03 September 2013
This is the first season that the prejudices of Big Brother’s “slice of America” cast have made national headlines and affected the game (and thus been actually broadcast on the CBS show). But it’s been happening for years. In a larger sense, I suppose it’s a good thing that, because of this show, there’s finally at least a small national discussion happening about the very-much-still-alive racism in the United States (you go, BBCanada and your general acceptance of all human beings!) but on a personal level, it does make me a little sad that years of comments have gone unnoticed while this cast is lampooned (and fired from their real-life jobs!) for what I think are culturally ingrained insensitivities more than actual racism.
In order to start to finally eliminate those culturally ingrained insensitivities, it’s important that we not only recognize the vitriol some people have poised at the tip of their tongue but that we fully chastise them for it (but if we could do it without condemning them, wouldn’t that show such wonderful higher ground?). I would argue that 95% of the problem is that these people (these ones in particular, not all people who say racist things) think they’re being funny. With the hatred now pointed at them and the massive negative effect this will have on their lives, at least everyone has stopped laughing.
There are 4 major participants in this year’s controversy (apart from host Julie Chen who is, for the first time in 14 years, an interesting person to watch now that the prejudice- in particular some remarks about Asians- has lit a spark in her). Let’s look at them one by one.
Starting with Spencer, who I don’t think should actually be a part of this argument. Spencer doesn’t speak with the same casual prejudice of the others. He doesn’t use hateful language (at least that I’ve seen) and none of the hot-button things he’s said have been attacks against the other houseguests. Rather, he speaks like someone who assumes everyone will get his jokes (or his points in a more serious debate). Sure, he’s offensive to some (there was a child pornography thing that got some goats, but he clearly wasn’t endorsing the practice!) but they’re offensive in the “I can’t believe he just said that!” way that standup comedians often joke. They don’t reveal any fundamental belief that Puerto Ricans are smelly or gay people are gross. I’m quite adamant that there’s been a little too much taking things deliberately out of context where Spencer is concerned and saying Hitler was an effective leader (which he was- effective at spreading evil) Obviously does not make you a Nazi supporter.
Aaryn, on the other hand, hasn’t been taken at all out of context. She’s the poster child for this season’s depressing backwardsness (when Jerry showed prejudice in season 10 everyone ignored it because he’s ancient but the fact that Aaryn is 22 and college educated Terrified people). She said what she said and there’s no getting around that. And while I do think Aaryn was trying to be funny and I do think she just forgot that people don’t always react like they would in Texas (we hope), the truth of the matter is that Aaryn is a mean person. She’s defensive and self-victimizing and just plain vindictive. Do I think she really believes that all Asian people should just make rice and do pedicures? No I do not (the respect she clearly developed for Helen argues that pretty well). Do I think she hated Candice specifically because Candice was black? No I do not. I think she hated Candice because she’s a hateful girl and likes to hate people (she had plenty of hate for Elissa but not that much for Howie). She picked on Jessie (in one of the meanest most upsetting confrontations of the summer) just because Jessie wasn’t in with the cool kids. She flipped Candice’s bed because Candice was in Jessie’s alliance and that alliance had voted out her idiot boyfriend and Candice’s bed was nearby and Candice wasn’t in the room. Aaryn said some crazy stupid offensive things that I honestly am going to mostly blame on Texas, but I don’t think she actually meant them. I think she said them because she’s mean and doesn’t have it in her limited Texan brain to express her hatred for people in anything other than superficial ways.
Next up- GinaMarie. This one makes me sad. I think GinaMarie is a lovely person. I really do. I mean, she’s a nutter, but I think she has a really good heart. She seems to genuinely care about people, she’s kind and loyal and has a joy about her that is really infectious. But GinaMarie’s not the smartest girl on the block (okay, she’s a terrifying display of American ignorance). She doesn’t understand the consequences of her words or the nuances of socio-political conflict. GinaMarie says stuff because she’s heard other people say it- whether it be “her girl Aaryn” or them folks back on Staten Island. She doesn’t think before she speaks and that Monster temper of hers doesn’t help (the only time I’ve genuinely disliked GM was when she took the fight with Candice too far on the live show). GM doesn’t know any better and the extent of her carelessness can be immeasurable, but I honestly don’t believe that she has a hateful bone in her body. Unedited and on the internet was not the place for GinaMarie; it may well have ruined her life (like Aaryn, GM lost her job early in the season but is yet to find out). She doesn’t need to be made an example of. She doesn’t need to be publicly shamed or called evil or even labeled racist for the rest of her life. What GM needs is sensitivity training because I honestly think that if she knew what she was saying she wouldn’t say it.
