When most people think about summer, they might think of sunny days, swimming at the beach or a three-month break from school. For me, summer means that three nights a week, I get to watch a new episode of “Big Brother,” my favorite reality TV show.
Reality TV in general often gets a bad rap. Shows like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” “Jersey Shore” and basically any installment of “The Real Housewives” franchise are deemed “guilty pleasures” and “trashy television” simply because of their genre. Call it what you want — fake, scripted or downright ridiculous — but there’s no denying that reality TV is entertaining. Watching reality TV is a social experience, and it can bring people together. Growing up, my siblings and I gathered around our big, black box TV to watch “Deal or No Deal,” “America’s Next Top Model” and “Cake Boss.” I loved watching “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” at my grandparent’s house, and I eventually got them hooked on “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent,” too. In middle school, “Dance Moms,” “Minute to Win It” and “American Ninja Warrior” were all the rage. As a busy college student, reality TV really shouldn’t fit in my schedule, yet I celebrate “Bachelor Mondays” and make “The Great British Bake Off” my entire personality when a new season hits Netflix. But “Big Brother” is different. Every summer, I find myself re-subscribing to Paramount+ not only to watch the newest season of the show but to re-watch old seasons as well; I just can’t get enough of it.
I don’t claim to be a Super Fan, but I am extremely knowledgeable of the game within the show, past seasons and past contestants. You can find me scrolling on Twitter during an episode, waiting to see everyone’s reactions play out live, and believe me, “Big Brother” fans on Twitter can be brutal. I subscribe to YouTube channels dedicated to “Big Brother,” like Peridiam and Ethanimale. I have grand delusions that when I’m eligible, I’ll apply to be on the show. I’m fully convinced I would either be the first one evicted or win the whole thing.
I haven’t always considered “Big Brother” one of my favorite shows. The summer before I started high school, my best friend introduced me to the insanity that is “Big Brother.” When she started throwing around words like “Head of Household,” “Veto” and “backdoor,” I was utterly confused. Fast forward six years later, this will be the seventh season I’ve watched live, and my obsession has not subsided. “Big Brother” is just one big social experiment, and the mere concept completely fascinates me.
Breaking down the game of “Big Brother” is no easy feat: Basically, a group of people from all over the country become “houseguests” and are isolated in the “Big Brother” house, with no contact to the outside world. The “Big Brother” house is not your typical house (especially since it’s not actually a house but part of the CBS Studio Center). Although there’s a kitchen, a living room, various bedrooms and a backyard with a pool, the house is also equipped with 94 HD cameras and 113 microphones to record the houseguests all day, every day, all summer long.
With the goal of becoming the last person standing, the houseguests compete weekly for power in a variety of competitions that test endurance, memory and other skills. Houseguests are consistently in survivor mode (reality TV pun intended), strategizing how to avoid getting evicted. Some houseguests create alliances with their competitors, promising each other safety, while others lie low and float to the end of the game, making moves and winning competitions only when necessary. Ever since the prize money was increased from $500,000 to $750,000, the stakes couldn’t be any higher. I mean, what wouldn’t you do for three quarters of a million dollars? Cheat, lie and backstab? All of the above?
In the “Big Brother” house, houseguests don’t just compete for power. Before season 16, there were competitions to determine if a houseguest could eat regular food for the week, and numerous seasons have had luxury competitions filled with prizes varying from hot tubs for the house to cold, hard cash. Before the ideas of “Have,” “Have-Nots” and “Slop” were introduced into the game, houseguests were punished by having to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the week. Now, “Big Brother” has its own concoction of grossness called “Slop.” A mixture of god knows what (that no one wants to eat), Slop is just one consequence of the dreaded “Have-Not” title. The Head of Household must appoint the Have-Nots, and those houseguests must eat only Slop for the week, take cold showers and sleep in uncomfortable living quarters. Talk about torture.
Houseguests must live without phones, internet and other modes of entertainment like TV, music or books for up to three months. In our technology-obsessed society, “Big Brother” probably sounds like a nightmare to most people. With cameras watching their every move and microphones picking up their every word, there is virtually no privacy for houseguests in the “Big Brother” house.
While the editors of the show can manipulate the narrative of certain houseguests, the show is — for the most part — unscripted. Whatever the houseguests say or do can be used to shape their narrative or their edit, but the producers are behind-the-scenes, pushing certain narratives and perpetuating stereotypes. What’s worse is that CBS has the power to show — and not show — whatever they see fit.
