Big Brother 19: Let’s Talk About Race, Racism, and “Diversity” (or Lack Thereof)
Big Brother exemplifies reality television’s ongoing issues.
Welcome to The Queue’s coverage of the 19th season of Big Brother, where I’m holding Twitter DM convos with a rotating panel of guests about the show and posting those chats online.
If you have questions about what Big Brother is or why you should keep up with this series even if you’re new to the show, click here.
Lily: I think the current season of the show, BB19, is a great place to start in terms of race and diversity on the show. We’ve got five people of color in a cast of 17 people (less than a third of the cast), and this is actually one of the more “diverse” casts in the series’ history. When people think of race or racism on Big Brother, many thoughts turn to BB15, which was notoriously known in mainstream media for the slew of racist, homophobic, and other problematic comments made by its contestants.
However, every season deals with issues of racism. This season, for instance, Paul Abrahamian embroiled in a blackface scandal. We also heard Jessica Graf refer to Asian contestant Alex Ow as “Pao Pao,” referencing another Asian female contestant from BB16 named Paola Shea. Before we get into these instances, a base question for us to start with is, why does Big Brother cast so few non-white contestants to begin with?
Chris: I think because CBS doesn’t care to cast that many people of color. It took until Survivor’s 13th season for them to acknowledge the imbalance in casting. [Editor’s note: Survivor: Cook Islands separated castaways onto tribes based on their race. That went about as well as you think it would.]
Nicole: I have no idea. Someone did the math and there have been 22 black houseguests out of the almost 230 total.
Grace: With any show, it seems like networks are trying to go for what looks relatable. People of color usually get stereotyped into being too boisterous or confrontational, which makes for a less pleasant or relatable-looking cast.
Nicole: I think it was more jarring for me after watching such a diverse cast on Big Brother Canada 5. Robyn Kass [who’s in charge of casting] did a great job, which is weird because she casts for both series.
Nicole: Grace, you are so right. They same thing happens with nonbinary people.
Grace: Yeah, she Robyn Kass tweeted out this week about her role in the casting process for BB19 and removing herself from the production aspect since she has no part in it. The responses were almost ALL asking her why she doesn’t cast more POC if she’s in charge. CBS isn’t known for their diverse programming either. Very straight and to the point of the ideal, albeit troubled, cis white person. I also think about whether or not it has to do with their audience, but if that’s what they are mindful of during casting, they are doing it backward. The more archetypes cast, the more variances of people will watch.
Lily: It also seems like both Survivor and Big Brother casting rely on specific stereotypes. To producers, white contestants can be cast as many of those archetypes, and people of color can’t. For example, I think there are so few Asian contestants on the show because casting doesn’t know what stereotypes they want to play up.
Nicole: I think they do, Lily. I remember shows such as The Real World would be cast people they knew would butt heads. I did feel bad for people attacking Kass. She casts people, but doesn’t control how they act.
Grace: Good point! But Real World also has the right to manipulate your story however they chose. So maybe they’re apt to cast a wide net to make it more believable?
Chris: I agree with Grace. They cast minorities to fill certain stereotypes and that’s all. For instance, the black Christian stereotype? Examples: Jameka, Jocasta, Dominique.
Lily: Still though, I’d say Robyn Kass knows what she’s doing when she’s casting these roles. Like, she had to know Josh Martinez would fulfill the “fiery Latino” stereotype when she cast him, even if she didn’t utter those words to herself. And even if she didn’t know specifically what he’d do, she put him there to stir the pot in a specific manner.
Nicole: Oh, she knew. He said his nickname was Miami. And they all go through the screening.
Grace: Disregarding the fact that as viewers, we come to either hate or love a houseguest for their game, it’s not like the cast itself is ever a problem when it’s first revealed. It’s just that people are asking to see more types of people. Plus, less stereotypical.
Chris: And then the show paints [Josh] ina negative light and only shows him fulfilling that stereotype. Dom received no screen time until she was targeted by Paul and seen as a religious freak. These POC are casted for questionable reasons and then treated awfully by the producers and editors.
Grace: Agreed, Chris. The argument also has to be said that maybe they do just fit that mold as time goes on, but there are millions of people who do not relate, I am sure.
Nicole: Dom had a really good game.
Grace: She did!
Nicole: Casuals were wondering why Mark cared about Dom. BECAUSE THEY WERE BEST FRIENDS before he turned on her.
Lily: Dom is definitely a case of chicken-or-egg though. I mean, I think we can all agree that some of her gameplay (for example, talking in riddles and refusing to officially name names) was bad strategy. But there’s a question of why she felt the need to play like that, which matters.
