When CBS announced that reality-TV veteran Omarosa Manigault would compete in the network’s first edition of Celebrity Big Brother, it seemed natural to assume that the show’s tension would revolve around politics. Having abruptly exited the White House just a few weeks earlier, surely Omarosa would spill all kinds of tea about what’s really happening at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, while her fellow houseguests would express constant discomfort about the fact that she worked on behalf of Donald Trump.
But in this lickety-split season of Big Brother, which ends Sunday, Omarosa hasn’t spilled all the tea so much as knocked over a very small cup of English breakfast, then cleaned up the mess real quick. So far, she has dropped mostly uninformative tidbits about the Trump administration in a way that suggests the producers of Celebrity Big Brother are trying to meet a weekly quota for Trump-related references. Early on, some of her fellow competitors — including Keisha Knight Pulliam, who’s since been evicted, and E!’s Ross Mathews, who has not — challenged her about working for Trump, leading to her tear-filled expression of regret. “I felt like it was a call to duty. I felt like I was serving my country,” Omarosa told Mathews, before informing him that he’s right to be worried about what could happen to America under the 45th president.
But the weight and seriousness of those conversations was quickly forgotten in order to make room for more important things, like Celebrity Bowl-arina competitions and building alliances with Nadia from American Pie. (That would be Shannon Elizabeth, one of the more skilled players this season who also has been ousted.) At this point, no one seems to want Omarosa out of the house because they are offended by her political choices; they want her out for the usual reality-TV reasons: because she’s rude, a liar, and someone who can’t be trusted to keep her word. They are motivated by the sentiment that former Real Housewife Brandi Glanville so eloquently expressed in last Sunday’s episode: “I need to beat this bitch.”
To be honest, the fact that Celebrity Big Brother hasn’t made more of an issue out of Omarosa’s politics seems like a missed opportunity. If you’re going to go the tacky route and cast a former Apprentice star shortly after she’s fired from the most dysfunctional White House administration in recent memory, you may as well use her politics to genuinely amp up the drama, not to pepper in references to Mike Pence. Of course, one might argue that Big Brother and its celeb-ified spinoff are not political shows. People watch Celebrity Big Brother seemingly seven nights a week — seriously, it’s been on almost every night since its premiere, and its ratings have been relatively solid given the domination of Olympics coverage — and many do it as a form of escapism from current events.
But even if you cut out Omarosa’s comments about how Melania Trump is actually sharper than people think, Celebrity Big Brother is, at its core, a pretty political show. Much has been said and written about how Trump became the “reality-show president” by capitalizing, in part, on the cachet he developed as the no-nonsense, successful businessman he portrayed on The Apprentice. Not as much has been written or said about the fact that nearly two decades of watching wildly popular competition shows like Big Brother, Survivor, and The Apprentice has influenced how Americans view people who are trying to forge relationships while seeking or maintaining power, a process as central to winning at Celebrity Big Brother as it is to getting a bill passed in Congress.
Like Big Brother before it, the entire structure of Celebrity Big Brother is steeped in the procedures and vocabulary of its specific politics. The show follows certain steps over and over: determining a HOH (Head of Household), nominating housemates for eviction, vetoing those nominations, and ultimately voting for who needs to go until there’s only one man or woman left standing. All the jockeying for position and attempts to form safe alliances is really just whipping votes in a different context. In the Big Brother system, the people who win are the ones most adept at currying favor with others, and lying and manipulating while doing it. Everyone playing the game seems to recognize that reality, while also acting like no amount of dastardly behavior should be taken personally. Before Shannon Elizabeth was evicted this season, her celeb counterparts frequently whispered about how shady she was being by making deals and sharing intel with multiple competitors. But those whispers were inevitably followed by, “Damn, she’s really good at this game.” Omarosa has often been dealt with in the same fashion. As always on reality shows like this one, talking out of both sides of one’s mouth is both a character flaw and a quality worthy of awe.
Obviously politics is different in an important way: Members of Congress and the president are not playing a game in order to win some cash or get more exposure for their brand. (At least they’re not supposed to be, though one could argue that’s exactly what motivates Trump.) They’re in it, in theory anyway, to work on behalf of the American people, to make laws that protect them, and to change things for the better for the voters who elected them. But what does it mean if those voters view politics through an “it’s all a game” lens? Reality TV hardly bears sole responsibility for creating that lens. Highly partisan media outlets, or even more objective ones that often cover politics within a winners versus losers framework, have done their share. So have the politicians themselves. But while I don’t have data to quantitatively support this theory, I suspect that longtime exposure to reality television has helped to cement the sense that politics is, to borrow the name of the Lifetime series, unreal.
