ride the wave of racism with their show Big Brother.


(Aaryn Gries and Julie Chen on Big Brother – 29 August. Source.)


The 29 August LIVE Big Brother episode that climaxed with host Julie Chen’s long-awaited interview with evicted HouseGuest Aaryn Gries, was not only the highest-rated program of the night, it was the most watched with 5.05 million viewers.

Moreover, media sources are abuzz with accounts of Chen’s interview with Gries, whose racist slurs included, “shut up and go make some rice” to Helen Kim, a Korean-American mother of two, and references to “squinty Asians.”  According to Nielsen ratings, 6.25 million viewers tuned in for Big Brother after the racism storyline first made headlines a few weeks back.


 (Aaryn Gries, speaking to HouseGuest Nick Uhas, who responds with laughter. Source.)


Commenting on the ratings boon when the racism storyline first broke, the blogger Remy writes:

“[W]e all want to scoff and say they are bad people, apparently, being terrible people is just what you need to bring in the big ratings. This does not bode well for the future of television, or society as a whole … [I]t is clear to see CBS is going to try to ride this wave as long as they can.”

Boy-oh-boy, has CBS been riding the wave.

Greg Braxton of the Los Angeles Times suggests that CBS has a double standard when it comes to bigotry.  Braxton explains that while the network criticizes Big Brother HouseGuests for offensive comments, even distancing itself from “prejudices and other beliefs that we do not condone,” main characters in highly rated CBS programs, including 2 Broke Girls and Mike and Molly, frequently make jokes about minorities that are offensive.

As her post-eviction interview with Chen came to a close, Gries explained, amidst jeers, boos, and laughter from the LIVE studio audience:

“Being Southern, it is a stereotype and I have said some things that have been taken completely out of context and wrong. I do not mean to ever come off racist … I really feel bad that this is how it has been seen and how I’ve come across to people.”

Chen replied:


“I hope after you watch the footage, you have a new perspective on things.”


We hope so too. But we hope for far more.  We hope that, among other things, the much broader issue – white male corporate elite support of all forms of media racism, overt and covert – becomes part of the narrative. Alas, we are not optimistic.  After all, racism equals big money. Profit above all else.  This is how systemic racism perseveres.  For more on the “elephant outside the room (and the BB house) … the CBS Corporation,” read gnakagawa’s insightful comments.

~ Guest blogger Shanise Burgher is a sociology honours student at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada.  April Blackbird is a sociology honours student and politics major at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada and a First Nations activist.  Dr. Kimberley A. Ducey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg.


  1. John D. Foster

    Thanks for the post. The high ratings these episodes received underscore the point made by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and others that, to the contrary of what many think, racism is oftentimes the result of rational action, not pathological, irrational thought and behavior. Do you think that, given the high ratings, networks like CBS and others will be compelled to air even more of this racist garbage?

    • Tessa and Kimberley

      Dear John D. Foster, we were so pleased to see your comments and questions. Your work has been a continual inspiration for us.

      Regarding your question Do you think that, given the high ratings, networks like CBS and others will be compelled to air even more of this racist garbage?:

      Julie Chen, BB host, was asked the following question shortly as the BB15 winner was determined: “Does it seem time to change casting procedures? Do you think its important that the producers vet people better?”

      She replied: “Absolutely not. This summer may have been controversial and offensive, but it was real. You have to keep in mind people put their best face forward during the casting interviews. We didn’t see any of this behavior during casting. And once the game starts you can’t predict how people will behave — that speaks to the unpredictability of the show.”

      Read more:

      Apparently, BIG BROTHER: AFTER DARK – the live, late night companion show to CBS’s BIG BROTHER – delivered triple-digit increases in viewers and women 25-54 for the first 10 weeks of the third quarter, according to Nielsen.

      “BIG BROTHER: AFTER DARK … helped TVGN become the fastest-growing entertainment network in the country,” said Brad Schwartz, President of Entertainment and Media, TVGN.

      BIG BROTHER: AFTER DARK drove triple-digit increases among households (+231%) and women 25-54 (+290%) in late night. BBAD has averaged 243,000 total viewers, a +238% increase in the time period and delivered TVGN’s biggest late night weekly audience ever among households and women 25-54. With L+3 ratings (available through September 7, 2013), BBAD’s audience grew significantly, averaging 364,000 total viewers.

      Read more:

      Big Brother has been renewed for summer 2014.

    • Tessa and Kimberley

      A former Big Brother winner – Dan Gheesling – says:

      “With all of the racial and derogatory comments made this season, I think this cast will impact all future Big Brother seasons from here on out.

      Apparently, I need to amend the Letter that I wrote to all of the Big Brother 15 Houseguests before the season, with a section of what NOT to say…but I digress…

      My hypothetical scenario with this cast is: if there HAD been a returning Houseguest in this group, you wouldn’t have seen those comments made over and over again.

      I’ve always felt that when you bring back returning Houseguests, it is like having another Producer in the house because of their previous experience.

      They understand how veto/nomination meetings are run, the flow of a DR, and most importantly, how they will be perceived from the outside in.

      There is no one in casting who can predict what someone will say while they are in the house, but an in-tune Houseguest with experience would have been able to derail those comments immediately.

      Because of this, I’ll be surprised if we ever see another Big Brother cast comprised completely of only new Houseguests.

      And to be honest, as a fan of Big Brother, I think it would be good for the show to see a Frank, a Danielle Donato, or a Rachel come back and compete again.

