My Co-Worker is on Big Brother
Ann Johnson / Cal State University, Long Beach

Ragan Fox

House guest Ragan Fox told his housemates he is a graduate student, when in fact he is a professor.

This July I learned that a colleague of mine, Ragan Fox, was going to be on season 12 of Big Brother. My interest in seeing someone I know on television soon had me hooked on the CBS series and, to my surprise, the Showtime series Big Brother After Dark. I have an appreciation of reality television not widely shared in academia. Many of my colleagues can’t stomach seeing a co-worker put his daily life on television. Too much information. Further, some worry if he will be able to maintain credibility in the classroom after America has seen him swear, cry, walk a balance beam in a robot costume, and deliver a few angry tirades against an unpopular cast member. By the end of July, two questions emerged from talk around the water cooler: Why would anyone want to watch this show? And will Ragan be able to survive this ordeal with his dignity intact?

Watching Paint Dry

Many people I discuss the program with initially say they find it boring. They then go on to discuss the details of the program at length. A week later they are hooked. And there is a lot to watch. First, CBS airs episodes three nights a week that feature competitions, evictions, and storylines constructed from the live footage, such as romantic relations or fighting between house guests. Second, viewers can tune into Showtime each night for three hours of live feed from the Big Brother house. Third, the most dedicated viewers can pay for online access to the 24/7 live feed from the Big Brother house. Viewers can chose how involved they wish to be, with most viewers sticking with the CBS episodes and online spoilers gleaned from the live feeds by more dedicated fans. The final massive text for 2010 will include 30 one-hour episodes on CBS, 225 hours on Showtime, and 75 mostly complete days online.

The Big Brother After Dark program serves some of the functions of U.S. style soap operas, the kind that are rapidly becoming extinct. ((Steinberg, B. (Aug 9, 2010). Daytime TV’s new entries push soaps down the drain. Advertising Age. Retrieved from http://adage.com/mediaworks/article?article_id=145291.
)) These soap operas were designed for consistent but distracted viewing; a housewife returning to the living room from changing the laundry could easily slip back into the program because the plot moves slowly and any significant plot action is regularly repeated as the characters talk to each other.

New technology allows Big Brother to fill this niche. Viewers with access to the internet and a DVR can conveniently participate in the complete Big Brother experience when they have the time. Big Brother After Dark is ideal for distracted viewing because what little action occurs is endlessly re-hashed by the bored house guests. It’s good background noise that occasionally provides brief moments of excitement—a house guest breaks a pool cue, the shower backs up and must be plunged, or the much sought-after “nip slip.” But, who would want to watch the 24/7 live feed online? There are likely those tempted by the pornographic advertisements for the service. I declined to pay the $14.99 per month for access, but I suspect that there are more reliable and efficient ways to access pornographic images.

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Images used to advertise the $14.99 per month live feeds.

The other viewers of the live feed are those hard core fans who write summaries for websites like Big Brother Network and MortysTV.com. Their dedication to the program serves as a check on the ability of the producers to intervene in the game. To me, this is what makes the program distinct from shows like The Real World or Survivor. As a viewer, I can access a lot of raw material and use it to verify the narratives presented by the producers or to create my own narratives. Verifying the producers’ versions of reality is the viewing pleasure that I have personally enjoyed the most.

Why Did You Do It, Ragan?

My viewing experience is unique (I know a House Guest), but I can only watch the program like any other audience member and hope that Ragan can manage the contradictory and complex roles he will play on the program. Ragan was cast as “the gay guy,” a title he has used of himself while living in the Big Brother house. This casting practice gives him more responsibility for representation than, say, each the five heterosexual women on the program. Ragan is carrying the burden of representation for other groups as well: professors (did he really need to wear the bow-tie?), the discipline of communication (please don’t contribute to the stereotype that our discipline is worthless), and his campus (what will parents and donors think?).

Such burdens would be challenging for a scripted character, and crushing for a real person in the structured environment of the Big Brother house. For example, at three different times so far, Ragan has spent a seven days as a “have not”—a House Guest on severe dietary restrictions. These people grow irritable from eating “slop” while those around them enjoy regular food, wine, and beer. House Guests then label this irritability as crazy, cranky, or bitchy. You can guess which one was used for Ragan.

Even if Ragan could serve as a positive depiction of all the groups he represents, he would still not please everyone. He would face the dilemmas of what Edward Schiappa calls representational correctness, a trend within media criticism that “advances norms of representational accuracy, purity, and innocence”. ((Schiappa, E. (2008). Beyond representational correctness: Rethinking criticism of popular media. New York: SUNY Press.
)) Overcoming problematic representations, such as stereotypes, is difficult because “If one portrays someone in a manner consistent with the dominant stereotype, even in a positive way, then one risks reinforcing essentialism and polarization…But if one undercuts the dominant stereotypes by portraying the member of a social group as inconsistent with stereotypical expectations, then one risks reinforcing normative beliefs such as androcentrism, Whiteness, or heteronormativity”. ((Ibid.))

Using the logic of representational correctness, if Ragan cries a lot on the show (which he does), that reinforces the stereotype of gay men as overly emotional. But if Ragan never cried and took pride in his emotional control, that performance could be interpreted as Ragan embracing the norms of hegemonic masculinity, denying the value of emotional experiences, and endorsing assimilation as a means to social acceptance.

Ragan seems aware of some of his audiences and their expectations, but has little control over how the producers will use the material he gives them. During a Big Brother After Dark episode, while crying in the company of two other House Guests, Ragan says “I’ve turned into everything I didn’t want to be. I did not want to be the guy who was crying the whole season. . . Every gay guy, I’m sure, who watches this show hates me. Because they [are] saying . . . exactly what I would be saying, ‘Why does this gay guy have to come up and perpetuate every stereotype of gay guys?’” House Guest Kathy comforts Ragan: “It just shows you’re human, that’s all. You’re just human.” Thus far, this moment has not made it into one of the CBS episodes, though other crying moments have, such as the “Heartfelt Moment” scene included in the August 18 CBS broadcast. The music, close up shots, and dialog all resemble something out of General Hospital.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUMckMQgr_8[/youtube]

Ragan consented to all of this surveillance and the judgments he will face. I have no inside information about why Ragan auditioned for the program. I suspect that one motivation might be the platform the program provides for someone to talk to America, or at least the 7.5 million Americans, mostly age 18 to 49, that watch the program. I must admit that I am a bit jealous of the opportunity he has to lay his trip on everyone. Despite the lack of control he has in the process, some of who he is and what he believes comes through. So, good luck, Ragan.

Image Credits:
1. Official cast picture
2. Advertisements for the live feed appearing on the Big Brother Network

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