Watching Big Brother is like watching Spider-Man fight the expert special-effects villain Mysterio — nothing is ever what it seems. Frequently, host Julie Chen will tell the audience and the participants, "Expect the unexpected." But longtime fans of the series have known this for years. On June 29, current Big Brother 18 houseguest Bronte D'Acquisto said of fellow houseguest James Huling, "I want to kick his little Asian ass back to Hong Kong … wherever he came from." The scene never aired on broadcast television. Instead, CBS viewers were treated to an insane, almost extraterrestrial scene in which we were supposed to pretend that Bronte coming out to her friends as an "aspiring mathematician" (and not a dropout as she'd claimed) was groundbreaking television. It wasn't, but it was funny as hell. As a concept, Big Brother is relatively simple. Random strangers are put into a house in Studio City, Los Angeles, where they have to compete to be the last remaining houseguest while voting someone out each week. They're also filmed 24/7 and the footage is broadcast online at cbs.com. But that's in theory. In practice, it's a lot more complex.
Bronte's remarks are hardly the first time someone's been racist on Big Brother. Racism and homophobia are par for the course on a show that features a majority straight, white cast. The problem is that they rarely makes it to air. In Season 15, GinaMarie Zimmerman and Aaryn Williams's (née Gries's) continued harassment of Candice Stewart became so heated that it had to air on television, lest it ruin the season's narrative. But otherwise there's no reason to air someone referring to a contestant as “Kermit the fag”; praise of Hitler's speeches; or a rant by fan favorite Jeff Schroeder about how Dumbledore being gay in Harry Potter was a perversion — "He's in school with little kids! You don’t want to make that guy gay!”
To watch Big Brother online, as obsessive fans do, is to know that what really happens on the show never makes it to air. After all, an entire week's worth of material has to fit into three hour-long episodes that air on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Watching the feeds is supposed to be a bonus, but it's actually a master class in how reality television works — and is exactly why the show has been so popular. Scripted dramas like UnREAL show how producers on reality shows like The Bachelor manipulate contestants to get the results that they want to air. But with Big Brother, you're watching the manipulation happen live. A racist in the house can come across as a fan favorite because everyone fits into neat, prepackaged archetypes that Americans love.
The show is usually dominated by athletic and attractive white men. Strong women in the house are defined by their relationships to a strong male. Black men are pretty much nonexistent. Black women are rare, but when they appear, they are often loud and abrasive and referred to by the other contestants as "homegirl." Asians blend in with the white contestants on the show, because there's usually only one in the house and they never seem to be around when the white housemates make racist remarks like “go make a bowl of rice.” It makes the show a weird microcosm of the American experience itself and how we're all represented by the media. White men are heroes, sometimes white women can be, and everyone else is just there.
If The Bachelor is popular because it blows up conventions of what "true love" is, exposes contestants' selfish desires, and also puts vain idiots on display, then Big Brother is popular for all that and more. You're given a cast of characters that you know are stereotypes, and yet, because it's a game, you hope that they can break free of those molds. You want the gay character to be more than sassy, to win the game like Andy Herren did in Season 15. You want an Asian woman to finally win like Jun Song did in Season 4, because I mean, damn, Julie Chen is the host of this show and there's rarely an Asian contestant for even her to root for. If the producers have created roles for these contestants to play, the fun comes in watching them try to create their own characters on live TV, or watching the feeds and seeing how they're portrayed completely differently on CBS.
Big Brother makes your heart race like an episode of Empire. It's not just the characters that keep you on the edge of your seat — it's the outlandish obstacle courses they have to compete in to win prizes and the tensions of having to vote one another out from week to week. As reality shows like The Real Housewives and Keeping Up With the Kardashians show how famous people live their lives while being surveilled on camera, Big Brother gets to show what everyday Americans look like — or, at least, the image of America that CBS wants to project. Savvy viewers know that there's something else underneath the surface, that the shiny veneer network TV producers create is really just a reflection of what they think we want to see. It makes Big Brother one of the mostly insanely addictive shows on television, because you're actively rooting against the rules that the show has set up so that it will follow a narrative you prefer. You hope the racist will be exposed. You hope the alpha white male will lose for once. When they do, and when the game changes before your eyes, it's a triumph and the best show on television. But when your narrative fails, like when Bronte was eliminated last night and Julie didn't once call her out on her racism — despite expressing sadness at anti-Asian sentiments on the show before — it can be depressing. But what is America if not the golden rush of excitement that all your dreams may come true, only to be met with crushing disappointment most of the time?