And, finally- Amanda. This is the frustrating one for me because Amanda’s issues cannot be pinned on cultural insensitivity. Amanda is older than Aaryn, smarter than GM, more educated than most, and definitely not from Texas. Amanda is a modern, liberal, socially aware person. And she’s said some of the most vile things ever heard in the Big Brother house (for the purposes of this Footnote we’ll focus just on race and sexual orientation; for everything else please see Footnote #3 in the next post). Amanda’s problem is that she forgets where she is. She forgets that she’s not in a bar with her similarly minded friends. She’s on national TV in front of and representing a country that still has Massive racism and homophobia. In Amanda’s head, she’s post-racial. She knows she doesn’t think black people or gay people or anybody else is inherently bad just for being black or gay or whatever. So she makes jokes she thinks she’s Entitled to make because, being post-racial, she’s earned the right to not bother being politically correct. She thinks that as long as it’s true, she can say it (the most notable examples being the play on words “Faggotty Andy” and calling Candice “Shaniqua” when, for some unhelpful and bizarre reason, all of Candice’s usual class and eloquence abandoned her in a screaming match with Amanda and she reduced to a demeaning caricature). I get it, Amanda, it’s massively frustrating having to adapt your behavior to acknowledge that not everyone is as enlightened as you. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could finally treat race and sexual orientation each as just one frank adjective in a larger human puzzle, like height or weight? (Although, I’d like to point out that whenever Elissa calls you fat- which she doesn’t do explicitly, but she still does it, and it feels mean- you Completely Flip Out). But that’s not where you live. You live in a place where there are people who say what you say and mean it in the most extreme terms (“Faggoty Andy” to Amanda is a joke about Andy’s red hair and flamboyant ways wrapped up in a fun little rhyme but there are people all over the country who would call Andy a faggot because they believe that he should be used as kindling and burned alive for the crime of being gay, the word “faggot” literally meaning “bundle of sticks” to be set on fire). Amanda- who seems incapable of thinking about anyone other than Amanda- doesn’t think she should have to be considerate of the fact that the words she’s using have been historically and are still currently used to belittle and hate (taking for granted her own supposed lack of prejudice) and thus she accomplishes even more than Aaryn in presenting to a racist and homophobic country the vernacular of racism and homophobia.
As the season has progressed, the darker side of Amanda has emerged and she has replaced Aaryn as the principal villain. But in the early days that was not the case. Amanda used to be one of the heroes and you only ever saw her standing up for the little guy and calling Aaryn out on her racism. You had to hit the internet to find footage of Amanda’s offensive remarks because the CBS show only aired prejudice coming from the “bad guy” side of the house (aka the Coalition of Evil Hotties aka Aaron and GinaMarie). This is what drives me the most crazy about this whole thing- the arbitrary assignment of goodness. The producers decided who was a good guy and who was a bad guy and picked and chose the prejudice they would air based on that. I understand that they finally put it on the network show this year because it was affecting Aaryn’s game (when things like Amber’s anti-semitism in season 8 technically did not and thus didn’t make the show), but why did GM have to be thrown in when “good guys” like Amanda weren’t? The example that irks me the most actually goes back a few seasons. If you want to talk about prejudice, you have to examine the actual thought process behind what people are saying. One of the most offensive things I have ever heard on Big Brother was when Jeff Schroeder earnestly suggested that Dumbledore couldn’t be gay because you wouldn’t want a gay man in charge of students at a school. Now, CBS’s big argument is that it wasn’t relevant to the game so it didn’t get shown, but Jeff was one of the most popular contestants in history, he won all sorts of Fan Favourite and America’s Choice-type things that put him at a game advantage and won him money. His popularity sent him back into the house for another go-around and got him his current job hosting the post-show on CBS.com. What Jeff said about Dumbledore reveals a far deeper prejudice than calling someone a name or telling them to make rice. Jeff wasn’t using offensive words, he was saying, matter of factly and without room for interpretation, that gay people are dangerous and not to be trusted with the care of innocent children. That Is What Prejudice Is! It’s literally that- the fundamental belief that someone is bad because they are ________ (in this case the word is “gay” but it could be anything that’s actually inconsequential- race, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, age, whatever). And yet no one even blinked at season 11. They loved Jeff. They still love Jeff. Even though I would argue that Jeff’s prejudice blows right past Aaryn’s; it’s just not as flashy. But CBS decided that Jeff was a good guy. They couldn’t let their good guy look bad, even if it was unfair to hide it.
This season’s dark side has been incredibly pronounced. It’s been inescapable and full of choice quotations that are easy to splash across the internet and newspaper headlines. But this particular “slice of America” cast isn’t any worse than those that came before it (unless we’re talking about actual gameplay, in that sense they’re pretty terrible). This time people are just paying attention because they don’t have to think too hard about who the villains are, CBS is ready to hand them over.