      While you may not like seeing returning Houseguests come back, it would be hard to disagree with the fact that if Big Brother continues to bring back former players to the show; it will cause Big Brother to be centered around fun gameplay, opposed to controversy.”

      Read more:

  2. gnakagawa

    Many thanks to Shanise Burgher and her co-bloggers at the University of Winnipeg for their commitment to continuing the Big Brother 15 conversation. Your thoughtful and critically informed posts offer a provocative public platform on the salient questions raised by the program’s cultural and sociopolitical implications.

    I watched, squirmed and squinted (I take satisfaction and pride in asserting that I am a lifelong “squinty Asian”) at Julie Chen’s post-eviction interviews of Aaryn Gries and Amanda Zuckerman. Media pundits and the viewing public have variously praised and criticized Chen for what has been widely described as her “grilling” of Aaryn Gries, in which Chen cited verbatim instances of the Grie’s racist invective and sought an explanation. Gries’ deer-in-the-headlights response was sad and desperate and emblematic of her implicit, taken-for-granted investment in everyday racism. The condescending and superior response of the audience – snickering, hoots, booing – was in some respects as disturbing as Gries’ obliviousness. The derisiveness expressed by some in the audience speaks less about their lack of empathy (itself a highly problematic notion) and more to our short-sightedness about their/our own complicity with historic and contemporary racial and racist formations. Her protestations about Southern stereotypes and (spuriously generalized) communication practices in Texas displayed how the simultaneous opacity and transparency of Whiteness attenuate perceptions of race and racism.

    More to the point, however, from my perspective Chen’s questioning seemed far less a “grilling” than a “blanching” (defined as “scalding briefly so as to whiten . . . and remove the odor”) of the seemingly oblivious Gries. This “blanching” extended to her subsequent interview with Amanda Zuckerman, albeit it in a very different way.

    Having dispatched Gries, who had been earmarked by mainstream media and apparently, the BB producers, as the chief racist provocateur, Chen turned her sights on Amanda Zuckerman, the most recent evictee. But based on Chen’s post-eviction interview of Zuckerman, it now appears that for CBS the racist wave has ebbed, the oppositional tide has gone out, and the BB waters are now calm.

    Apparently, Chen and CBS and BB have determined that the “race issue” has been summarily and adequately addressed at least for the time being. Documented in a video compilation over a month ago, Zuckerman’s torrent of racist and bigoted references to Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Asian Americans, people with developmental disabilities, gays and lesbians, and others was nowhere in evidence throughout the course of Chen’s interview with her. Unlike Chen’s reading of “chapter and verse” in confronting Gries’ racist comments, Zuckerman was asked only about her “bullying” of other houseguests, her “showmance” with McCrae, and other equally innocuous, in-house, game-related concerns. Not once did Chen raise concerns about Zuckerman’s egregious racist and violent allusions that arguably not only rivaled but exceeded Gries’ bigoted utterances.

    In retrospect, the absence of any mention of Zuckerman’s racist litany was a masterstroke by Chen, the BB producers, and CBS. What was accomplished in this studied and deliberate silence? First, they effectively compartmentalized and purged the in-house racism, evicting it, along with Gries and Zuckerman. Second, they diminished and conflated racism, treating it as a theme or motif no different from game strategy or a houseguest showmance. Third, they re-normalized BB 15, retrieving and recalibrating the focus on the concerns that really matter: the game-related machinations motivated by mendacity, social 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.

    In this regard Chen’s quasi-journalistic BB persona is perfectly aligned with the feckless CBS disclaimer that has opened every BB episode since mid-July. Chen’s journalistic creds notwithstanding, she embodies the corporate brand and philosophy of the CBS Corporation: Chen is the (Big) Eye Network’s avatar writ small.

    Her approach is at times appealing, even seductive, but ultimately belies motives and an agenda ulterior and exterior to the confines of the BB and CBS corporate house. While I have no reason to doubt Chen’s journalistic integrity, her intentions like the errant intentions of the BB houseguests are always already overdetermined by historical, socio-political, cultural and ultimately, economic forces driving the CBS Corporation’s agenda. Further, the intentions of both Chen and the BB houseguests are substantively overdetermined by the systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia historically framing the goings-on in this house that CBS literally and figuratively constructed.

    By compartmentalizing, sequestering and disclaiming racism, Chen, the BB producers, and CBS have effectively reproduced and sustained the conditions for its accommodation and perpetuation. Now evicted and exiled in its private and privatized room, not unlike the unseen jury house, racism is hidden (at least temporarily) from sight.

    Ultimately, the whole of the BB enterprise (and the CBS Corporation’s lifeless commitment to diversity and social responsibility) has been and continues to be circumscribed by White hegemony, or in Joe Feagin’s terms, the White Racial Frame.

    There’s much, much more to say, but I’ve already taken up too much bandwidth. Again, with much appreciation to our Canadian friends and allies for continuing the conversation . . .

    • Tessa and Kimberley

      So happy to have read your insightful comments. I wonder if you have read “‘You are Not Allowed to Talk about Production’: Narratization on (and off) the Set of CBS’s Big Brother” by Dr. Ragan Fox, the former BB contestant/reality star?

      Critical Studies in Media Communication
      Volume 30, Issue 3, 2013

      In this autoethnographic account, I critically interrogate my experiences on and off the set of CBS’s reality show Big Brother. Pulling from phenomenological theories of time and narrative, I investigate how members of the show’s production, Big Brother viewers, and I performatively rendered gay identity in the immediate contexts of the program and its fan forums.

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