Television

CBS Censors A Racist Rant

Contestants on CBS's Big Brother

hide captionBig Brother: Horrifying and offensive rants like the recent one from Braden Bacha (center) have become par for the course — and it's hard to believe that's an accident.

CBS

CBS's Big Brother is never the kind of show anyone feels particularly good about watching. It's dumb, it's dull, and unlike Survivor or even American Idol, it focuses on a group of people genuinely lying around doing nothing. But as disreputable as it is most of the time, it's rarely been quite as disreputable as it is right now.

The first contestant to go home was evicted on Thursday night. Surfer Braden Bacha looked, if you watched the TV show, to be a guy who was tossed out because he wasn't terribly well-liked, because he was perceived as shifty, or just because power was being thrown around somewhat haphazardly as it so often is.

What you would never have known from watching the show — you would never have known it at all — is that shortly before he was booted, Bacha went on an intense and racially driven tirade in which he hurled slurs at two other contestants and told one of them — who's half-African-American and half-Japanese, incidentally — to "go to back to Mexico."

No, this is not something they are actually trying to hide. We'll talk about why, after the jump...

These comments weren't bleeped or covered with cut-outs in the sound. They were entirely cut out.

The argument was shown, but the racist comments were excised, so that a reference to one thing seemed to be a reference to something else, and so that when contestant Lydia yelled, "Kiss my Latin ass" — which came just after she was on the receiving end of this epithet — it seemed to come from nowhere. And, worse yet, seems like something out of a horrible "feisty Latina" stereotype.

Of course, Big Brother is an unusual reality show, in that there is a 24/7 live Internet feed showing what goes on in the house, and while it's censored for some things — certain matters relating to production, people singing songs they don't have the rights to, and so forth — it's far more complete than the show. So the show's devoted fans who either watch that feed or read about it knew what really happened and instantly posted it on YouTube. In fact, you can watch the whole fight yourself with the racial slurs intact (warning: language, obviously, only some of which is racial in nature).

CBS's explanation of its trimming of Bacha's comments is that the slurs are offensive and don't meet broadcast standards, and therefore, they aren't shown. This is obviously not the actual reason this clipping happens, because you could easily bleep the slur from the argument, and as long as you left in Bacha proclaiming himself "white and American," you'd get the gist of what happened. There's obviously an intent not to only avoid broadcasting the words, but to avoid showing on television that a racist attack was even made.

One theory is that CBS is whitewashing the whole thing, trying to protect Bacha from looking like a racist and make all its contestants look like nicer people, hoping that nobody will ever find out that the whole thing occurred.

But this happens too often for it to be something the show hopes won't happen and then tries to sweep under the rug when it does. This has happened season after season: a slur against someone — maybe a woman, maybe a gay man, maybe Jewish people, maybe Latinos — that never makes it to the broadcast show and then throws the Internet into fits as people disgustedly declare that the show is covering up for its horrible contestants. (The site Reality Blurred did an extensive review of this history back in August 2007.)

Bacha was not alone in the first week — another contestant unleashed some homophobic slurs. So that's two guys in one week.

The psychological testing reality-show contestants go through is notoriously extensive; it's hard to believe they put these people on television having no idea that they will, within a week of being cooped up together, get mad and haul out their favorite racial slurs. (Or anti-gay slurs, which have been equally "popular" among Big Brother contestants over the years.) It's not plausible that they manage to miss one bigot per season.

What seems more likely, and what's especially disturbing, is the prospect that these people are cast because they would probably do something hateful that can be seen on the Internet but censored from the show, leaving people aghast. This show, unlike Survivor, for instance, has the capacity to exploit the fact that what it doesn't show on television is still in plain view of the Internet. There would be no reason for Survivor to cast people just to do something they won't show on television. That's not the case here. To drive interest in the show, in fact, there is a motive to choose people who will say things you "have to" cut — not bleep, like a dirty word, but remove entirely. Like, for instance, a race-based attack.

There's a tendency among Internet watchers to consider themselves watchdogs — to say, in effect, "Why does this show think it can get away with sanitizing things, when we are all watching and will catch them red-handed trying to make things look different than they are?" The answer, of course, is that it doesn't. There is a controversy like this just about every year — often more than one. The people who make this show must have known perfectly well that cutting out Bacha's slurs would become a scandal; they've been here before, lots and lots of times. The people who "expose" these alleged cover-ups aren't foiling CBS's plans; they're fulfilling them. They're playing a critical role in Big Brother functioning precisely as it's meant to.

This show is meant to get a good part of its attention from the difference between what you see online and what you see on the show. If it manages to cast a hard-charging racist whose work only appears online, it can seize all the attention of a scandal while claiming that it's tastefully trying to protect viewers from anything "offensive." It is a use of racism as a big tease — conceal, reveal, play with what people think they know and exploit the eagerness of devoted fans to show off how much more plugged-in they are than everyone else.

It's a potentially powerful kind of manipulation, but if you're the kind of person who enjoys a frothy, silly summer reality show, it makes this particular one harder and harder to pass off as a candidate for that distinction.

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