Is Big Brother racist? In an interview with CBS state media, Entertainment Weekly, Big Brother host Julie Chen Moonves was asked by Dalton Ross about what the show will do to address racism on this season, BB23, beyond representation in its cast members (though he did not use the word “racism”). This was her reply:
Well, we’ve never shied away from addressing any racial issue that comes out. We air it, and then when the person ends up leaving the house, they get questioned on it. And for better or for worse, that person gets judged and tried on the internet. And the hope is that people will own it, learn from it, and move on from it. And everyone can move on from it. If someone truly changes and apologizes, who are any of us to judge?
Saying they have “never shied away” is complete bullshit. Despite what she says in those first two sentences, Big Brother and CBS have spent most of the show’s life doing exactly the opposite. There have been decades of racist, homophobic, sexist language and behavior from Big Brother cast members that the show not only ignored, but edited out, creating fictional versions of the people who said them, and protecting the image of the producers’ darlings.
CBS favorite Jeff Schroeder used gay slurs during a fight. Instead of addressing it, CBS then cast Jeff on another show and invited him back to play Big Brother two seasons later, when he went on another anti-gay rant. CBS aired none of it. What they did instead was release an empty statement that released themselves of responsibility, and pretended that not broadcasting this was taking the high road—even though Survivor broadcast some homophobia the previous year.
The producers basically created fictional characters by removing all of the bad behavior and bigotry, so the millions of people who only watch the CBS show—the vast majority of Big Brother’s audience—never know the full story. The production even edited its own live show to prevent a cast member from pointing this out. During BB11, Chima told the show’s host that Braden “called YOU a whore, Julie.” The show censored that, just like it edited out Braden’s use of extensive racial slurs during a fight but left in a Latina woman’s response, effectively making her look like she was bringing up race out of the blue, when she’d actually been the target of a racial slur. (Read the full story.)
In 2013, during BB15, the most vile season, Julie Chen Moonves and/or the producers and/or the network did decide to challenge one houseguest who’d made racist comments, but effectively ignored all the others and thus scapegoated her. To the show’s credit, it did show Aaryn footage of her racist statements. But Julie’s language was also pathetically weak; her opening was, “you said some pretty harsh things.” And besides not giving the same treatment to all the cast members, literally weeks earlier, Big Brother had Jeff Schroeder on as a guest, once again portraying him as a lovable goofball, not someone who’d said vile and bigoted things inside that very same house.
Big Brother 13 did not mark a turning point or change the show. Four years later, Big Brother’s producers sanitized Cody’s bigoted comments about trans people, among other things. Probably because most viewers watch the edited TV show—not the live feeds—he won $25,000 when he was voted fan favorite. Even when houseguests haven’t used racial slurs or other bigoted language, there has still been racism and bigotry bubbling to the surface, like it did during season 22. Meanwhile, the show gives implict racism a chance to become part of the game with their thoughtless twists, like BB21’s episode-one banishment.
All the while, CBS and its executives have defended the show, because it’s a cash cow. And despite what Julie Chen Moonves told EW, CBS has given itself credit for not addressing things directly, like in this statement. Speaking of statements, has shown such disinterest in addressing racism on the show that it has just copied and pasted the same bland statement year after year, acting as if they had no control over what was happening on their show, on their set. In 2018, when there was repeated unwanted touching and implicitly racist language being used, the network finally said that cast members “[had] been warned about their inappropriate behavior and offensive comments, as well as future consequences.”
Yet the very next year, one of the show’s producers tried to get a Black female cast member, Kemi, to talk and act in a more stereotypical way while simultaneously editing out violent language two white men, Jack and Jackson, had used toward Kemi. The racism is coming not just from inside the house, but inside the production.
The racism, homophobia, sexism and bigotry is disturbing and unacceptable, at the very least because of how it affects the people it’s aimed toward, both personally and in the context of a half-million dollar game. CBS is not responsible for the fact that racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism exist in America. But they are responsible for casting their show, setting rules, enforcing those rules, and editing their show in a way that reflects reality. They’ve failed to do that year after year.
Confronted about all of this, two CBS executives blamed a single producer, not their years of tolerance. Nothing changed. A year later, Survivor aired a season during which there was repeated unwanted touching that the producers failed to address expediently, and it was half a year after that season was filmed that CBS finally decided that “physical contact, sexual harassment and impermissible biases” would no longer be allowed. So yes, Big Brother and CBS certainly “shied away” from directly addressing what’s happening.
I appreciate that Dalton Ross asked Julie Chen Moonves directly about what else the show will do to change besides increasing the cast’s diversity. But when he asked that question, he also said, “Big Brother, as a reflection of our society, has had its struggles over the years as well, like pretty much all reality shows have.” I recoiled reading that, because it’s just not true. Not all shows are as structurally racist, homophobic, and sexist as CBS’s toxic shithole. Everyone from Big Brother’s producers to network executives to media with access have contributed to the show’s continued success every time it’s treated as normal. So have I, since I cover it and give it attention, though I try to convince myself that doing my small part to hold a show and a broadcast network accountable actually matters.
Big Brother’s primary difference from other reality shows is that it broadcasts live feeds, which do give an unparalleled window into unedited reality TV. I’m sure there are similar or worse things that have happened on other reality shows—even on Survivor, which we only learned about thanks to cast members like Julia Carter and Kellee Kim—but pretending Big Brother is just like every other show, or that it’s done everything it can do, just lets them off the hook for the harm it’s been causing for more than two decades.