Gay Representation on CBS’s Big Brother:
The Case of Frankie Grande
CBS walks a precarious line with Big Brother. On one hand, the show is the epitome of cheap reality television, chock-full of tacky challenges, where one contestant gets evicted each week and the last houseguest standing wins $500,000. On the other hand, the show can be considered a microcosm of American society. This gives the producers a certain degree of social responsibility. What CBS chooses to air (and not to air) is important because it shapes the worldview of those who watch the show. As Sears and Goddaris argue in “Roar like a Tiger on TV?” reality TV programs reproduce contemporary society, and they “provide the viewing audience members with cues about ways of acting in the real world” (Sears & Goddaris 184).
As I watched the season 16 contestants’ pre-season interviews, I found out that Frankie Grande was cast as the season’s gay male contestant. I was pleased about this casting choice because I was familiar with Frankie’s YouTube videos, in which he comes across as friendly, outgoing, and sociable—a great combination of attributes for a contestant to have. Additionally, Frankie went into the Big Brother house with a relatively large fan base already built-in because he is Ariana Grande’s brother. Right off the bat, Big Brother puritans were annoyed because Frankie’s fame was bound to give him an unfair advantage in the game. As such, he was entering the house with a certain degree of stigma attached to his name.
At the season’s one-week mark, fans began to turn on Frankie for various reasons. In the following essay, I will attempt to determine why this fan hatred came to be, and at whose fault: Frankie’s or CBS’s? I believe CBS’s penchant for heteronormativity made it difficult for him to operate authentically, and Frankie, by no fault of his own, played right into the negative tropes the show often employs. I will address heteronormativity on reality TV, the damaging effects of gay tropes, and the unrealistically high standard to which gay reality show contestants are held, using Frankie Grande’s experience as the vehicle for exemplifying my arguments.
I should begin this analysis by, first and foremost, situating myself as a white, heterosexual, feminist woman, and I acknowledge my subjectivity as such. I reconcile my difference from Frankie Grande by approaching this topic from an academic queer & gender studies standpoint, and I by no means wish to speak on behalf of the gay community. My goal is to rationalize Grande’s experience on Big Brother by using the experience of others in the LGBTQ+ community as a framework to guide my investigation. I am also invested in the representation of oppressed minorities in media, particularly given the profound potential for audience mimesis and validation (Silberman 449).
Heteronormativity on Big Brother
Season after season, only one gay man is cast on Big Brother. The imbalance of gay-to-straight characters on season 16 was a whopping 1:16, which places a gay man in a house full of heterosexuals. This heteronormative context is drastically different from the setting in which gay males perhaps find themselves outside the Big Brother house. Frankie Grande performs on Broadway, which is a notoriously safe space for individuals who identify as queer (Clum 247). Grande himself expressed how fond he is of the inclusive nature of theatre, given the camaraderie between straight and gay colleagues. He says, “There’s no faux pas with us being lovey-dovey and touching each other in theater” (Schultz). His public image is also very closely tied to his sister Ariana, who recently denounced Catholicism in favor of supporting her gay brother, which paves the way for an inclusive and tolerant milieu for Frankie and his Grandtourage (Ehrlich).
|Grande on the set of Rock of Ages|
The Big Brother house is very different. I imagine, for a gay contestant, the compulsory heterosexuality of the show can be staggering. Compulsory heterosexuality is defined as “the accumulative effect of the repetition of the narrative of heterosexuality as an ideal coupling” (Ahmed 145). Much of Big Brother’s appeal is the hope that two of the houseguests will couple up, or to borrow one of the show’s many colloquialisms, become a “showmance”. The gay male contestant, of course, has no potential to engage in a showmance since he is the only homosexual man there. In “‘You are not Allowed to Talk About Production”: Narratization on (and off) the Set of CBS’s Big Brother” Ragan Fox reflects on his time in Big Brother 12 as the season’s gay male. He notes the particular moments in which he felt isolated from the other contestants due to his sexuality, particularly at times when houseguests were discussing the possibility for showmances: “Early in the game, I felt left out when my roommates discussed potential romantic pairings among the houseguests” (Fox 193). These casual conversations constituted his “othering” by putting him on the periphery of the pre-established Big Brother rhetoric (Butler 133).
