When CBS announced the “Big Brother 17” cast Tuesday, it seemed very much like the typical cast: lots of young, white people who look very much like the young, white people the show usually casts.
But among the cast is someone who is breaking ground in network reality TV: Audrey Middleton, a transgender woman who's the first transgender person to be on a major big-four network reality show. The CW's “Top Model” did break ground by having a transgender woman, Isis King, on the cast twice, first in season 11 in 2008. (Also Tuesday, “The Amazing Race Canada” announced that a transgender man, Hamilton, will be racing with his fiance Michaelia during its third season.)
The fact that “Big Brother” is the first to break this barrier is both amazing and terrifying. Of all the shows on television, “Big Brother” seemed the least likely to have taken this significant step. It's the one that panders most to stereotypes, the one that fails to understand diversity. It seems to have clear slots for types of players and rarely breaks from those.
Compare that to CBS' other major reality shows. “The Amazing Race” had a married gay couple–who eventually won–the show way back in 2003, during the show's fourth season. “Survivor” debuted in 2000 with a cast as diverse as its final four: a middle-aged female trucker from Wisconsin, a senior citizen who'd been in the military, a rafting guide in her 20s, and a gay corporate trainer. “Survivor” also worked hard to cast people of different races; although the show pitted different races against each other, that season did have the positive effect of diversifying future casts. And when things do happen on “Survivor,” it deals with them–sometimes imperfectly, yes, but it doesn't just ignore them.
“Big Brother” on the other hand has adopted an odd tone. Its advertising and editing usually make the show seem light, fluffy, stupid fun. And, yes, it can be that. But it also features violent fights and threats, and quarrels where racist language is flies freely. People spew bigoted, obnoxious speech toward each other and toward groups of people.
While the UK version of the show has rules about speech that it enforces, CBS' approach seems to be just editing things out, even if that meant completely changing reality. The editing sanitizes bad behavior. The version on television was nothing like the one people saw on the live feeds.
This is a reputation that the show actively hides. Only in 2013, during “Big Brother 15,” did something of this nature finally make the air, after which the show ignored the cacophony of bigoted speech and behavior by a large percentage of the cast, focusing instead on one person and her racist statements.
CBS and “Big Brother” have such an odd blind spot toward their casts' own horrible behavior that CBS has repeatedly re-hired a former cast member, Jeff Schroeder, who used gay slurs his first time on the show and, later, went on a weird homophobic rant on the show that forced the show to issue an empty statement about not condoning the houseguests' behavior.
That's a statement “Big Brother” had issued too often, and one that I fear may emerge again this year. Perhaps we'll be surprised, and the other houseguests will treat Audrey just like another player and she'll help educate the public while playing an entertaining game.
Or maybe Audrey will surprise us and be just a typical “Big Brother” player, maybe terrific or maybe obnoxious. She calls herself a superfan (great) and cites Rachel Reilly as her “favorite houseguest of all time” (oh no). She loves doing thing outdoors but also plays strategic games, and seems as promising as any player could be with as little information as we have at this point in the season.
Still, “Big Brother” seems like the least appropriate show to break such significant ground in reality television. This is not a place where serious issues are dealt with in any more than a superficial way; it's a place where there's a lot of bigotry that the network and producers just don't want to deal with.
Then again, with Caitlyn Jenner telling her story on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and, later in July, an E! series, perhaps the least likely television venues are good places to introduce viewers to people they might not have met before.