Saturday, August 10, 2013

Big Racists

Does anyone still watch reality tv? It seems so 2000s in this so-called Golden Age of high-quality scripted drama like Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Homeland and Top of the Lake. Like lichen, there is still an awful lot of it about though, even if the concept of "reality" actually means "scripted" and producers, cast members and audience are all complicitly in on it. My favourite parody of reality tv are 2 episodes of the hyperactive sitcom 30 Rock which features a show within a show called "Queen of Jordan", involving bringing a load of peripheral characters to the forefront, while those who have the main parts take a slight back seat. The star of Queen of Jordan is Angie, a forceful woman who is an IBS "survivor" and thinks that elegance and attitude are the same thing. She even has her own catchphrase "It's my way, til pay day." She is surrounded by a cast of reality stereotypes - a sassy gay man, a cougar and a meth addict. The show has a lot of fun with the conventions of reality tv, featuring montages where cast members throw glasses of wine over each other (one character even brings out his own brand of "throwing wine"), and concocting ludicrous feuds between characters (Angie's 3 year old daughter is involved in one such feud, looking furious when someone else turns up to a high profile event wearing the same dress as her).

Parody aside, me and my fella watched an episode of a new MTV reality show, Catfish earlier this week. The premise involves people meeting up with people they have fallen in love with online - and end up not being what they seem. It all seems greatly story-boarded and the denounment I saw, along with an admittedly surprisingly twist which made both of us go "Oooh!" appeared rather like role-playing for it to be believable. As it was MTV, for every song that was played as background music, information appeared onscreen about the song's name and artist, which was much more distracting than you'd think. I recall the early 90s when MTV actually played music videos and I'd have it on almost constantly at home, as a kind of background radio station.

I only watch two reality shows now with any regularity, the American version of Big Brother and Survivor (which are pretty much the same programme although the former takes place in a studio and the latter happens on an island). I gave up on the British version of Big Brother halfway through season 8 - despite kind of hating it since season 4. I never liked the UK's public voting format, instead preferring the cut-throat and strategy of the American version, which is anything but a popularity contest where 15 year old girls with mobile phones award the prize to the blandest person. The American version has produced some of the most coldly clever (Will, season 2), passively scheming (Jun, season 4), abrasively bullying (Dick, season 8) and brayingly annoying (Rachel, season 13) winners over the years. Only about 5 winners have been "likeable" and would have won in the British version. It airs every summer when nothing much else is on, for about 30 episodes so it isn't too much of a stretch to keep up to date. Contestants play silly parlour games (on slightly bigger budgets) and the winner selects two others to go up for a house vote where one will be evicted. These two have a chance to get safety before the final vote though, if they win another silly game. Power changes from week to week and at times the struggles, bargains, threats and meltdowns can appear epic in nature, so much so that I sometimes forget that there is actually a real world outside and I even exist, except as a viewer.

So for the increasingly small Big Brother audience, I understand how feelings run very strong, and rather surprisingly, Big Brother has had more attention than usual this year in the media, due to a combination of especially unpleasant contestants who have made racist, homophobic and sexist remarks to one another. Some of it has been at the level of "humorous" name-calling (a gay contestant was called kermit the fag when he wore green, remarks about rice have been made about the Korean contestant), which is bad enough, even when the person doing it claims to like you. But other forms of racism have been used by contestants who clearly do not like each other and are intentionally aimed to denigrate. In particular, a black contestant called Candace has been subjected to some awful treatment.

Unfortunately, the show has done nothing to quash the "racist southerner" stereotype, with some of the worst stuff coming from a sweet-faced blonde princess called Ayran. She and another contestant, GinaMarie (a belligerent, ignorant, insecure New Yorker) have already lost their jobs in "the real world" while a third contestant is under investigation. The outcry over the remarks has been so strong that CBS have taken to showing a warning/disclaimer message at the start of each episode, saying they don't condone it.

BB15 Bigotry Supercut by f100004662309159

Initially, these remarks did not make it to the actual show - the contestants are filmed constantly and can be watched via live feeds, although only a few minutes of footage each week make it to the three hour-long shows. But after increasingly stunned media focus, the program showed some of Aryan's bigotry, making her the scape-goat and symbol of the problem, rather than more honestly indicating how many contestants were implicated in it. Aryan has thus been constructed as the "villain" - a familiar reality trope which over-simplifies the issue.

The host, Julie Chen (known lovingly as Chenbot due to her somewhat mechanical way of presenting) has publically commented on the racism although it is unlikely that anyone on the show will be confronted about it by producers. Their position looks more strategic when you consider that a likeable contestant from a previous season, Jeff Schroeder, who called someone a fag during an argument and has made other comments that could be viewed as homophobic (e.g. not wanting gay people to teach children), has been repeatedly brought back to the show in a kind of semi-presenter capacity, as well as appearing as a veteran contestant in a later edition and in another CBS reality show, The Amazing Race. So much for not condoning.

And this has led some commenters to give up on the show altogether. Both Jun who won season 4, and all-knowing reality tv blogger Andy Denhart have written blogs entries saying they won't be watching any more. There is the feeling that CBS are having their cake and eating it - by not disciplining or evicting racist contestants but by distancing themselves from the comments, they get to maintain the status quo and keep the ratings up. The British version of Big Brother famously had its "racist crisis" back in 2007, when Jade Goody and others picked on an Indian contestant in the celebrity version. Those involved were publically pilloried when the series ended, and the following year a white contestant was instantly kicked out for saying the "n" word. Hurrah everyone, Britain's racism problem was solved (except it wasn't).

America has a more contentious history and relationship with racism than Britain, although Britain is by no means a paradigm of racial harmony.

America also feels more libertarian than the UK, which half-heartedly clings to reverence for authority figures (the government, the queen, the BBC) telling us to play nice. America, on the other hand, often feels like it is run purely by and for big business. Ultimately, whatever country you're in though, Big Brother is about ratings and the advertising money that high ratings attracts.

For me, what's most interesting is how the anger about the racism has appeared now, rather than say, in season 4 (in 2003), which Jun acknowledges also had a lot of racist contributions from its contestants, herself included. It suggests that in the ten years that have passed, attitudes have shifted. I would be surprised if next year, CBS changes its "condone but does not condone" policy. If they have any sense, they'll make it clear from the outset that it won't be tolerated and offenders will be removed. If not, well god help America.

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