How are we to respond when we are made to suffer the ugly faults in our stars? Pop culture has been sorely testing consumers with that question recently, thanks to disturbing revelations of bigotry from celebrities and TV shows with great fan followings. Take Paula Deen‘s admitted use of the N-word or Alec Baldwin‘s Twitter tirade calling a journalist a ”toxic little queen.” The latest example is something of a microcosm for all of them: the ongoing noxious spill that is the CBS reality show Big Brother, which premiered on June 26 with a cast prone to spewing racist and homophobic sentiments.
You can avoid the boorishness of Big Brother if you wish. Only those who watch the show’s Internet live feed have witnessed this year’s contestants in all of their ingloriousness. CBS initially responded with only a statement condemning the houseguests’ ignorance. But as the controversy bloomed via social media and press reports, the network began to deal with it more directly on multiple fronts, first in the prime-time broadcast July 7, then in the July 8 episode of The Talk. (Cohost Julie Chen, who also hosts BB, called the comments ”sad” and said the anti-Asian digs ”stung.”) As of press time, the most offending contestants remain on the show and can’t be contacted, but two of them — Aaryn Gries, 22, and GinaMarie Zimmerman, 32 — lost their day jobs. Deen, of course, suffered a similar fate, being axed from Food Network (and dropped by several of her sponsors) after court documents revealed that she’d used the racial slur. (In a tearful Today interview on June 26, she said she wasn’t a racist and that she only used the word once ”30 years ago.”) Will Baldwin’s online rant — which he apologized for and insisted had ”absolutely nothing to do with issues of anyone’s sexual orientation” — cost him his spokesman gig for Capital One? The credit-card company did not respond to requests for comment.
More than anything, the summer’s displays of bigotry remind us that people don’t always let controversy get in the way of consumption. Even though Deen lost her deal with Ballantine Books, sales of her previous cookbooks have quadrupled. That July 7 episode of Big Brother, which featured a montage of the offensive comments, notched a ratings uptick. Will fans of the classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game honor a call to boycott the forthcoming film adaptation because of the anti-gay-marriage stance of the book’s author, Orson Scott Card? Probably not. Should you? Depends on the culture you want — and the price you’re willing to pay to see it flourish.