Once upon a time, George Orwell’s novel 1984 made “big Brother is watching” an ominous suggestion of government power over citizens. Many would call it a conspiracy theory. Since 2000, when John de Mol came up with the idea of contestants living together in the same house while competing for half a million dollars, we call Big Brother a reality TV series. Some even call it entertainment, although that label, being entirely subjective, is up for debate.
Big Brother has obviously found an audience to have lasted into its 11th season, but as I watched the proceedings both in the game and in the house on this week’s Thursday episode, I was struck by the show’s similarities to our high school social circles complete with cliques, gossip, hookups, and cat fights which were hardly highlights of our lives then and are only amplified on Big Brother when a large sum of money is at stake.
To my way of thinking, Big Brother represents everything that makes our everyday relationships unpleasant. I think it’s safe to say that most of us do not enjoy being used, being lied to and being controlled. My belief that the way of things on this reality TV show is not the way we want to be treated in reality raises a significant question: why is Big Brother considered entertaining? While many other reality shows have a component that is essentially separate from game play, such as talent, or weight loss, or audience voting, Big Brother is among those that subscribe to a framework of pure, unadulterated competition and “the survival of the fittest.” And I must confess I have no idea what creates the entertainment draw of such shows.
My experience watching Big Brother felt more like a prophetic wake-up call than an opportunity for entertainment. Just as prophets in biblical times illuminated people’s brokenness, the behaviors and interactions depicted on Big Brother reminded me of the dark potential that lies within all of us, leading us to act out of greed for money and power without thought for the damage our actions might cause. We all do it, even if our folly is not nationally known, and we rationalize that protecting our personal survival and interest is only practical. And living by “the survival of the fittest” is quite practical … if you live in the jungle … alone. I’m talking about a real jungle—you know, “lions and tigers and bears, oh my”—and I’m guessing if you’re reading this right now, that is not the case. In any other circumstance (including residence in the infamous urban jungle), living as if “survival of the fittest” governs our actions makes us most unfit for the relational nature of our world.
This reality brings us to another question to consider as we watch Big Brother: How can we reconcile watching its content with honoring the principle of treating others as we want to be treated? The show’s prophetic function in presenting the negative tendencies inherent in the human condition is useful in the short term, but is anything beneficial to be gained by exposing ourselves week after week to real human depravity masquerading as reality TV? I don’t have an answer for this question yet, and the answer that is right for me may not be right for you. Perhaps the answer begins with what watching Big Brother inspires in us, whether mindless consumption of media or engaged thought and action toward improving our relationships.
Most of this column has addressed questions raised while I watched Big Brother, questions that don’t have clear cut answers. Here is what I know for sure: The relationships we have in our lives are not tools to be used for maximum leverage. We are not playing a game. Every relational sacrifice we make may take us a step closer to some form of success, but over time we should not be surprised that the cost is measured in more than money. In life, you can win and still lose.
As a graduate of Spring Arbor University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, Rachel Decker is exploring the possibilities for her as a writer. She currently resides in Maine.