And now we made the NY Times Reality Show Contestants Pay a Real-World Price
On ‘Big Brother,’ Racial and Gay Slurs Abound
In the summer of 2000, when CBS first locked people in a fishbowl of a house and televised almost every second of their lives, there was a spate of bad press when a newspaper discovered that a participant had ties to the New Black Panther Party. The network quickly issued a statement that said it “will not tolerate nor permit any hate speech on the program,” called “Big Brother.”
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Aaryn Gries has lost a modeling contract because of her use of racial and gay slurs.
Since then, reality has intruded. This summer, in the show’s 15th iteration, several participants have been overheard making racist, sexist and homophobic comments about others in the house, and in the process they have reignited the oldest debate in reality television: whether the show’s producers are appropriately and fairly depicting real life in their quest to provoke and entertain viewers.
The slurs were shown on the Internet (where paying subscribers watch live feeds from the house around the clock — “See what we can’t show you on TV,” the CBS Web site says) but were not immediately on the television version of the show, whose producers distill the action into three hourly episodes each week. This troubled some loyal followers of “Big Brother,” because television viewers were seeing an incomplete picture of the participants. On a show with a $500,000 grand prize, perceptions and reputations are important.
“Why not show these people for who they actually are?” wrote the RealityBlurred.com blogger Andy Dehnart, who has cataloged what he called a torrent of offensive comments since the Season 15 premiere on June 26. “After all,” Mr. Dehnart wrote, “producers and network executives all approved them and decided to give them 90 days of attention while using them to earn money.”
Among the remarks: GinaMarie Zimmerman, who is white, was heard insulting African-Americans and equating them to “tokens.” When she referred to an African-American housemate as dark, another white contestant, Aaryn Gries, responded, “Be careful what you say in the dark; might not be able to see that bitch.” About an Asian-American participant, Ms. Gries was heard saying: “Dude, shut up. Go make some rice!” Ms. Gries was also heard criticizing an openly gay contestant, using an epithet to argue that no one would vote for the participant. Another contestant, Spencer Clawson, has uttered words, unpublishable here, targeting gays and women.
As the controversy bubbled up, CBS emphatically said that it did not condone the prejudicial comments. It said the same thing in 2011, the last time there was outrage about hateful words on the show’s Internet stream. But to some viewers, this time felt different.
“I’ve watched all but two seasons of ‘Big Brother’ and have never seen players so vocal and unapologetic about their bigotry,” said Ragan Fox, an associate professor of communication studies at California State University, Long Beach, who is gay and was a contestant in 2010.
On June 30 he wrote an open letter to the producers urging them not to sanitize the television version of the show. “What’s the point,” he asked, “in casting gay, Asian-American and African-American characters if producers are going to edit out the racism and homophobia these contestants deal with while playing the game?”
Last Wednesday’s “Big Brother” came and went without any mention of the controversy. On Sunday, though, the show addressed some of it head-on, in a way that is unusual on broadcast television.
“It was ultimately part of the story in the house,” said Allison Grodner, an executive producer of “Big Brother” since its inception, who has defended the show’s choice to cut out isolated offensive comments in past seasons.
In this case Ms. Gries became the household’s temporary leader, causing several contestants to talk about how they disapproved of her abusive language. “That gave us a launching pad to be able to tell this story,” Ms. Grodner said. Several of the offensive clips were broadcast.
“I do feel it would be irresponsible to put hate on the airwaves just for hate’s sake,” she added. “You need to have some sort of context.”
In a statement on Monday afternoon, CBS said: “We are very mindful of the important issues that have been raised by these recent comments. With regard to the broadcast version, we are weighing carefully issues of broadcast standards, an obligation to inform the audience of important elements that influence the competition, and sensitivity to how any inappropriate comments are presented.”
Sunday’s show omitted some of the misogynistic and homophobic language used by others in the house, like Mr. Clawson, but it could come up in future episodes if it becomes part of the season narrative. (The show will end its season on Sept. 18.)
“I hope this establishes a precedent for future seasons,” Mr. Fox said in an e-mail after the episode. “When production turns a blind eye to racism, sexism and homophobia, they become complicit in the very forms of hate speech they actively deny.”
Rebutting some of the online fury of the past few days, Ms. Grodner said the show’s producers do not actively “look for people who might say things like this.” She suggested that “Big Brother” was simply mirroring real life, as ugly as it sometimes is.
“Your neighbor is probably using racial slurs behind closed doors, no offense to your neighbor,” she said, pausing before adding, “There’s a very important discussion here that people will hopefully have as a result of all this.”
In the meantime, the controversy has proved costly to Ms. Gries and Ms. Zimmerman. The modeling agency that represented Ms. Gries has dropped her contract — unbeknown to her, of course, since the people in the house don’t hear from the outside world — and she has been nicknamed “Klan Barbie” by some followers of the show.
Ms. Zimmerman has lost her job as a pageant coordinator. “We are actually thankful that this show let us see GinaMarie for who she truly is,” her employer said in a statement, “as we would never want her to be a role model to our future contestants.”http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/business/media/on-big-brother-racial-and-gay-slurs-abound.html?smid=tw-nytmedia&seid=auto&_r=2&