Big Brother 18: Negotiating Consent and Boundaries within a Reality Show

This season of CBS’ Big Brother is full of new game twists, rioting teams, and returning contestants. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Big Brother is a reality game show in which a group of people live together in a secluded house away from the world and the media. Each week, they have to compete to win the power to avoid and/or nominate people for eviction.

Everyone who is on the show has a big personality, and often times these personalities clash with one another. This is probably one of the reasons why the show is so popular. Unfortunately,  the clashes sometimes border on the offensive. The situation becomes even worse when boundaries are crossed and violated.

It is often hard to tell on reality shows like this one what is truth and what is gameplay. Two major components of the show are lying and manipulating others. People do this to form alliances, to make others into targets, and to cover themselves from eviction. Even so, there are some behaviors that the producers believe are crossing the line. The biggest example is the physical assault. It rarely happens, but contestants have been kicked out of the game for hitting another person. In those cases, it was clear that someone slapped or punched another person in anger.

What happens in a situation, though, when a person taps/slaps another person in a playful manner? Many times, both of the people are engaging in consensual play. However, this past week’s episodes raised another question: what happens in a situation when a person taps another person in a playful manner, and the other person hates the gesture?

On last Sunday’s (7/10/16) episode, America learned that one of the contestants, Frank Eudy, has been slapping another contestant, Da’Vonne Rogers, on the butt. And she did NOT like it. AT ALL. Apparently, this has been happening for a while now, and the producers have yet to have done anything about it. Interestingly, Da’Vonne was hesitant to tell Frank about it out of the fear that she would end up being nominated for eviction. So, to keep up appearances, she said nothing at first. She cried and talked about it only to other contestants. Mainly everyone but Frank. It was not until Frank walked into a room and found her crying with another contestant did he realize that he really offended her.

Let me provide a little more backstory to this situation. On this episode, America found out that not only had Frank been tapping Da’Vonne on the butt on several occasions, but he also had been a little bit too aggressive playing with another female contestant in the pool (In short, he picked her up and slammed her into the water. She did not look pleased). To make matters worse, he called Da’Vonne a slut in response to Da’Vonne and another contestant calling him a douche. When Frank called Da’Vonne a slut, she cheerfully responded, “Only on Tuesdays!” However, in the diary room, she confessed that she did not like the comment. She also said that she pretended not to care so that he would not nominate her later. It was also then that we learned that he also told her to “shut her mouth” another time when she told him to stop touching her. On other occasions, he made lewd comments about her butt.

After having found out that she was crying and upset all this time, Frank told another male contestant, James, that he never told meant to offend anyone. He never thought of himself as being offensive, because he was used to tapping his mother and grandmother on the butt as a loving gesture ever since he was little. In the end, he formally apologized to Da’Vonne and she accepted it. In the diary room, however, Da’Vonne told America that she did not believe his apology was sincere.

Wow. That was a lot of information to deal with. Unfortunately, the show only focused on it for 10 minutes at the most.

First of all, I have to make myself clear. Some basic rules of consent and boundaries were clearly broken. Let me list the issues and hit them point-by-point.

Frank clearly should have known better. Yes. As much as I understand his affectionate behavior towards his friends and family back home, he should have known that he was going to live with a bunch of strangers with different rules. In general, it is always best to ask what a person’s limits on affection are before touching them. I acknowledge that people do not do this as often as they should, but it is a good idea to start considering. For example, it is considered polite to ask a person if they want a hug before hugging them. This may be easier for some to do than for others. I know that I am not the affectionate type, so it is easier and more natural for me to ask.  For others who grew up in very affectionate households, it may be harder to understand that other people may not as affectionate. It makes a world of difference to ask, even if you think the person is going to be accepting anyway. Better to ask than assume and get into trouble.

This case is dripping with racial tension. It is important to mention that Frank is a White man and Da’Vonne is a Black woman. Black women have had an intense history of being hypersexualized and having their bodies put on display for the outside gaze (Thompson, 2012; Watson, Robinson, Dispenza, & Nazari, 2012). Frank probably was not even thinking about race when he made those lewd comments/gestures, but the racialization was there and felt by Da’ and millions of people watching the show. Da’ mentioned in the diary room that she did not want her daughter to watch the show and think that it was okay for people to randomly tap her on the butt. Very true. People can very well watch these shows and think it is okay to do something like that against the other person’s wishes (Ward, Epstein, Caruthers, & Merriwether, 2011; Ward & Friedman, 2006).

This case also highlights the importance of communication of boundaries and consent. Many people don’t realize that consent and boundary-making are a process, a continual and changing process. This means that communication is key in knowing what people want to happen to them and their bodies. It also means that boundaries can change and that consent can be renegotiated from time to time. In other words, what may be okay for me one day may not be for the next, and I have every right to change my mind. Frank should have asked prior to touching Da’Vonne and not assume that his behavior would be accepted by everyone, even if it was out of love. Plus, she said no more than once, so he should have stopped. Also, it is a shame that Da’Vonne felt that she could not speak directly to him after it had happened. When someone’s space has been violated, and they are in somewhat good terms with the other person, they should be able to talk about what happened. In this case, however, Da’Vonne felt that she was going to jeopardize her game.

Lastly, where were the producers when these incidents occurred? I mean, really? I know that there are rules for this game, but there should have been a better discussion around contestant boundaries in relation to game dismissal. People from all over America watched what happened, but not at any point did the producers intervene. They probably thought this drama made for good TV, but at what point is too far? Da’Vonne complained to other contestants and in the diary room, but at no point did the producers actually consider her objections. I would have loved for them to step in and say to Frank (or to anyone who crossed a boundary): “Dear Houseguests, please remember to respect your and your housemates’ physical boundaries. If you continue with this objectionable behavior, we would have no choice but to kick your ass out of this house.” Or something eloquent like that. Before the game started, there should have been a deeper discussion about boundaries and how people should feel comfortable with bringing up concerns, WITHOUT the threat of eviction. Seriously. People should be able to feel physically safe in the game, at least. I know that people are supposed to lie and keep secrets, but not at the expense of their physical and emotional well-being. Some things are more important than money.

 

In case you’re interested, here’s a link to an article that talks more about consent and abuse: http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/04/parents-kids-bodily-autonomy/

It’s geared toward parents talking about consent to their children, but it highlights an important point: if we don’t learn about the basic rules of consent as a child, we are more likely to violate bodily spaces as adults.

 

 

References

Thompson, K. D. (2012). “Some were wild, some were soft, some were tame, and some were fiery”: Female dancers, male explorers, and the sexualization of blackness, 1600-1900. Black Women, Gender & Families, 6(2), 1-28.

Ward, L. M., Epstein, M., Caruthers, A., & Merriwether, A. (2011). Men’s media use, sexual cognitions, and sexual risk behavior: Testing a mediational model. Developmental Psychology, 47(2), 592-602. doi:10.1037/a0022669

Ward, L. M., & Friedman, K. (2006). Using TV as a guide: Associations between television viewing and adolescents’ sexual attitudes and behavior. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 16(1), 133-156.

Watson, L. B., Robinson, D., Dispenza, F., & Nazari, N. (2012). African American women’s sexual objectification experiences: A qualitative study. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 36(4), 458-475.

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