Why Big Brother Is TV’s Greatest Time Capsule
On Big Brother, America’s best cultural barometer.
“Big Brother? Is that show still on?” is often the first question asked anytime it’s brought up in conversation. To put it mildly: Yes, it’s still on. Since its 1999 Dutch inception, the long-running reality TV series has expanded to over 500 seasons across more than 80 countries. This summer Big Brother will celebrate its 25th season in the U.S., but for the millions of non-viewers, the show's legacy continues to be unbeknownst to them. What’s behind the reality competition’s staying power?
Following the classic reality television formula of dramatized unscripted conversation, everyday Americans with unabashed personalities, and a massive monetary prize, Big Brother seems like any other competition show on paper. What sets it apart, however, is the public’s access to 24/7 live feeds from inside the competition house. This unique feature offers an unedited, unabridged look at American culture that may be television’s best cultural barometer each summer it airs.
During its 24th season in 2022, fans were delighted to see the first Black woman, Taylor Hale, take home the crown and be the first contestant ever to win the game and have America back her with the coveted “America’s Favorite Houseguest” award. The previous year saw Xavier Prather win it all, making him the first Black man to win in Big Brother history. What took more than two decades had finally been accomplished, signifying that America was capable of rewarding its Black contestants their long-overdue triumphs.
“The show can represent society and what we're thinking, what we're believing, and especially the more negative or daunting ways that you see houseguests treat each other when they go head-to-head in arguments,” Hale tells NYLON. “That's always really interesting examining what social dynamics are influencing that, what is different from now and the past, and what’s also the same.”
Thanks to the thousands of hours of Big Brother footage over the show’s history, there’s endless documentation of America’s cultural evolution from 2000-2023 just waiting to be examined. To do that, we need to start from the beginning.
Jumping into its earliest seasons, first-time Big Brother viewers are met with a time capsule of ‘00s culture, complete with baby-tees, ill-fitting capris, and micro miniskirts galore. Thanks to the show’s recent inclusion on streaming, anyone can use the show to find inspiration for haunting yet realistic ‘00s fashion, but while searching, they may be surprised that behind the visible lipliner comes out the uninhibited yet “socially acceptable” conversations of the time.
Artifacts of the pre-HD television era, 12-16 Gen-X and early-millennial personalities called “houseguests” comprised the show’s core. Curated to represent different walks of life across America, each year the houseguests became a chaotic, early-aughts tour guide in the Big Brother house, offering an unadulterated look at the American perspective on cultural moments, race, sexuality — and their attitudes on each other’s identities.
To make these contestants digestible to the public, these houseguests were cast as archetypes. Season 13 winner Rachel Reilly understands their importance on a deeper level; for the past seven years, she’s worked in reality TV production and as a casting producer. “These people are cast because they want people to relate to them or say, ‘I know someone that has those qualities and those attributes,’” she explains. “Over the years, it's evolved, but we still see these specific types of people that are continuously getting cast.”
From the alpha males and outcasts to Bible thumpers and bimbos, by the first 10 minutes of any season’s premiere, the contestants are compressed into topical personalities that reflect current American affairs. They’re at once an anchor to see how America's perception of these characters evolves, but thanks to the show’s format, ripe for subversion.
The most common of these in the early aughts was the quintessential bimbo. From VIP cocktail waitresses to nannies and chemistry students, nearly every season had one. Early on these contestants were packaged as ditsy, vain, and superficial, reflections of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s Simple Life personas or not-yet-vindicated tabloid-fodder celebrities like Pamela Anderson.
On the origins of this archetype, Reilly explains, “We don't really see that character in the very first few seasons of Big Brother, but then in Season 4, we see this Alison [Irwin] character pop up and she's kind of like, ‘I'll do whatever it takes to flirt with the guys if I need to to get ahead.’ She was definitely using her feminine wiles on the show and [the series] was promoting it.”
Compartmentalizing these women never lasted long. As each season progressed, these contestants quickly became the most beloved. From outsmarting their fellow contestants in competitions and flirting their way to power, these “dumb blondes” laid the groundwork toward not only winning, but becoming franchise powerhouses. “On the show it started with Alison and then it became more of the competitive character,” says Reilly. “We got to see a lot of these multidimensional women that were beautiful and smart, that we're here to play the game and wanted to use strategy.”