Frankie Grande tried to conform to the heteronormativity of his male peers on Big Brother. He mentioned that his strategy going into the house was to “infiltrate the jock alliance” because he has a “fraternal way of relating to [straight guys]” (Schultz). I believe Grande’s way of interacting with the other men on the show was problematic. He found himself in hot water when mentioning to the guys that they should “double team [Victoria]” and “take all of her virginities in one night”, in reference to raping another houseguest (Goddard). In another instance, Frankie and Cody Calafiore were discussing a rape scene in the movie Showgirls, and Frankie thought the scene is hilarious, while Cody maintained that rape scenes do not belong in movies (Grodner). As such, Grande appealed to the other contestants’ heterosexual masculinity in a way that was degrading and unacceptable, by repeatedly perpetuating the belief that rape is amusing.
The Gay Villain & the Problem of “Zankie”
Fox also explains that “gay characters are marked by their failure to achieve intimacy” and so the show’s producers, fans, and LGBTQ+ contestants must find “other ways to performatively render gay sexuality” (Fox 193). One of the ways in which gay characters are typified is by enacting various tropes, which are “stereotypical, repetitious representations” of the gay persona (193). The trouble with these tropes is that they preserve “negative and limited portrayals of homosexuals”, which thwarts the efforts of the LGBTQ+ community, since, as I previously argued, what is portrayed on reality TV shapes the worldview of its audiences (193). In the case of Frankie Grande, I would like to particularly focus on the tropes of the villain motif and the gay-by-association heterosexual character.
It is quite often that, in competition-based reality TV shows like Big Brother, the homosexual contestant is characterized as the gay villain. This is unsurprising, given that the gay villain motif has been documented in media many times before, be it in “Disney movies, witches and psychos in canonical films, and perverts and child molesters in the news” (198). Fox suggests that the gay villain trope is born out of the stereotype of the gay contagion (202), which I believe is associated to Judith Butler’s understanding of Simon Watney’s concept of “gay disease”, explicated in his “Policing Desire: AIDS, Pornography, and the Media” (Butler 132). The stereotype of the gay contagion is rooted in the longstanding, homophobic response to AIDS; which is directly related to the notion that gayness can be spread, and even worse, that it is life-threatening (132). So, when a gay male participant on Big Brother aligns with a heterosexual male, the public reaction is both complex and outrageous.
“Zankie” refers to the homo-hetero relationship between Frankie Grande and Zach Rance, another male houseguest on Big Brother season 16 (O’Keeffe). Zach and Frankie got very close in the competition. Their relationship was quite physical; they hugged and touched and cuddled constantly. This could have been the brink of Big Brother’s first homosexual showmance, however producers were quick to dismantle that possibility. On July 6th, CBS exposed Zankie’s relationship and answered the question fans were wondering: We know Frankie is gay, but is Zach? His answer: “I am not gay, but the bond that Frankie and I have is so genuine and sincere, that I truly feel like he is my boyfriend” (Grodner). This mixed response is exactly what CBS was hoping for: Zach Rance is straight and there is no possibility of Zankie becoming a veritable showmance. On the other hand, CBS must have realized how many Zankie supporters there were, because the second half of Zach’s statement was enough for fans to go wild with excitement. Many “Zankie” fan accounts sprouted on Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube around this time, which further solidified and arguably fetishized Zach & Frankie’s relationship. Essentially, the producers gave fans just enough information for them to be excited about the possibility of Zankie, but sanitized the response by having Zach confirm that he is not homosexual. Later on in the episode Zach says once more, “I’m straight and I only date women, but Frankie is just one of the best people I’ve ever met” (Grodner).