Grace: Very, very true.
Chris: I wish Dom and Mark’s relationship had been shown on the show. She was my favorite part of live feeds and on the show she was reduced to a religious crazy who didn’t appear until her eviction week.
Nicole: Let’s also talk about how Dom was obviously a casted contestant.
Lily: And also, perhaps Dom’s actions would’ve been perceived differently if they were coming from a white contestant.
Nicole: She didn’t know the game.
Grace: [Mark and Dom] BOTH truly go that short end of the stick on that. He looked weak and clingy, and she looked unstable.
Nicole: They would have given her a mastermind edit if she were white. She is the one who got Mark to flip.
Grace: As a black woman looking at another black woman as the only black woman on the show: She looked like an afterthought 100%.
Nicole: She sure did!
Grace: Also, the way she came at Paul and calling him the snake would’ve been fine had they showed more of her process from the feeds!
Chris: Okay yes, they edited out Dom flipping mark and made it seem like it was Mark’s idea to talk to Christmas. A complete whitewashing of the truth!
Lily: So this actually leads into something I found so interesting about this season: We’ve got some people of color on the show that do defy stereotypes on reality television. Dom is a damn engineer, for crying out loud. Alex is an outspoken Asian woman who’s also a libertarian. Ramses is a whiz kid. Yet all of them are being put into oft-seen stereotypes.
Nicole: Those are all secondary to the color of their skin. But as soon as they do something to reinforce the stereotype, then they get screen time.
Grace: It BAFFLES me how not we have these clearly interesting people and yet none of the personality or scheming will come on air. It doesn’t make any sense, but we’re also not blind to it.
Nicole: It is the Paul show.
Grace: Authenticity is encouraged and rewarded on air, so long as it’s the type of authentic that’s “expected.”
Lily: And technically, Paul is the fifth person of color on this show, though obviously, many see him as white-passing.
Grace: Did anyone else notice how the HOH room reveals were taken out? Is that something new we’re doing? Culture and family show a lot about what the person is made of. Could just be me. That’s what it seems like they want, though: The ever-so-trendy racially ambiguous person.
Lily: To throw in a little bit of BB history here by looking back on other seasons of Big Brother, which people of color do you think really upended the stereotypes set out for them? A huge one right off the bat is Danielle Reyes from seasons three and seven. Another big personality to discuss is Chima Simone from BB11, who infamously threw her microphone in the pool after what she suspected was some production tampering in favor of other players. As Ryan and I talked about last week when chatting about all-women alliances, The Friendship alliance had more people of color than white alliance members.
Nicole: Danielle is a queen.
Lily: That she is!
Grace: Truthfully, that makes sense — like-minded people finding comfort with being a minority. Works the same either way!
Chris: I recently began watching season two. It is interesting to note that Allison Grodner was the executive producer back then as well. There is a house challenge where they get a camera and have to make a video for their family. One of the bits they do in the video is about race relations. Monica looks annoyed as Mike directs her. “I get it. I’m the angry black woman.” In the bit Mike says that race relations are great in the house as Monica bumps into a white houseguest and goes off on him in the terrible stereotypical fashion. Mike says, “Make sure you call him honky next time.” Monica made it to the final three that season. This is an obvious example of race coming into play, and also symbolizes the sick racial tension storyline that the producers have wanted to project since these early seasons.
Grace: The push for the social experiment is exactly that: a PUSH. They’d be better of for letting these things happen naturally if they come about at all. Even further to that point, Chris, backlash will inevitably come to a white person, but they can easily turn into the victim. POC don’t have that luxury of being forgiven.
Lily: Also, the types of things that producers push for as a “social experiment” show their own privilege in the process. The way you think to portray “race relations” is heavily based on your own experiences.
Grace: It’s a mockery of the conversations they think happen on a 24/7 basis.
Lily: Why do you think people like Robyn Kass and Alison Grodner are so afraid of not having people of color who play into stereotypes? I guess to flip that, what’s so “scary” for them about having more multi-dimensional people of color on the show?
Grace: I don’t get it, but they could be trying to limit liability. The “what could possibly go wrong” factor is probably huge for them. They could be wary of alienating current viewers with a more diverse (read: progressive) offering. They could also be comfortable.
Lily: Yep, I’d say Kass and Grodner believe they have a winning “formula” with their audience, and they think changing it up would cause problems.
Grace: Precisely, Lily. People of course complain, but it’s not like anyone is boycotting the show because of it. It’s most likely not a concern, or it is a concern they don’t want to be bothered with. We’re still watching.
Lily: I also wouldn’t be surprised if CBS executives were afraid of the show going in what they see as the “wrong” direction if they were to change up casting. (“Wrong” being racially coded language, of course.)