One of the most decorated competitors in the series is Janelle Pierzina, who proved herself as stronger, more adept, and more intelligent than her other houseguests. Frequently dismissed as a “buxom-blonde,” Pierzina became a fan favorite during her first season, and even returned for three additional seasons. Later seasons would see alleged bimbos such as Reilly take home the win, humanizing the personality type that was often on the receiving end of misogyny.
“I had a really hard time with the audience accepting my character. Maybe it was not what they were used to seeing,” she says. “But when I came back [on Season 13], I totally changed everyone's opinion of me.” Reilly’s return came with the support of the American public; suddenly the former bimbo-villain was the fan favorite. “I think maybe the audience had to get used to these characters. You know, [the viewers] get used to the strong women.”
Season 6 competitor Kaysar Ridha, a devout Muslim and Iraqi-American, was cast in the Big Brother house during the height of the war on terror. In a freshly post-9/11 world, one with rampant Islamophobia and virtually zero positive representation of Middle Eastern people in media, Ridha’s driving motivation for joining the show was to reject the stereotypes at large. “I was the first and only Muslim to have ever been on the show,” Ridha says. “We were in the middle of a war with Iraq. The current environment at that time was extremely heated, stereotypes and prejudice against Muslims. Suspicion was extremely heightened and that was Muslims in general and then Iraq.”
“My objective on the show was just to be present. I knew people were gonna mistreat me, but I wanted it to happen on the record. And it did. And I think that appealed to people's sensibilities and what it did ultimately was give me hope in the American people.”
Despite the political and cultural climate at the time, not only would Ridha become one of the most beloved contestants of all time, returning for Seasons 7 and 22, but he won a vote by America to reenter the game with a whopping 82%. “I had people who are Christian reaching out and saying, ‘I loved you and what you stood for,’” Ridha remembers. “And I said, ‘You know, I'm not Christian’ and they said ‘It doesn't matter’ and honestly, it was a beautiful moment.”
As a major network reality show, Big Brother reaches upwards of 9 million everyday middle Americans, many of whom never interact with people of different ethnic, racial, or cultural backgrounds. Both inside and outside the house, Ridha was the first real representation of a practicing Muslim Iraqi-American. The same can be said about its LGBT houseguests. Big Brother’s time capsule quality bleakly highlights how… dated Americans' thoughts on gay people can be.
Take, for instance, Season 2’s Kent Blackwelder, who described homosexuality as “deviant, perverse, and a lifestyle that 90% of Americans don’t want anywhere near their families, or themselves.” Despite his opinions towards gay people, his closest friendship was with the only openly gay contestant of his season. His casual and proud homophonic stance remained unchanged despite the relationship, and his ideology represented 2001 attitudes towards queerness.
It became a staple of the series that the token gay cast member was the first homosexual person many houseguests had ever met. As the seasons progress, you’d think This has to be the last time that someone’s never met a gay person — and you’d be wrong. Even in 2012, houseguest Danielle Murphree expressed that out-lesbian Jennifer Arroyo was the first lesbian she had encountered.
Luckily, it’s been over a decade since that particular storyline has gotten airtime. Attitudes and relationships towards gay people have evolved, same-sex marriage was passed, and viewers get to witness this evolution in real time through the series. However, there’s still progress to be made. From the token LGBT houseguest to only one transgender houseguest being featured throughout the entire series, it’s rare to see widespread representation across the spectrum.
Reilly agrees but wants this representation to go further into the heart of Big Brother: its on-air romances. “I love showmances, obviously, [Editor’s note: Reilly met her now-husband on her first season], and I would love to see an LGBT showmance. I feel we don't see that and I know it's hard with 13-16 people, but we want to see more.”
“My objective on the show was just to be present. I knew people were gonna mistreat me, but I wanted it to happen on the record. And it did.”
While it’s impossible to represent every American through 16 people, lack of representation has been a consistent criticism of the show known for its overwhelming white majority of houseguests.
All-white alliances were the M.O., while Black and brown contestants were boxed into stereotypes, having to represent their entire race. “I actually felt like I was not qualified to be going in and representing anyone,” Ridha says. “That's too tall of an order for anybody to have to handle on and carry on their shoulders, but I knew that was ultimately what would have happened.”
This lack of representation on Big Brother meant more pressure and mistreatment of marginalized houseguests, exposing the real-world consequences of less diversity.
Hale elaborated: “I can't stop naming the amount of Black women that get an unfair shake in the show that could behave just like their white counterparts, and they don't get the same benefit of the doubt. They don't get the same grace. There's a whole list of the different types of Black women who have been on the show and what was projected onto us either by other houseguests or people on the outside is stereotypically one-dimensional.”