To be clear, I believe most Americans are smart enough to know that Big Brother and its ilk engage in a fair amount of fakery, orchestrating or amplifying arguments and moments to create compelling television. But I also think that if you expose yourself to these kinds of shows long enough, their attitudes and odd ethical constructs can seep into your subconscious. Once that happens, it’s not such a stretch for a person be disheartened by the behavior of someone like Donald Trump, but to also think, “Damn, he’s good at this game,” and to not feel much cognitive dissonance about holding those two paradoxical opinions at the same time. If you’re used to watching reality shows in which the competitors’ smartest approach is to always look out for their own interests, perhaps it is a little harder to understand why an emoluments clause is that big of a deal. (Even though it actually is.)
Like real-life politics and political discourse in 2018, Celebrity Big Brother is a machine that runs on stoking conflict between people. That’s how competition shows of this sort have always worked. But this fame-driven bit of counter-Olympics programming has gone out of its way to highlight some particularly relevant current divides. Almost instantly, alliances were formed in the house based on gender, with the women, at Omarosa’s urging, aligning on one side and the men teaming up on the other. Marissa Jaret Winokur, the only Celebrity Big Brother competitor with a Tony Award, even noted that forming a girl squad felt particularly appropriate because of the Time’s Up movement. (Because if Time’s Up is about anything, it’s bringing women together to try to get Sugar Ray front man Mark McGrath evicted from a pretend house.)
Having attacked gender, Celebrity Big Brother later went after race — with Omarosa attempting to form a separate “black girl magic” partnership with Keisha Knight Pulliam — and also sexual orientation. E!’s Ross Mathews, who is gay, ultimately got recruited to the women’s team, something the men suspected might happen. “Is Ross going to be on our side?” Chuck Liddell asked one of his fellow bros, as if he wasn’t sure whether Mathews counted as a man or a woman. (Liddell became the first one to get evicted, but sadly, it was not because of this comment.)
During a subsequent meeting of the women’s alliance, some of Pulliam’s comments also made Mathews feel marginalized from the group. After he privately told Winokur that he was hurt by what was said, Winokur said in a separate on-camera interview that she wanted her Celebrity Big Brother community to be more “evolved.” But this isn’t The Corny Collins Show, Tracy Turnblad. It’s Celebrity Big Brother, where people don’t overcome their differences, they exploit them to take each other down. Which is exactly what Trump routinely tries to do with his insulting nicknames for his political adversaries or his insistence on blaming Obama for his own current crises, and what Americans do to each other with alarming frequency when they get caught up in political arguments. When people on reality shows go low, one of them eventually wins before the season ends. When people do it in the real world, even if the satisfaction of striking back might feel like winning, I’m not sure anyone emerges victorious.
Our lives seem to be lived these days within the bounds of lines drawn, as opposed to lines crossed or broken down. Celebrity Big Brother, in its ridiculous way, understands and emphasizes the starkness of that reality. But by placing it in the context of a game and never engaging meaningfully with the issues it halfheartedly raises, it does a disservice to anyone who takes discrimination or unconscious bias or, yes, politics seriously. Which, at this point, should be all of us.
There was one Omarosa moment, so far, on Celebrity Big Brother that came across as genuinely revealing. It was a conversation between Omarosa and Mathews in which she acknowledged that she thought Hillary Clinton would have made an exceptional president. Omarosa noted, as many already know, that she previously worked for the Ready for Hillary organization, the PAC that existed before Clinton officially declared her intention to run for president. According to Omarosa, she was cast aside when the campaign officially got going, which made her open to joining Team Trump. “It wasn’t hard when he called me and was like, can you be onboard?” she said. “Because I’d just been used and abused by the Ready for Hillary organization.”
I was several hours into a Celebrity Big Brother binge at this point, so my first thought was: Of course that’s what she did. She got dumped by her first alliance, so she joined another one. In the world of reality television, there is no meaning or set of principles behind alliances. You choose which ones to latch onto based on how likely they are to keep you afloat. But in the real world — the actual one, not the MTV show — candidates and politicians and people do align themselves with certain policy positions and values. When you join an alliance, you’re telling the world that you share those positions and values, whether you actually do or not. Once people believe you pledge allegiance to the same ideas and actions as the leader you once supported, even if you’re Omarosa, there’s no power of veto you can earn that will easily change that impression.