Big Brother 15: Do we need to have a talk about open racism?

Cast members making racist and homophobic remarks under fire…and they don’t know it Photo: Big Brother 15 cast

WASHINGTON, July 18, 2013 – The racist, homophobic, and sexist atmosphere in CBS’s “Big Brother” house this season has led to two cast members losing their jobs. Even though the cast members are unaware of the general focus on race in the past week, their words and actions may be indicative of a conversation we all need to have, regardless of the Zimmerman verdict.  

On its 15th season, CBS’s hit summer reality show locks a group of people in a house and films them 24 hours a day.  The cast members are not allowed contact with the outside world and are unaware of how they are being perceived by the public.  This season, CBS has introduced a new twist, where viewers can vote to influence who gets the $500,000 prize. 

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As is to be expected when you lock strangers in a house for two months without access to the outside world—not to mention provide them with sufficient alcohol—previous seasons of “Big Brother” have featured some pretty unlikeable characters. 

However, this season’s cast has gone beyond the annoying or ignorant. The racist and homophobic remarks that began almost immediately were not aired on CBS’s initial television broadcasts of the show, airing three times each week, but viewers of the live 24/7 feed were able to see and hear it all.

Since the June 26 premiere, cast members Aaryn Gries, 22, Kaitlin Barnaby, 23, and Gina Marie Zimmerman, 32, have been making racist and homophobic remarks, with many members of the cast contributing or at least accepting their bad behavior.

Gries and Zimmerman have been making racist jokes about everyone, but are especially hateful toward Candice Stewart, 29, an African American member of the cast.

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Equal opportunity haters, the women used several racial slurs to talk about an Asian American contestant as well as using offensive words to refer to a gay cast member. Seemingly encouraged by the general atmosphere of bigotry, the men have been making sexist remarks as well. Several online outlets have taken to cataloging the numerous racially charged comments on the show.

Other contestants have laughed at the women’s comments, but very few have called them out on it or stood up to them.

Taking the position it has held on previous seasons where nasty comments and behavior has come out, CBS initially declined to air the racial slurs on television, announcing that it would not condone prejudicial comments. However, after the media and “Big Brother” fans began voicing their opinions on the Internet, CBS decided to address the issue head-on in Sunday’s episode. 

“It was ultimately part of the story in the house,” said Allison Grodner, an executive producer for “Big Brother.”  “I do feel it would be irresponsible to put hate on the airwaves just for hate’s sake,” she added. “You need to have some sort of context.”

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For the first time in the show’s history, CBS aired a disclaimer before Sunday’s episode.  The disclaimer read, in part: “At times, the Houseguests may reveal prejudices and other beliefs that CBS does not condone. Views or opinions expressed by a Houseguest are those of the individuals speaking and do not represent the views or opinions of CBS.”

On Sunday’s episode, Gries, unhappy about losing a challenge, flipped Stewart’s mattress, threw her clothes on the floor, and along with Zimmerman and Barnaby, verbally attacked the young woman as the racial slurs again flew. 

Airing a clip of the fight on Monday’s “The Talk,” “Big Brother” host Julie Chen spoke out. 

“My heart is pounding,” Chen said after showing the clip. “Am I the only one who feels so enraged? This is the third time I’ve watched that clip, and it does not get any easier.”

After raising a firestorm of criticism from social networks and online media, Gries has been released from her modeling contract with Zephyr Talent, and Zimmerman has been fired from her job as coordinator of East Coast USA Pageant. 

Having no contact with the outside world, neither woman knows of the negative press their actions and comments have brought about.   

 “We certainly find the statements made by Aaryn on the live Internet feed to be offensive,” said Zephyr Talent in a statement. “Upon much consideration, we have decided to release Aaryn from her contract.”

“We are actually thankful that this show let us see GinaMarie for who she truly is. We would never want her to be a role model to our future contestants,” said East Coast USA Pageant in a similar statement. “In a business where we are surrounded by beauty every day we are saddened to see something so ugly come from someone we put on a very high pedestal.”

One cast member, Amanda Zuckerman, 28, tried to speak to Gries about her racism on a previous episode, but Gries said, “I wish I cared more about this, but I don’t.”

Just about the only people who have acted in a positive manner are the African American houseguests, Stewart and Howard Overby, 29, a youth counselor from Mississippi.  When the women attacked Stewart, Overby literally carried her out of the room and then asked her, “just be bigger with me,” as he counseled to let the women dig their own graves.

“It’s heartbreaking seeing any woman cry,” says Overby in his “weekly confessional.”  “When we share the same ethnic group it takes on a different hurt for me because that’s my mom crying, that’s my sister crying, and all she wants to do is stand up for what’s right.”  

Grodner has said that “Big Brother” producers do not “look for people who might say things like this,” suggesting the show simply reflects real life. However, critics feel that the show’s producers may be exploiting what is going on in the house for ratings. 

“Your neighbor is probably using racial slurs behind closed doors, no offense to your neighbor,” Grodner said.  “There’s a very important discussion here that people will hopefully have as a result of all this.”

The problem is that this is not happening behind closed doors, but playing out before the eyes of millions of people. When did we get to the point where this kind of behavior is accepted behind closed doors, let alone in front of dozens of cameras? 

If your neighbor is using racial slurs, even if it is “behind closed doors,” maybe someone needs to talk to that neighbor and let him or her know that that kind of behavior is not acceptable.  What happens behind closed doors often spills out into every other aspect of life and colors people’s perception of the world. 

If Big Brother is indeed a reflection of our society, we need to have a conversation about why this is going on and where we go form here.  


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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