The show’s motto is “expect the unexpected,” but I guess it should be expected that there is conflict between houseguests. Some houseguests think of shit-talking as part of their “strategy,” while some just love to gossip, regardless of the consequences. Yes, part of the game is talking behind people’s backs in order to further yourself in the game, but there’s no need to be cruel. I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t find bullying or personally attacking other houseguests entertaining. The newest season — which premiered a month ago — has already seen a self-eviction, microaggressions and bullying. Some houseguests of “Big Brother” have dipped out early on their own terms, and some have been expelled for their behavior. Former houseguests have also been overtly racist, homophobic, violent and misogynistic toward each other, but some of it never made it to air.
When CBS chooses not to address the problematic behavior or air the houseguests’ inappropriate and disgusting comments — even though those who watch the 24/7 online live feeds have already seen it and put it on Twitter — they are condoning bad behavior for the sake of their brand. On the rare occasion that CBS acknowledges their problems, little is done to reprimand the houseguests during their time on the show. But have no fear. “Big Brother” Twitter fans and former houseguests have no problem calling out current (and former!) houseguests on their behavior. Not to mention all problematic actions have consequences, which has led to many houseguests getting fired from their jobs or dropped by sponsors after they get out of the house. Some are even privileged to be booed on stage and hated by America.
Essentially, “Big Brother” is dramatic, at times romantic and always controversial.
The show is known for its lack of diversity and mistreatment of people of Color, especially Black houseguests. Whether intentional or not, people of Color are usually targeted first in the game. This is why, in season 23, having a final six consisting of all Black houseguests, a.k.a. the Cookout Alliance, was so monumental. Excluding the Celebrity version of the game, in 22 years with 23 seasons, there have been only four winners of Color: Jun Song in season 4, Josh Martinez in season 19, Kaycee Clark in season 20 and Xavier Prather in season 23. Of the 23 winners, seven have been women, two have been part of the LGBTQ+ community and one has been over the age of 40. Statistically speaking, if you’re a young, white, straight male, you’re still favored to win the game.
Prior to 2021, during a typical season of “Big Brother,” you could expect to see a majority of fit, young, cisgender, straight, white houseguests on your TV screen every week. In 2020, however, CBS announced that all of their reality shows must have casts with 50% of the contestants being Black, Indigenous and people of Color (BIPOC).
“Big Brother” is not the only reality TV show plagued with discrimination, and it isn’t the only reality TV show that loves to fixate on weight, especially women’s weight. Think Khloe Kardashian’s “Revenge Body,” “America’s Next Top Model” and Yolanda Hadid on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” Season 4 winner of “Big Brother,” Jun Song, commented on the issue of weight in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly. During her season, there was a whole segment of an episode dedicated to her weight gain, and in a previous season, there was a competition to see who could gain the most weight by binge-eating, neither of which would be considered acceptable on TV today. One of the many eligibility requirements of “Big Brother” states that “You must be in excellent physical and mental health,” which is understandable. Houseguests are stuck in a house with strangers with no contact to the outside world for up to three months. It can be mentally, emotionally and physically draining. According to former houseguests, production even allegedly does not allow players to take certain prescribed mental health medications. What I can’t understand is the hyper-fixation of weight on the show.
So why do I keep watching “Big Brother” and other reality TV shows if they are so toxic? It’s hard to explain. Some reality TV is just so bad it’s good, like “Big Brother.” I know older seasons of the show are significantly better than the newer seasons. New-school “Big Brother” contains over-the-top and phony Diary Room sessions, the idea of everyone voting “with the house,” recruiting people who just want to be influencers instead of wanting to play the game, eight-person alliances bulldozing through the game, boring “twists” and other nonsense. Still, I find myself watching every summer because it’s hard to stop watching the dumpster fire once it starts burning.
“Big Brother” loves to bring out the absolute worst in people, but it can also be a place to have important conversations. So yes, “Big Brother” will probably continue to be my favorite reality TV show. I love to watch the calling out of houseguests for not washing their hands after using the bathroom. I savor the iconic birthdays, betrayals and blindsides. I keep my eyes peeled for shocking goodbye messages. I cry over my favorite blondes getting screwed over by a guy’s alliance in the final four. At the end of the day, “Big Brother” is about a random group of people — who probably would never have met outside of the show — coming together to provide entertainment for me and America a few nights a week. Even if you think reality TV isn’t “real,” there is at least one ounce of truth to it all, and I think that “Big Brother” — one of America’s longest-running reality TV shows — certainly serves as a reflection of American society. After all, we are a politically divided country that struggles with racism, has a body image issue and fears government surveillance. Although reality TV is about entertainment, some shows, like “Big Brother,” expose the underlying issues our country faces, which compels me to tune in every summer.
Daily Arts Writer Ava Seaman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.