Everyone has been horrified by Big Brother contestant Aaryn Gries’ racist comments this season but crucifying her hides reality TV’s systematic and troubling race problem. By Hugh Ryan.
Aaryn Gries is a racist.
If you’ve watched CBS this summer, this isn’t new information about the twenty-two-year old Big Brother contestant. From saying that Korean-American houseguest Helen Kim should “go make some rice,” to flipping over the bed of African-American houseguest Candice Stewart, Gries has offended half the house—and country—with her sweet-faced, mean girl racism. Her actions have prompted CBS, for the first time ever, to publically address offensive statements made on the show (though they declined to comment for this article).
As a result, Gries has been dropped by her modeling agency and protested at her college. But far from exposing racism on Big Brother, the maelstrom surrounding Gries (and to a lesser extent, fellow houseguest GinaMarie Zimmerman), has had the ironic effect of hiding other, more systemic forms of racism that exist on Big Brother—and in reality television as a whole.
“On the televised show, absolutely, Aaryn was the martyr,” says blogger Jun Song, who is the only person of color to win BB in fourteen seasons. But, she continues, “there is such a disparity between what is actually going on in the house and what is televised.”
To know what’s really going on you have to watch the live feeds, BB’s saving grace. The feeds give (mostly) unfettered access to the houseguests around the clock, allowing obsessive fans to chronicle their every butt scratch and rape joke. It also allows for fascinating insight into the disparity between reality-TV-as-it-is-experienced-by-the-contestants and reality-TV-as-it-is-edited-for-the-viewer.
Gems caught on camera this season include:
• Saying Puerto Ricans smell funny and don’t shower;
• Suggesting that Nazi medical experiments were ultimately beneficial;
• Warning a biracial contestant that her “black side” was coming out; and
• Calling welfare “n***er insurance.”
But these statements, respectively, were made by contestants Amanda, Spencer, Kaitlyn & GinaMarie—not Aaryn. (The men have also made so many disgusting misogynistic statements that there’s no room to get into them here.)
In many ways, Gries is an easy target for anti-racist anger. She’s pretty, blond, and Southern. Her first name is an anagram for Aryan. But she’s far from the sole racist in the house.
“CBS, if you’re going to show one racist, you need to show all the racists,” says Sistah K, one of the hosts of a popular series of TV podcasts collectively called “Sistah Speak.” Sistah Speak began in 2007, when Sistah K and Sistah J were moved by their love of television—and their frustration with the overwhelmingly white male punditocracy that discussed TV in the media—to address “the need for a Black woman’s perception and honest analysis about certain shows and movies.”
“This goes on on other shows too,” says Sistah J, “but they don’t show it overtly like Big Brother because there are no live feeds.” In other words, they don’t show it because no one can call them out when they don’t.
“Racism exists on reality television,” explains Song, “because it’s a reality in life. And therefore, it has to be a reality in every sliver of our lives.”
But how that racism is portrayed on TV is the decision of producers. It’s less uncomfortable for a majority white audience to believe that there’s simply one bad apple, one racist spoiling the bunch, than to see racism as part of our everyday existence. This not only excuses the other houseguests, it hides the racism inherent in the genre itself, which is particularly obvious in one area: casting.
“Reality television programs are produced to maximize audiences at a comparatively inexpensive price,” says Dr. Bryan Denham, Professor of Communications Studies at Clemson University and co-author of a 2008 academic paper about reality TV called Survival of the Stereotypical. “They do so,” he explains, “by reproducing social stereotypes.”
In essence, reality shows don’t cast (or televise) people, they cast broad stereotypes to get us watching. “They choose very extreme personalities to make for a big summer,” agrees Song, who believes this tendency has gotten worse over the years. This pursuit of extremes is particularly troubling in combination with another reality TV truth: the paucity of contestants of color.
“It’s the same scenario every single season,” says Sistah J. “You’ve got one or two people of color and they get voted out first.” The Bachelor, she points out, has never had a person of color in the title role—a fact they were sued over in 2012.
This point was backed up by Dr. Denham’s research, with an interesting caveat. On shows that involve being “the best” (Big Brother, Survivor) or succeeding in a business (The Apprentice, Top Chef) few contestants of color ever make it to TV. But if the show is about being an entertainer (American Idol, America’s Next Top Model), you see more people of color. Why?
“Having black people succeed as entertainers does not threaten white people in the business world,” Dr. Denham states unequivocally.
When shows like Big Brother cast extreme personalities to fulfill stereotypical roles, and only one or two are people of color, what’s the effect? Those characters are cast to fulfill pre-existing racial stereotypes. Whereas white people might be typecast as a “brain,” a “Southerner,” or a “jock,” people of color are always cast as the “angry black girl,” or the “Asian tiger mom.” The stereotype is always racialized, which isolates contestants of color and makes them even less likely to win. Not only are there always fewer contestants of color, they’re handicapped from the start.
Dr. Denham doesn’t believe this happens on purpose, rather, he points out that the show runners, judges, and network executives are most likely white people with the same pre-existing assumptions. These ideas about races are so ingrained they might not even notice what they are doing. But some viewers have pointed out that it’s quite a coincidence that contestants with extreme racial viewpoints just happen to be on one of the few seasons of BB to feature three contestants of color. Certainly, the controversy has created more buzz around this season of BB than any in recent memory, giving a big boost to ratings—though Song and the Sistahs have stopped watching in disappointment, and it’s not hard to imagine other people of color have done similarly. But has the controversy actually done anything about racism? Not really.
Aaryn Gries deserves the fallout for what she’s said and done. But the idea that by dealing with Gries we will “deal” with racism on reality television is ridiculous. She becomes a sacrifice whose very punishment is the thing that allows us, the mainstream audience, to continue watching, snug and smug inside our own non-racist self-conceptions. Turning racism into a story with a villain—instead of an underlying force of our existence—guarantees that any resulting conversation will go nowhere, mean nothing, and quickly be forgotten. Indeed, despite the anger at Gries inside and outside the house, all of the contestants of color have been sent home, while she remains. Given the chance to put someone up for elimination, America has repeatedly chosen other houseguests.
The problem with crucifying someone is that they rise again. All Gries had to do was keep her head down and play well, let other “scandals” happen inside the house, and leave the rest to the producers. Already, conversations about race and racism have receded into the background. In a Very Special Episode on August 18th, we watched GinaMarie (BB’s “other racist”) befriend houseguest Helen Kim, giving us a nice hint of a Hollywood movie ending, where getting to know a person of color instantly erases centuries of racism. But even if GinaMarie’s mind changed at all in that conversation (which I doubt), that’s just a personal growth moment for a white person, and all the contestants of color are still gone.
Aaryn Gries is racist. But calling her out on her racism while ignoring our own? That’s racist too.