It was this lack of diversity that prevented POC houseguests from winning, being included in conversations, and at times, enforced stereotypes within the house. But thanks to the ever-present nature the Big Brother live feeds, the public is able to discern stereotypes from truth.
While Ridha was an example of this overextension of representation, he understands the complexities of representation in mainstream media. “At the end of the day, network executives are thinking like their stakeholders, and there are people who are going to be really pissed if you're making bad business decisions,” he says. “If there’s overwhelmingly white viewership that wants to see that they are being represented, then that’s gonna end up happening, because that's what people want to see.”
Regardless, many fans wanted more diversity, spending years advocating for more representation. In 2020, CBS listened, becoming the first major American network to make all casts have at least 50% POC representation across its reality TV programming; the success of the initiative was immediately apparent, thanks to Prather and Hale’s wins. Furthermore, Prather’s season birthed The Cookout, one of the show’s most legendary alliances, which saw six Black houseguests banding together; a true rarity, considering how it was the first time the show had cast enough Black contestants to make it happen.
“What's so fascinating about Big Brother is that it’s non-scripted, it's raw. If you want to get the truth, production cannot control it,” Ridha explains. “They can only do certain due diligence on people. You think you know them, and then you put them on the show and you let the whole thing unfold. You don't know what you're getting. You have to let it play out.”
Seeing things play out in real time has led to controversial seasons, with the biggest arguably being Big Brother 15. A season known for its racism, homophobia, and bigotry, it also coincided with the rise of social media.
During the season, a group of white houseguests teamed up against Candice Stewart, the lone Black woman in the house; their attacks included racial slurs, public bullying, and even a flipped mattress, but only diligent fans watching the feeds were able to tune into it; nothing was being aired. The Big Brother community was livid, and with production refusing to intervene, they turned to Tumblr and Twitter to raise awareness and advocate for her. TMZ picked up the story, and eventually CBS was strong-armed into airing the truth, along with a new disclaimer: “At times, the houseguests may reveal prejudices and other beliefs that CBS does not condone.”
Last year, The Hollywood Reporter hailed Big Brother as “the most watched streaming series of the summer,” thanks to fans' fervent tweets, devotion to live feeds, and its three-nights-a-week formula. Sure, Big Brother fans have their criticisms, but they’re also not going anywhere.
“Big Brother holds a mirror up to your face if you're a houseguest,” said host Julie Chen Moonves. “You see who you really are.” And as viewers have seen houseguests at their most authentic, it's also a reflection of the fans themselves.
Hale herself agrees with this impact, “I think Big Brother is nothing without this ever-present knowledge that the fans are watching. You're always being watched 24/7, the people watching are going to hold you accountable. Of course, the fans impact the show. The fans drive the show, literally and figuratively, but also behavior can be impacted because people know that they're being watched 24/7. I think the fan base is great overall.”
Hale’s season saw fans in a similar situation to Season 15. On the live feeds, fans were witnessing colorism, sexism, and racism, despite newly-implemented racial sensitivity training for each houseguest before entering the Big Brother house. The fans came together to ensure the mistreatment was not only shared, but addressed. After over 20 years of mistreatment, underrepresentation, stereotypes, and more, a Black woman had been victorious with America backing her. Both inside and out of the Big Brother house, America was capable of rewarding a Black woman her dues.
“I hope my win will take the foot off of a Black woman's neck when they play this game. I would love to see Black women just have more breathing room.” Hale says, “I'd love to see people who go on be more socially conscious. When I say socially conscious I don't mean ‘politically correct,’ but I do mean I hope that people are aware of their own behaviors and how it impacts other people.”
Like the bimbo archetypes cast on the series, Big Brother, and reality TV in general, are often cast aside as low-brow, but the past two decades of the series have shown how invaluable the series is at examining our own culture. “The fans have proven that there is that audience that reality TV is going to stick around for,” says Reilly. “We're trying to unionize casting and they’re trying to unionize the writers for unscripted shows. There might be a little bit of changes, but I think we'll still see the same raw, beautiful, storylines, and I am so excited about that.”
As Big Brother continues to double as a cultural barometer, new questions will be raised: Are parasocial relationships here to stay? How will colorism, racism, sexism, and stereotypes evolve and shift in American society? Only time — and more seasons of Big Brother — will tell.