Late Sunday night, in the Big Brother house, contestants Cody Nickson, Jason Dent, Jessica Graf and Matthew Clines sat in and around the hot tub. They were chatting about, among other things, Big Brother season 17 contestant Audrey Middleton, the first out trans contestant in the show’s history.
“She was the first transgendered cast member,” Graf explained when Middleton’s name came up to the others who didn’t know her name.
“She was a she?” Dent asked. Nickson jumped in to say that “it was a dude dressed” as a woman.
“You guys are walking such a thin line,” Graf warned.
“What? That’s what it was!” Nickson said. Dent then asked, “Was it a he first, or a she first?” Clines tried to explain the problem was calling her “it,” though he laughed through it.
Every bit of the conversation was captured on the show’s infamous live feeds, and was thus distributed on social media. On Big Brother’s subreddit, the hot tub conversation prompted a fiery debate. But if precedent is any indication, none of it will make any of CBS’ thrice-weekly Big Brother broadcasts.
Over the past several years, Big Brother has featured an alarming number of contestants who have said transphobic, homophobic, racist and sexist things — yet the people behind the reality show have only occasionally felt it necessary to air those comments. Whether it’s Frankie Grande telling rape jokes about a female contestant in season 16, or Bronte D’Acquisto saying she wanted to send Asian-American contestant James Huling “back to Hong Kong” in season 18, hateful comments captured on the live feeds mostly stay there.
Even earlier this season, Nickson repeatedly used a transphobic slur, causing a backlash on social media. The comments were not aired on CBS’ broadcasts.
Middleton tweeted a statement about the comments from Sunday night, telling her followers that lashing out at Nickson and Dent would likely not solve the problem. “We can easily project a lot onto them as well for being ignorant, but you cannot resolve ignorance with more ignorance,” she wrote.
When reached for comment via Facebook message, Middleton said she thinks airing the comments on CBS’ broadcasts is necessary. “I do think it’s important to make an example of the harmful effects of ignorance,” she said. “It helps the offenders and the victims of the situation.”
Middleton mused that perhaps CBS and Big Brother are attempting to avoid being regressive in showing transphobic comments, the theory being that airing the comments is more harmful than helpful. But, she pointed out, that didn’t stop CBS from airing a trans contestant being outed on Survivor.
“Who really knows, since they haven’t publicly acknowledged it,” she said. “They haven’t acknowledged it to me personally, the person who is the victim of the circumstance, and also a cast member of the series. It’s disappointing, but I guess that’s show business.”
One of the few seasons where hateful comments did make air was season 15, when houseguest Aaryn Gries came under major fire. In her nine weeks on the show, Gries made multiple derogatory comments, including referring to eventual season winner Andy Herren as “that queer” and telling Asian-American houseguest Helen Kim to “go make some rice.”
Because her comments were affecting gameplay (meaning they were making her a target to get voted off), Big Brother did air them, and host Julie Chen asked Gries about them — even reading excerpts of them to her, to the amusement of the live audience — during her exit interview.
Notably, however, Gries wasn’t the only one making such comments during the season — fellow contestants Amanda Zuckerman and GinaMarie ZImmerman did too, for instance. Yet most of the footage that aired focused on Gries. Even when the CBS broadcasts included the comments, their picture of the situation was an incomplete one, something Herren noted when contacted via Twitter direct message for comment.
“If you’re problematic on the feeds, they should edit you to look problematic if they’re editing other problematic people to look problematic,” he said. “I’m sure CBS doesn’t want every season shrouded in negativity like ours was, but still, it is a bummer that they edit some contestants to look like perfect angels when they’re saying things on the feeds that highlight just how backwards our country can be.”
Ideally, Big Brother would use situations like these to start conversations about the damaging effects of hate. But the houseguests on Big Brother aren’t just one-and-done personalities: They become CBS talent in their own right, appearing on other shows on the network. Paul Abrahamian, for example, has been on three seasons of CBS television now (Big Brother seasons 18 and 19 and their Candy Crush game show). Airing footage of him repeatedly saying the words “black face” wouldn’t be helpful from a branding perspective.
Middleton acknowledged that dynamic, saying she hoped the network’s decision to not air hateful comments was “not because they are protecting their beloved characters.”
Herren agreed. “It is definitely frustrating that they pick and choose which comments to air based on fan reception,” he said. “If a houseguest is a fan favorite, CBS will do everything to make sure that houseguest stays in a positive light.”
Most troubling, of course, is that Big Brother keeps casting people who make these comments. You’d imagine production might want to address the situation more directly, maybe change casting procedures. But over the years, both the show’s producers and representatives of CBS have stuck by the idea that the show is a “social experiment,” and that comes with both good and bad.
“Yes, there’s always going to be some tension and some issues,” then-CBS Entertainment President Glenn Geller said at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in 2016. “But that’s what the show is about. It’s an entertainment show. And it really is, again, a social experiment, and I think we see that every summer.”
Frustrated fans like Andy Dehnart, lead writer on the reality TV blog Reality Blurred, have accepted that the only way CBS and Big Brother’s producers will make a change is if viewership drops.
“What CBS wants is ratings,” Dehnart wrote in a 2016 post addressing the toxic masculinity that dominated Big Brother season 18. “So until we stop watching ... there will be no change. This one show usually produces one-third of the top-10 broadcast TV shows in the summer, and that’s too good to mess with.”
For her part, Middleton doubled down on what she said in her Twitter statement about the comments from Sunday night. She reiterated a need for outreach versus outrage: to start a dialogue with people who express transphobic beliefs versus ostracizing them.
“I just hope that the people who do have awareness of the offense can forgive and will share resources in effort to educate instead of retaliating with anger,” she said via Facebook message. “Maybe CBS will use their platform to share the resources, too — if enough attention is brought to it.”
Big Brother’s next episode airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. Eastern.
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August 9, 2017, 12:45 p.m.: This post has been updated.