(Feature Photo from CBS.com)
Big Brother (the U.S. version) is nearing the end of its eighteenth season. As someone who has been watching since the very beginning, I can tell you it’s not a terribly prestigious show to be a fan of. Most people my age are surprised to discover that it’s still on the air, since they can’t name a single person they know who actually watches it. But every July, without fail, it returns to the CBS lineup. Year after year, Big Brother is kept alive by a mostly silent but intensely loyal fan base. (It’s sort of like the Nickelback of television in that regard.)
Why do I watch? Because it’s fascinating. It’s a three-month long social experiment that I get to observe while sitting on my comfy couch and eating popcorn. It’s a microcosm of the western world; a (not quite random) sampling of America. It’s a popularity contest with a $500,000 prize, and sometimes, when they get the mix of people just right, the underdog wins.
So who’s the underdog? Well, just like in life, Big Brother‘s underdogs are any contestants who are not straight white males. We can blame the casting process for this, to a point. People of colour are vastly underrepresented on the show, and it’s a rare season that includes more than one sexual minority. Alliances usually form between like-minded individuals. Straight white dudes are typically in the majority, and they frequently decide to work together.
On paper, women get a fair shake at the outset. The cast is always split 50/50 by gender. On Day 1, there are just as many women are there are men, so why are the ladies only pulling out 29% of the wins?
For one thing, physical competitions play a huge role in advancing one’s game on Big Brother. The show has featured a handful of female “competition beasts” over the years (Rachel, Janelle, and Daniele, to name pretty much all of them) but that short list is nothing compared to the revolving door of brawny men who have consistently taken the gold.
In past years, the crews were motlier, but over time the cast has slowly but surely slanted younger and more conventionally attractive. As a result, each season of late has introduced us to a gaggle of cute, mostly slim women, and at least six ripped dude bros. The deck, as they say, is stacked.
There’s more to the game than just physical prowess, mind you. Strategy is crucial. In order to succeed at Big Brother, you have to know how to read people, how to endear them to you, how to hedge your bets. You have to do the best you can with the cards you’re dealt. And just like in the real world, some people start with fewer cards.
Da’Vonne was one of my favourite players this year. She’s funny and charismatic, with an obvious love of the game. Her face could not contain the joy she felt with every twist and surprise Big Brother threw at her. Her excitement was contagious; you could feel how desperately she enjoyed competing.
She started strong this season. She used her charm and her knack for reading people to navigate the game with ease. She was extremely focused and determined. And then a contestant named Frank smacked her ass.
In that moment, the real world came screaming back, reminding Da’Vonne of her “place.” Here, in the middle of a contest for half a million dollars, she found herself unable to concentrate on strategy. Instead, she was tasked with figuring out how to respond to this blatant sexual harassment without jeopardizing her standing in the game.
She wanted to hit Frank, but hitting another houseguest gets you disqualified. She wanted to scream at Frank, but she couldn’t risk angering him since he was the one in power that week. She knew the smartest move for her game was to stay quiet and ignore Frank’s behaviour, but she agonized over the message that such a passive response would send to her daughters, who were watching at home.
Frustrated and powerless, Da’Vonne spilled angry tears in the diary room, requesting help from the producers. Help never came, and eventually, she resigned herself to downplaying her feelings and reassuring Frank that things were ok between them. Frank offered her a half-assed apology and went on with his day, barely giving the situation a second thought.
So, to sum up: Da’Vonne was forced to choose between success and self-respect, while Frank got to keep his head in the game. Advantage: Men!
While hitting is a no-no, Big Brother contestants are permitted to say whatever they want to and about each other. This has led to some truly disgusting moments. Contestants have said racist things, homophobic things, and many, many sexist things. This season alone, Frank has called Da’Vonne a slut and Zakiyah a hussy, Paul has called Michelle the c word, and Paulie has called lots of women lots of things.
Ah, Paulie. There are too many examples of his egregiousness for me to list here, so I’ll just hit some highlights: Paulie had a showmance with a houseguest named Zakiyah, and he treated her like complete crap. He cut her down over and over for being too “emotional” and bragged to his buddies after having sex with her. He also made rude comments about another female houseguest’s breast implants, and commanded her to put her booty away because it was distracting him (which is a little rich coming from a guy who doesn’t appear to own any shirts).
Paulie constantly complained about women being overly emotional, which is why it was super satisfying to watch him sob uncontrollably in the diary room after being nominated for eviction against his best pal, Corey. Upon a brief return to the house after his eviction, Paulie hugged his fellow dude bros with a passion matched only by Ennis and Jack in that scene in Brokeback, slamming into their arms and clutching onto their bodies for dear life. In stark contrast, he hugged each female contestant briskly and coldly before moving down the chain. His physical reaction to his male friends was fascinating to watch; an intriguing mix of hyper-masculinity and homoeroticism. It left me with the unmistakable impression that Paulie may only be capable of expressing emotion when he’s among men.
Paulie’s eviction delighted women in and out of the house. In his exit interview with Julie Chen, he expressed no regrets. Even now, trapped in a jury house full of women, with nothing but time to reflect on his actions and words, he expresses no regrets. Spending his summer surrounded by women has done nothing to change his views. He appears to be a lost cause, and he’s only 27.
The big finale is happening in just under two weeks. Paulie will get to cast a vote for who wins. I doubt he’ll vote for a woman. In fact, I doubt there will be any women left for him to choose from. Thursday’s eviction episode revealed our final five: a tiny blonde woman, a short, stocky Asian guy, and three burly, fair-skinned (and frequently shirtless) dudes. I don’t love those odds.
If Big Brother is meant to emulate the real world, then I suppose it’s pretty accurate (which is depressing). I really feel like the show is squandering its potential. It’s a window into what happens when people are forced to get to know strangers. It could be groundbreaking, if the casting were truly diverse.
CBS needs to make a deliberate effort to include more people who aren’t white, aren’t young, aren’t straight, aren’t male. If they’re willing to do this, we’ll have one hell of a season on our hands. If they’re not, then they may as well go whole hog and cast Season 19 exclusively with frat boys.
At least then I’d know not to bother watching.
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