First impressions may be important, but sometimes they lead us to the wrong conclusions about a person. Even worse, reality TV may use its short excerpts to show only the good or the bad about a person, giving us a totally skewed vision of what that person is like.
One of the things I have noticed as I look back on previous articles published about Big Brother – whether the American version, the English, the Dutch, or the Australian – is that they all have this one thing in common. You put ten to twelve people in a house where every movement they make is on camera. At first it is a lark, and people are on their best behavior, sort of like when you first start dating someone. Then after a while, the fine polished veneer starts to fade. And we see the houseguests as they really are, warts and all.
I know I felt that way about several of the guests. On the American version airing now, my first impressions of Shannon, Will, and Mike were favorable. My first view on Kent was not. Looking at some of the survivors, my first view on Joel from Survivor 1 was favorable, and quickly changed. The reverse applies for my view on Rudy, first was unfavorable, then favorable. My first view of Amber from Survivor 2 was favorable, until she allied herself with Jerri. My first view on Keith was favorable, and I thought that Tina would not go very far. All my views changed by the time the first or second episode aired.
Now I wonder. How many times have you made a presumption about someone based on their first impression? I know I am guilty of that. Personally, in the workplace I feel a strong handshake is a sign of character. I dislike a limp one. That might work great for a job interview, but its not really a good indicator for real life. How many times have you judged someone because they are fatter than you, thinner than you, blonder than you, more handsome or rich? Have you ever judged someone because they drive a Beamer and you drive a Chevy? And how many times have you been wrong?
Some of my best friends were people I did not initially like, because I was shallow enough to only see the outside and not the inside. And one of the problems with dating (and I am an expert on this, since I am single) is if you judge a book by its cover you can miss a good read.
Take Hardy for example. A houseguest on Big Brother 2, Hardy is so handsome he would could be the male model equivalent of Cindy Crawford or Elle MacPherson. He is gorgeous. My little heart went thumpty-thump when he was first on the screen. I thought Hardy was a kind, caring person, who tragically lost his mother and was raised by his Grandmother. I liked the way that Hardy stayed under the radar for the first week or so. And then he won Head of Household. With all the troubles of Shannon and his toothbrush, I was feeling so sorry for Handsome Hardy. But now we have seen his tirade on national TV; we have seen his constant attempts to appear clever but say the wrong word and end up looking like a simpleton *(see footnote). He is getting on my nerves. My Grandmother would say, “handsome is as handsome does.”
So, was Hardy playing the audience at the beginning, and now we know his real character? Did CBS portray him as a major studmuffin to reel in the important 18-34 female demographics?
Another houseguest that has been criticized is Krista. I have a love/hate relationship with her. At times I like her, at times I really dislike her. Right now I feel sorry for her, because of all the rumors swelling around her family back home. I liked her in the beginning, when I thought she was a sweet southern girl. Then came the incident with Justin. Ok, we all make mistakes when we drink. But Krista’s drinking has me worried. So worried I called a friend of mine who is a recovering alcoholic and she said Krista’s drinking has several alcoholic tendencies. Not too many people would know this, except maybe those in recovery, but you can definitely get buzzed from NyQuil.
CBS had been trying to portray Krista as the newest American Sweetheart like Colleen and Elisabeth from the two editions of Survivor. But according to the live feeds, Krista also has spanked cute little Ophelia, the potbellied pig. This again has me worried; yes I know what it is like to have an animal soil your mattress. I have gone through three in 14 years because my feline decided to go there instead of her litter box. Did I spank her? No. I may have cussed like a sailor but I didn’t spank her. She also, according to the live feeds, has made swearing a new art form. I see nothing wrong with that, I do the same. But I do not do it around friends and family, nor in the work place. I keep it at home, where it belongs. So why doesn’t CBS show her the way the people see her on the live feeds? Because they need to have a hero or heroine in the house, and Krista is very photogenic, and speaks her mind. And this might be a good thing, and keep the viewers (especially the male ones) watching their show.
With many reality shows, producers have a great deal of leeway in how they portray participants. Sean from Survivor 1 has been critical on the way he was portrayed. Indeed, several other survivors, including a very vocal Jenna, have said Sean was a lot smarter than he appeared on TV. Well, Sean that may be true, but you gotta face it, Superpole 2000 was not one of your Mensa moments.
Also from Survivor 1, Ramona and Gervase have said they were portrayed as lazy and they weren’t. Ramona especially – even in Mark Burnett’s book, he says that Ramona got ill from the seawater she swallowed and could not turn it around in time. I see no reason to disbelieve Burnett on this one; Ramona is a chemist and has a masters degree and a black belt. I have seen her on post-Survivor interviews, and believe this was probably the case. Not so in Gervase’s case; he was lazy and proud of it. He was great working people and a schmoozer. I believe he was portrayed accurately, and his persona from post-Survivor interviews has remained constant.
Other survivors seem to have been portrayed differently. One of the most disturbing incidents in Survivor 2 involved a lie perpetuated by Jerri about Kel and beef jerky. The viewers knew that Kel did not have beef jerky, and Jerri was already being portrayed as a witch. Even if you never read Burnett’s book on the first Survivor, you would assume that food would be contraband and confiscated. (Burnett’s book makes a production how the Survivor contestants’ bags were checked before they started the game and things were disbanded by the producers and directors). Kel was portrayed as a goofus, sort of like Sean, the way he was trying to catch fish. And even sweet Tina, the eventual winner, was among the first to rifle through Kel’s things to see if the jerky accusation was true, instead of doubting it like Maralyn. It was not until the mid-season special shown the week before Jerri’s eviction that Kel was portrayed again, this time as a victim someone who was done wrong. Even showing Jerri singing a song about injustice by Fiona Apple put Kel in a new role, Reality TV Martyr.
Tina was shown going from a relatively weak player (remember she lost a competition early on by gagging on a worm she was supposed to eat) to a strong, heroic figure as she valiantly saved the tribe’s rice. Sonja, the first casualty of Survivor 1, was shown as a frail woman who is a cancer survivor. Could this have been done to help the viewer get over the fact that Sonja was the first casualty? Then Debb was seen as a bossy know-it-all, and no one was upset she was gone in the first episode of Survivor 2. On the reunion special, she thought she was portrayed inaccurately as well.
It comes down to a couple of things. If someone reading this wants to be a contestant on a reality TV show, know you might have your personality skewed for ratings. Producers of these shows are looking for stereotypes and want players to fit into these roles, much like they would in a movie or a novel. Indeed, the Survivor contracts signed by contestants give producers the right to portray them in any way they want – accurately or inaccurately. Because cameras are on you 24/7, something you may do could be taken out of context if it makes good television. You will be analyzed and dissected by fans of the genre, and by people like me to have something to write about. And it will all be done for what people in the television industry live and die by – the ratings.
* Footnote, on episode 15 Hardy was talking about Kent and said he had found some “solstice” in the potbelly pig companion. I re-played the tape, and, yep, it was “solstice.” It should have been “solace”! Can someone please give Hardy a dictionary? Or buy him one of those tapes that teach you power words?
Susan Schechter works for a multinational Financial Markets/News company as a Research Analyst/Biographer covering the UK, Australia and other Commonwealth countries.