Big Brother Is Watching You-U-U-U-SA
Up there in the vastness of space is an enemy known as isolation.
Wow, two pieces of writing within a month, who am I? Vinson Cunningham? Just going to stream here so buckle in, don’t know where this one’s going.
So I’ve been watching Celebrity Big Brother lately. A little about me, that maybe I’ve mentioned before, maybe I haven’t: I love reality television. A lot. I love it so much I’m writing a play about a reality show (shhh, that’s a secret, unless I’ve mentioned then double shhh). I especially love when a season, no, an individual episode, hell, a single scene stands as a marker in the timeline of American history. I’m talking about when Pedro Zamora revealed to his castmates on the third season of the Real World that he was living with AIDS. This took place during the climax of the AIDS epidemic in the 90s. Or when Johnny Fairplay lied about having a dead grandmother on Survivor to win a rewards challenge and he went on to become one of the first self-identified “villains” in reality television, solidifying the notion that no matter how real the show, people who understand show business in any way will inevitably fall into an archetype to move the story and entertain its viewers. Or when a camera crew showed up to the house of Alexis Haines to film the pilot episode of a little show on E! called PRETTY WILD, only to have their taping interrupted by a swarm of police officers who arrested Alexis on camera due to her involvement in the infamous Bling Ring scandal. Or when the tribes on a 2006, pre-Obama-post-racial-America, season of Survivor were separated by ethnicity! Yes, that actually happened. Survivor Cook Islands, look it up. And you can literally track every trend in the culinary world with each season of Top Chef. Is it the year of the foam? Year of the deconstructed whatever? Year of molecular gastronomy? Year of the scallop? Of course, not. As Chef Fabio Viviani so well put it, “this is Top Chef, not top scallop.”
Anyway, this season of Celebrity Big Brother is none of those things. And that’s because the evolution of reality television has led to what it currently is across all shows — usually, a cast of people wherein 80% of the talent are hyperaware of the bones of their show and how to “turn it on” for the camera. This can be seen on the Real Housewives franchise. Or the Bachelor/Bachelorette/Bachelor in Paradise franchise(s). At times, the drama is so intense, they must resort to breaking the fourth wall and mentioning their involvement in the show and its production (which is my favorite thing and something that should occur way more in the year 2022). But here’s the thing about Big Brother, it’s literally George Orwell’s 1984. As opposed to being followed by a small crew of camera people, the contestants in the Big Brother house are surveilled 24/7. There are cameras everywhere in the house, even in the bathroom. I used to watch Big Brother back in the day and watched its evolution to the game it is today. But it’s different today because CBS has adapted along with technology and in the last however many years, it has provided something called Live Feeds, where you log on and watch the houseguests in real-time. Big Brother isn’t filmed, edited, and aired at a later date. It airs live with weekly live eliminations. So right now I could log on and see Todrick Hall paint his nails or hear Lamar Odom talk about how much he misses his ex-wife (who happens to be Khloe Kardashian).
OK I THINK I HAVE A POINT WHICH ALL OF THIS RAMBLING HAS REVEALED
Isn’t it fascinating what we do not when we think we aren’t being watched, but when we are certain we are? When you walk into a crowded place and think, no, you KNOW you are being watched. Now imagine that was happening 24/7, even in moments where you’re alone. Would you carry on whatever act you put on at all times of the day? That sounds exhausting. Or would you just…let go? You’re always being watched so you might as well be yourself right? I don’t know what I would do. I feel constantly aware of when I’m being noticed as I am often noticing other people. I’m curious and like to observe others when they assume no one is seeing them.
Sometimes when you’re being watched, the results are nothing close to spectacular. And sometimes it reveals something anomalous.
I watched part of 1 of the Jeen-Yuhs trilogy, the Kanye doc. Putting aside everything happening right now in his personal life, let’s observe Kanye the person. But I guess even then we can’t even really do that right? Even as a young producer and aspiring rapper trying to get signed to a label, Kanye very much embodied the unwavering confidence and genius he’s exhibited over the course of his career. So much of Kanye’s persona was and is rooted in his artistry. He is both creator and critic, constantly engaging with the art around him in an effort to elevate his own work, which ultimately elevated the entire genre. And while Kanye is being watched, documented by a friend and filmmaker, he is very much the Kanye we know today and I love every freaking second of it. Regardless of what you think of the man, you can’t look at a clip of him playing Jesus Walks for a room full of people who had no idea he rapped and not sit in awe. Or watch him play All Falls Down to an executive assistant at Roc-A-Fella records, who doesn’t seem to care too much, and not marvel at the way these people had no idea they were listening to a cut of one of the most monumental tracks on one of the most monumental debut albums of all time.
In many ways, Kanye knowingly signed up to be watched for the rest of his life the moment he agreed to have a camera follow the rise of his career. That’s a sort of voluntary voyeurism you know? In many ways, the theater is voluntary voyeurism. I saw a show recently that played into that concept, whether it was aware of it or not. It’s called Space Dogs. It’s a super fun, almost PBS after-school special-esque, entertaining musical about the stray dogs Russian scientists launched into the galaxy during the space race. There are two actors in the show. They also wrote the show. They sing, play instruments, masterfully move between being on camera and on stage, and perform puppetry. I love when shows are hyper-involved like Space Dogs because every now and again you catch a moment, perhaps just a glimpse, where they forget they are being watched by everyone else in the room and are simply at play. I find that just as fascinating as someone who wears the gaze of others like a chiffon kaftan.
Anyway. That’s all I’m thinking about. See Space Dogs if you’re in NYC. Watch Big Brother. Or don’t honestly. Watch Jeen-Yuhs, it’s extremely well done and fascinating. Oh and drink water.
I’ve watched the first 2 parts of Jeen-Yuhs and have had similar thoughts. I’m oftentimes thinking about the effects of voyeurism and surveillance and the nuanced differences between both of those seemingly synonymous things. Perhaps the difference between Kanye and the folks on BB is that the former feels empowered and inspired by being captured while the latter ultimately submits to it because they’ve contractually agreed to this heightened, constant access.