Trying to glean too much societal insight from so-called “reality TV” is always a somewhat precarious endeavor as unfortunately real life does not come with “rose ceremonies,” “immunity idols” or “power of veto” medallions.
Nevertheless, I have long thought that CBS’s annual “Big Brother” reality series, with its closed-in quarters, (relative) diversity and constantly-shifting power dynamics, can be observed as a microcosm of the culture. And, in fact, in previous years, I have written, for Mogul and other sites, about how issues related to women and race have played out in the “BB” house—often in ways both incredibly expected and disturbingly sad.
This season of the show—its 21st--has evidenced yet another reoccurring trend in the series, so common--so expected, even--it doesn’t so much speak to society as much as it shouts it right out.
For the uninitiated, every year “BB” locks of group of contestants into a house (constructed on the CBS lot) with no phone, TV, radio, computer or outside contact. Each week the contestants compete in a series of (rather lame) competitions to see who will be crowned that week’s “head of household.” Then, each week’s “HOH” then selects two of his/her co-players for eviction from the house. Later in the week, the rest of the houseguests vote as to who to send out from that selection of two until there is just one person left. The last man or woman standing is then declared the winner and leaves with half a million in cash!
What transpires in between is a lot of alliance building, alliance breaking, a lot promises made, a lot of promises broken, and a good deal of deceit and deception and—as often happens on reality TV—a few over-the-top shouting matches.
Each season, as the reality show is cast with that season’s competitors, the show’s producers always cast an even number of men to women (all the better for some sexy “showmanaces”!), and they make at a least a half-hearted attempt at some racial diversity, though their “one-per-season” tendency (one black man, one black woman, one Latina, one Latino, etc.; a rule they also apply to gay and lesbians chosen for the house) always smacks of complete tokenism.
Every year the cast is also inevitability young. This year is no different. Of the 16 original contestants—or “houseguests,” as they are called--all but four are in the 20s and of those four “older” houseguests, three of them are in their early 30s. (Actual adult contestant Cliff is the self-described “old man” of the house; he is 53.) The contestants are also inevitably buff and bronzed; reality TV is nourished by its eye candy.
“BB21” began on June 25 of this year and, nearly from the get-go, some common tropes of the reality genre immediately occurred. In week one, three of the minorities members of the house (an African-American man, an African-American woman and a man of Bangladeshi decent) were all quickly targeted for eviction/elimination from the house. The quick jettisoning of minority cast members is so common on reality TV, like over on ABC’s “Bachelor” franchise, that it has become both a cliché and a sad, running joke.
Though each of these “BB” three got to hang on beyond the show’s first week, they soon found themselves strangely ostracized by the others as a group mentality seemed to form. As if that wasn’t alarming enough (and it is), nearly as bothersome was who were the de facto leaders of this ruling group.
Who were they?
Jackson and Jack. And it almost goes without saying who Jack and Jackson were. Yes: two, young, buff, white, hetero males.
Actually, it was not so surprising that Jack and Jackson would become early, dominate players in the house; the game has always seemed geared toward the athletic and the male. But what was surprising (maybe!) was just how quickly everyone else in the house fell in behind them. As if a leadership role within the household—for the white, the young, the hetero and the male—was not only inevitable, but a given, somehow predestined, a necessity, even a verity.
How quickly the cast of this year’s “BB” fell into a “follow the leader,” follow the white guy, state does not reflect that well on this year’s contestants… though it doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on them either. Faster than you can say “Stanford Experiment,” those in the house just seemed to quickly follow certain well-established social patterns while also swiftly slipping into traditional gender and cultural roles.
And that should bother us more than a little.
For it seems that for all our talk these days about diversity and about valuing the abilities and experiences and insights of all people of all ages, genders, orientations, and cultures, more often than not we are only too willing—perhaps even happy—to default to white, male, hetero norms and the men who personify them.
This was not the first time that all the members of the “BB” house’s seemed to uniformly defer to the young white straight guys. Last year, happy surfer dude Tyler made it to the end as everyone else in the house seemed to see him immediately, automatically, as some sort of instant good guy and trustworthy friend.
Further, on “BB,” when this archetype of hetero, white, male (henceforth “HWM”) is combined with the familiarity and experience of a being a “BB” veteran returning for a second (or third… or more) season of the show, well, then the sky is the limit. A couple of seasons ago, when “BB” brought back the heavily-tattooed Paul (“Your Boy”) Abrahamian for a second go at the series, he completely dominated that season (even if he eventually lost). Similarly, when “BB10’s” Dan Gheesling was brought back for “BB14,” he ruled the proverbial roost making it to the final two.
It’s not just on “BB” that this phenomena occurs however. Over on TV’s “Survivor,” congenial Rob (“Boston Rob”) Mariano was brought back twice and was $1 million dollars richer by the end of his third appearance on the series. And over on MTV’s increasingly William Goldman-esque “The Challenge,” Johnny (“Johnny Bananas”) Devenanzio has earned a small fortune in his umpteenth appearances on that program by leveraging his HWM-ness, social dominance and game-playing experience.
So how come? What’s with the HWM’s? Is there perhaps something atavistic at play here, in both the “BB” house and in life?
In her fascinating book, “Survival of the Prettiest,” author Nancy Etcoff lays out compelling data that seems to suggest that, even now, we humans remain hard-wired to not only be attracted to the young and nubile for reasons of fertility but also to the young and fit and mighty for reasons of protection and basic survival.
Even though the concept of the so-called “alpha male” in nature has largely been disproven as an interesting myth, it has not stopped humankind (or at least America, especially men from
America) from embracing it as fact. Certainly, Cody, the humorless fan fave from season 19 of “BB,” embraced it and made it his season-long strategy until his game got curtailed and he was finally voted out.
If not biological, then perhaps it is tradition that is to blame and tradition can be hard to break.
Historically, from action adventure novels to westerns, from the classics to the pulps, the young, white, hetero male is what the hero looks like. With a few notable exceptions, every super hero blockbuster movie features the HWM. (Interesting that super heroes and horror movies are dominating the box office this summer. In super hero movies, the heroes are almost always male; in horror films, the victims are almost always female.) On ABC’s “The Bachelor,” every year it is a HWM that is held up each time as the ultimate, the literal grand prize.
It seems that young, fit, male, white and hetero is still what society values the most.
The producers of “Big Brother” seem to value them the most, too. In fact, they often seem to go out of their way so make sure nothing tarnishes any of their on-air golden boys.
“Big Brother” is unique in that its participants are not only seen in live and taped broadcast episodes (three hours per week) but they can also be watched 24/7 via live internet streaming.
And, sometimes, how a participant is shown on one of the on-air episodes is not the full story of their character. “BB” fan favorite Jeff Schroeder, who competed on two “BB” seasons (11 and 13), made a couple of ill-chosen homophobic comments while in the house but saw none of these included in any of the aired episodes, solidifying his good-ole boy, All-American image. Currently, Jason Momoa lookalike contestant Jack Matthews, one of this season’s two ruling male mesomorphs, has seen his flagrant bullying of now-evicted houseguest Kemi also largely omitted from the on-air broadcasts. It’s almost as if even the show’s producers can’t bring themselves to expose or undermine their young male heroes. And why should they especially if the rest of us haven’t?
Yes, the future might be female but, for now, on TV and off, it remains a man’s man’s world.