Say you’re producing a reality-competition show with a million dollar prize at the end of it, and you get to choose contestants from the past to appear on your shiny new bauble of a season.
One of the contestants in the pool is a young, gay white male that is primarily known for having hurled some appallingly racist and classist slurs towards an African-American contestant before organizing his all-too-swift exit from the show.
Another contestant is the very same African-American who didn’t even have the chance to play the game long before someone’s bigotry ruined it.
So who do you invite back?
Apparently, for the producers of Survivor, the answer was a no-brainer; forget all about the black guy and invite the bigot back on the show.
At least that’s how it appears because, instead of being voted off the island and sent to the land of obscurity (which would be the kindest thing for all of humanity), Survivor: One World’s infamous Colton Cumbie (pictured above right) is featured in the venerable reality TV franchise’s latest edition, “Blood vs. Water”.
To recap, this is the same Cumbie that called fellow contestant and stand-up comedian, Bill Posley (pictured above left), “ghetto trash”, before making some ill-advised and racially-coded crack that he should, “get a real job.” and later couldn’t even manage to contain his giggles after stating, “I do have African-American people in my life… my housekeeper”.
Besides briefly speculating if they were going to replace host Jeff Probst with Paula Deen for this cycle, I really have to question why Cumbie is being so richly rewarded for such appalling past behavior.
For how can his reappearance on our screens be considered anything less than a reward? Not only does he get an additional try at a nice big pile of cash, but he also gains the fame that goes along with being on Survivor twice.
Meanwhile, care to guess what Posley will receive after enduring Cumbie’s demeaning and humiliating machinations? Oh, that’s right. He’s in the land of obscurity. And I’d be willing to bet that Pat Buchanan will get his own show on the BET Network before Survivor acknowledges Posley in any meaningful way.
The news of Cumbie’s return is even harder to take as it comes in the shadow of a hate-filled season of Big Brother. (Literally, as Big Brother’s season ends the night Survivor’s begins.)
Much has been already been written about Aaryn Gries, the “mean girl” from Big Brother 15 for the sheer volumes of racist and homophobic rants she’s spewed. So much so that the vile racist, sexist, homophobic and (really?) Hitler-supporting statements made by other houseguests, including GinaMarie Zimmerman, Amanda Zuckerman and Spencer Clawson, have been substantially under-reported by comparison.
Not even gay contestant Andy Herren is in the clear. He’s not only lobbed the sexist and repugnant C-word at female housemates, but he also witnessed numerous attacks and derogatory slurs directed at people of color in the house and did absolutely nothing to stop it. He enabled and emboldened the behavior of the house and codified and nurtured the very players who’ve dubbed him “Kermit the Fag.”
But I digress.
Should the all-but-inevitable Big Brother All Stars 2 come to pass; is there any reason to doubt that the houseguests of color this season, who all had to endure a litany of derogatory innuendos and caustic racial slurs, will be enjoying it from the comfort of their living rooms while, like Survivor’s Cumbie, the infamous Gries gets invited back again? Especially after an inescapable post-season spin job wherein her racism is explained as simply “misunderstood”?
Big Brother’s charmer Aaryn Griese
Look, I’m not new to this planet. I know that reality television has never been the place to find heroes. It’s the place to find villains.
For every Pedro Zamora or Mondo Guerra to break out of the genre, we have to contend with a bunch of badly-behaving, tax-evading Jersey Housewives, something called an Omarosa, and a brood of intolerable C-List gays. We even had something called a Bad Girl’s Club where every person featured was a particularly hostile strain of humankind.
Watching these shows, we get to actively root against the villain of [insert show here] while acknowledging their vast power to enthrall and entertain us. We may not “like” them, but they certainly provide that all-important component television producers search high and low for… water-cooler worthy drama.
But we may be witnessing a disturbing escalation of the Reality Show Villain. After all, when televised crudeness has hit its nadir and abysmal conduct has reached a “been there, done that” critical mass, what does one do to become the next scoundrel star?
Well, give racism, sexism and homophobia a try. After all, Survivor casting choices all-but confirm that it worked for Colton Cumbie. Hell, even the Birther movement is powered by a megalomaniac reality show host.
The escalation of the racist, sexist and homophobic reality show star is troubling, to say the least. Our sensitivities to these crippling societal ills are already being dulled by a Tea-drenched right-wing sensibility that is creeping into the mainstream.
It comes at a time many of us are still bruised from the Trayvon Martin murder and the subsequent manslaughter trail of George Zimmerman. A trial with which the nicest thing I can say about the media coverage is at least this time we were spared Dancing Ito’s.
It comes at a time when we are still bruised from the news reports of LBGT brothers and sisters being attacked, tortured and killed, and we cannot immediately tell if these reports are originating from Moscow or Manhattan.
It comes at a time when a women’s health advocate is only well known because a bombastic radio host called her a slut. Prepare to watch this country lose its not terribly contained sexist sh*t if Hillary Clinton runs and becomes the next President of the United States.
Do we need, at such a bruising time in our history, these people actually achieving celebrity status?
Of course, Cumbie’s return could be a part of one big effort, orchestrated by the show or by Cumbie, himself, to achieve redemption; a classic, “Look Ma, I’m not a bigot, anymore” declaration to the world, which would be stomach-turning in its own right.
In an interview with The Backlot, or…um… us, Cumbie explains that he wasn’t trying to be a bigoted blowhard.
“When I was out there and saying the stuff I was saying, the producers were laughing, people were laughing, and I thought I was being funny,” said Cumbie. “Sometimes I took it way too far and it became hateful, but for the most part — and I say this all the time — if I say something inappropriate, I mean it as a joke. I’m not trying to offend you.”
To which, I retort, God help us when he’s actually trying.
It is easy to be a reality show villain. And now it seems to be even easier to achieve redemption.
Reality TV makes it look all too effortless to go from prejudiced to enlightenment… when in actual reality it’s a long, hard slog for enlightenment to stick. When, in stark contrast to the damage they’ve done, reality show villains’ supposed improvement is sandwiched between commercial breaks, the actual work of deprogramming prejudice never happens.
In that light, whether we witness mea culpas from Cumbie, Grimes or anyone else is entirely moot. Unlike the prejudicial screeds that earned these players their infamy, their manufactured apologies are hollow because they didn’t require any sincere effort to produce. It’s only image rehabilitation made to look like redemption.
It’s a reward challenge that eliminates any actual challenge.
Some will tell you that this all means we get to have a community-wide conversation about prejudice. This is pure smokescreen. This is only about attracting viewers and attention to the lowest of human behavior and providing zero insight as to why it exists or how to combat it. It’s a deeply irresponsible and immeasurably hurtful way to sell deodorant and pizza.
Martin Luther King’s dream for America did not include racism, sexism and homophobia being the engine for celebrity and television ratings. But it appears that’s what we’ve come to.