The problem with Zankie is the following. Zach confirms he is straight, but continues to show affection towards Frankie… So how does this paint Frankie? It brings us back to the gay villain motif, which is perhaps best iterated with Zach’s own words to Frankie, as heard on the live feeds on August 3rd: “You try to turn me gay every single day. I feel like you get closer and closer every time but it ain’t going to happen […] Frankie’s the horniest guy in the world.” (Grodner). The “straight-mistaken-for-gay” trope that Zach enacts is “commonplace” in television, and it “derives much of its humor from the audience’s knowledge that the character is not, in fact, gay” (Fox 202). The problem is that this kind of behavior cites and reproduces the myth that gay men are predators, especially in their relationships with heterosexual men (202). While Fox, on his season of Big Brother, was particularly careful not to come off as a sex-starved gay predator, Frankie embraced this trope by taking Zach’s comment as a compliment to his virility (Grodner). In his autoethnographic essay, Fox reveals that CBS prodded him to talk about hetero-male cast members in a sexual way, which confirms the producers’ desire to perpetuate the trope of the gay villain as sexual predator (Fox 204).
In an article from The Wire entitled “Breaking Down How Frankie Grande Became the Most Hated ‘Big Brother’ Contestant”, author Kevin O’Keeffe cites the “destruction of Zankie” as one of Frankie’s pitfalls. Later on in the season, Frankie contributed to a plan to have his showmantic partner Zach evicted. This move further entrenched Frankie into the villain motif because it proved to fans that Frankie did not care about Zach for anything beyond companionship, and was willing to cut him whenever he needed to. Breaking ties with allies at strategic points in the competition is generally seen as a strong move (Hayden Moss cutting ties with his showmance Kristen to benefit his alliance in season 12 is the example that comes to mind), but the backlash Frankie received proved that he was being held to a different standard than that of a heterosexual man playing Big Brother.
The fact of the matter is that Frankie Grande was not placed in this competition to win. He was simply there to contribute his gay storyline. This is perhaps why Andy Herren, gay male and winner of season 15 of Big Brother, is one of the most-hated houseguests in the show’s history. He was not there to win, but he did anyway. Alas, the role of the gay male is a typecast on Big Brother. “Type” is defined as “any simple, vivid, memorable, easily-grasped and widely recognized characterization” that has “no complexity of character or multiplicity of traits” (Wojcik 226). Frankie was not expected to excel in this competition; he was not meant to be the lead role, but rather, a supporting role (243). The gay male is therefore subordinate to his heterosexual competitors. Any time he transgressed this boundary by succeeding in the game, Grande was vilified even further. For example, Frankie was chosen to be part of Team America, and every week he had to carry out pranks in order to sabotage his houseguests (Grodner). Every time Frankie completed a prank successfully, he received $5K, and every prank he carried out solidified him as a villain.
Catch-22 for Gay Contestants
It is my assertion that the gay man is set up for failure when he is cast on Big Brother. Frankie fell victim to the villain motif (among other tropes), but even if he actively resisted this kind of stereotyping, he would not have been able to escape these representations. Fox went into the Big Brother house fully cognizant of the negative ways in which he might be portrayed, and he worked very hard to combat them. Even so, CBS portrayed him as an oversensitive villain, and he found himself “ensnared in a web of gay representation” (Fox 204).
Fox addresses the fact that he was held to an impossibly high standard on the show. When Hayden Moss, his fellow housemate told him: “You are an awesome representative of the gay community”, Ragan appreciated his compliment but also acknowledged the unfairness (204). No one tells heterosexuals that they are “awesome representations of the hetero community”. As such, gay competitors have to “serve as an exemplar of a historically marginalized group and play a game known for cheating and backstabbing” (205). Anyone can see that it is extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, to operate under such rigid expectations.