Chris: They switched it up somewhat with Big Brother: Over The Top. I felt like Justin especially was a dynamic POC. And Danielle was the strongest African-American woman casted since Kalia, the first African-American woman since her to win HOH.
Lily: Yeah OTT was definitely an outlier season in so many respects.
Grace: It may have been a “tester” which doesn’t make any sense. Only stans were watching OTT. And diversity is clearly not a turn-off for more people than not. They could’ve just went for it. Or, as many brands and networks seem to be like, it could’ve just been ~enough~. “We have one Latinx, one African-American, one Asian…we’re good.” Diversity only truly counts when it permeates the fabric of the program. Not when it’s sprinkled on before it’s broadcast.
Lily: With film in general, POC are typically “meeting a quota,” whereas white people (in this case, contestants) are looked at based on their “personalities.”
Grace: And they are, without a doubt, being tracked on their “likability” and fan count, when it could just be the player or actor or personality sucks — but their kind may not get another chance if so.
Lily: Yeah, for example, how many boring white bros have we seen on Big Brother who are the human equivalent of furniture? In contrast, how many Asian women have we had on the show in general, not to mention Asian women who were dynamic contestants?
Grace: I almost question whether or not being memorable matters, and if they are casting an actual cast with only so many spots to fill.
Nicole: In the terms of casting not multiple POCs, it should also be acknowledged that there hasn’t been more than one gay person on a season, which keeps them from a possibility of getting in a showmance.
Lily: Oh totally. And that’s also a good point to keep in mind: The intersectionality of everything.
Grace: Audrey had a good run as a first trans cast member. But America would’ve imploded had she found a showmance or a true friendship out of that without the other person being coined a hero for their openness.
Nicole: It’s like they cast one person and think they’ve done a good job.
Lily: Definitely. So to start rounding things out here, what does Big Brother have to do to create a show that isn’t just diverse in name only, but also highlights people from different backgrounds?
Grace: Without revealing all of their cards at once, they could be more transparent. Submissions come in, and then it’s all behind closed doors. We see the final product, and have no idea if they received good submissions from a wide array of people (which I’m sure they did).
Lily: Yeah I think we all don’t buy this idea that there are only so many good POC contestants to choose from. So the question is, how/why are they weeding all of these people out?
Grace: Also, I’m not sure they’re capable of doing that without being gimmicky unless PRODUCTION is diverse itself.
Lily: I’ve been saying this for a while, but they need a new executive producer. Grodner’s resting too much on the formula. Also her twist ideas are generally terrible. But on that note, production would need a complete overhaul to create an environment that stops setting up POC for stereotyping pitfalls.
Grace: COMPLETE overhaul.
Chris: It’s crazy to me she’s been the executive producer since season two. It puts in to perspective that she’s been running things like this forever. She was probably the reason Danielle was robbed in season three. Her nasty touch is engrained in the show.
Lily: From what I’ve seen of her in interviews, she honestly doesn’t seem to respect the fans of the show too much, considering they’re the reason she’s employed. There’s just no awareness for what people do/don’t want.
Grace: You’re dead on about the formula — if it works, it stays.
Lily: The more I think about it, the more I believe Grodner’s creating the game like it’s still the early 2000s. That includes a very early 2000s (and pre-Obama) idea of race/race relations.
Grace: Pre-social media and immediate gratification, as well. Without undermining the integrity of BB, they’d probably be better of with new producers every season.
Lily: I actually really like this theory the more I reflect. It makes a ton of sense.
Grace: It’s the only way we really would be able to expect the unexpected.
Lily: Basically the show needs someone with a better sense of the times. Grodner’s stuck on season two still. We need people who get that we’re in a different era, both in terms of society and our reality television.
Grace: Can I get an AMEN?
Lily: So to start finishing things up here, does everyone want to give some final thoughts on this discussion? Anything else you wanted to talk about?
Grace: Essentially, this all begins and ends with production’s willful ignorance to the way the world turns. Being comfortable will get their ad revenue where they want, but the show will continue to stay where it is in terms of contrived drama and interactions. America wants more, but they’re afraid to bring it.
Nicole: Grace, amen. I think the issues you see reflected in the BB house can be seen in other industries. It is like when makeup companies say that POCs don’t buy their makeup so they aren’t making enough colors to sell to POCs, but POCs can’t buy if they aren’t there. People aren’t going to watch a show they haven’t seen positively portray their cultural or people.
Lily: Yep, at the end of the day, Big Brother is a social experiment. That includes showing us parts of society we don’t always want to witness.