Still, Zankie’s hetero-homo relationship is being hyped as progressive in the LGBTQ+ community. In his article entitled “Frankie Grande on Big Brother and the Hetero-Homo ‘Zankie’ Showmance That Had Everyone Talking”, Brandon Schultz claims that “this is one of the first times we’re seeing a serious, strong love between a straight man and a gay man that goes far beyond tolerance—and it's on network television” (Schultz). While I can definitely see how Zankie’s relationship might be considered progressive, I feel like this speaks volumes to the need for a homosexual relationship between two men to be seen carried out on a normative reality TV show like Big Brother. Zankie, as loving as it may have been on the surface, was extremely tumultuous and problematic, particularly because it vilified Frankie as a gay man and conserved the myth of the “gay contagion”. Perhaps after acknowledging how much the public was rooting for Zankie, CBS might see that fans are eager to see relationships alternative to heterosexual ones. In breaking the show’s heteronormativity, a door of possibility would open for Big Brother’s homosexual contestants by allowing them a fighting chance to excel in the game, and it would also ameliorate the way homosexuality is perceived on a macro level.
Ahmed, Sara. “Queer Feeling.” The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge,
Butler, Judith. “Part iv: Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions” in “Subversive
Bodily Acts.” Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990: 128-141.
Clum, John M. Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture. New York: St.
Martin's, 1999. Print.
Ehrlich, Brenna. "Ariana Grande Reveals Love For Gay Brother Frankie Made Her
Question Catholic Faith." MTV News. Viacom International, 22 Oct. 2014. Web. 02 Dec. 2014. <http://www.mtv.com/news/1972089/ariana-grande-questions-religion/>.
Fox, Ragan. "“You Are Not Allowed to Talk about Production”: Narratization on (and
Off) the Set of CBS's." Critical Studies in Media Communication 30.3 (2013): 189-208. Web.
Goddard, Emma. "Frankie Grande's Rape Joke on 'Big Brother' Is Insensitive &
Completely Inappropriate." Bustle. Bustle, 31 Aug. 2014. Web. 05 Dec. 2014. <http://www.bustle.com/articles/38047-frankie-grandes-rape-joke-on-big-brother-is-insensitive-completely-inappropriate>.
Frankie Grande Discusses "Showgirls" Rape Scene. Prod. Allison Grodner. Perf. Frankie
Grande and Cody Calafiore. YouTube. YouTube, 23 Sept. 2014. Web. 05 Dec. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UryhuU4sus>.
Grande, Frankie. "FrankieJGrande." YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
Grodner, Allison. "Big Brother Season 16." Big Brother. CBS. Los Angeles, California,
25 June-24 Sept 2014. Television.
Grodner, Allison. "Zach and Frankie Conversation." ItsZankie'sLife. Tumblr, 3 Aug.
2014. Web. 05 Dec. 2014. <http://zankieslife.tumblr.com/post/93781100693/zach-you-try-to-turn-me-gay-every-single-day-and>.
O'Keeffe, Kevin. "Breaking Down How Frankie Grande Became the Most Hated 'Big
Brother' Contestant." The Wire. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 2 Sept. 2014. Web. 02 Dec. 2014. <http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2014/09/breaking-down-how-ariana-grandes-brother-frankie-became-big-brothers-most-hated/379465/>.
Schultz, Brandon. "Frankie Grande on Big Brother & Hetero-Homo 'Zankie' Showmance
That Had Everyone Talking." Out Magazine. Here Media, 2 Oct. 2014. Web. 05 Dec. 2014. <http://www.out.com/entertainment/television/2014/10/02/frankie-grande-gay-big-brother-hetero-homo-zankie-showmance>.
Sears, Camilla A., and Rebecca Godderis. "Roar Like a Tiger on TV?" Feminist Media
Studies 11.2 (2011): 181-95.
Silberman, Marc. "The Politics of Representation: Brecht and the Media." Theatre
Journal 39.4, Distancing Brecht (1987): 448-60. JSTOR. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
Wojcik, Pamela Robertson. "Typecasting." Criticism 45.2, Special Film Issue Part Two:
New And/or Neglected Approaches To Understanding Moving Images (2003): 223-49. JSTOR. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.