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Identity Politics of Survivor

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

After a year off for one of the longest running TV shows in the country, Survivor returned this fall with a new iteration of the game.  As this season, 42, of Survivor runs, the audience is reminded by our host Jeff Probst that it was filmed right after season 41, so the players have not yet seen the prior season, and the producers can play around with permutations of the same wacky twists introduced in this new era of Survivor.  What he doesn’t say is that this means the producers can edit the season based on the responses to 41, and the current political and social climate.

In wake of the Black Lives Matter movement of summer 2020, CBS announced that at least 50% of their contestants cast for reality shows must be POC.  Besides for season 13: Cook Islands, in which the theme was colloquially dubbed “Race Wars,” Survivor has had a long history of majority Caucasian casts with a couple of people of color sprinkled in to keep up appearances.  Former Black contestants have brought up several qualms with the production of Survivor, specifically the stereotyping they faced in post-production and the general tokenization of POC on the show.  Regardless of how contestants act whilst competing in the show, the producers have the final say as to how they will come across to the country writ large.

In season 13, filmed the summer of 2006, four tribes were originally split into the ethnic categories of Caucasian, African-American, Asian-American, and Latino.  While the labels we use today may be different—growing up, I was taught that “Black” was an impolite racial label, which I don’t think was an uncommon conception in the aughts—the diverse cast fostered conversations about identity and representation that were pretty unheard of in 2006.  The final tribal council had one Latino man and an Asian man and woman and led to the first ethnically Asian winner of the show.  However, between seasons 13 and 41, the majority of each cast was white.

The other past season with a notable identity-based theme was season 24, One World.  In this season, castaways were separated into two tribes, based on gender.  Now I imagine that a season like this, or like Cook Islands, would not fly these days, even though at the time they seemed to create positive social dialogues.  Many modern female players reference their admiration of One World winner Kim Spradlin, who orchestrated a dominant all female alliance, ensuring a woman would win with a man-less final five.  For both of these seasons, the producers worked extra hard to recruit strong casts with interesting players (fan favorite Ozzy Lusth was recruited because the producers wanted a “non-stereotypical latino guy,” for one), but the lack of diversity overall is unmistakable, although unsurprising for what the show is.

Jeff Probst, in recent seasons, has discussed in tribal council issues closer to reality, talking about how Survivor is a microcosm of the real world.  In some ways I disagree with this—in the real world, many of these random Americans would probably never get a chance to interact with each other, by virtue of geography, beliefs, or background—although it is probably best that Survivor isn’t a true microcosm.  It is more a reflection of the extent to which various flavors of wokeness are currently mainstream.  Now that it is corporately appropriate to ostensibly care about social justice issues, reality TV, along with other corporate entities, can become a microcosm of these beliefs.

I’ll acknowledge this is a sort of damned if they do, damned if they don’t situation—either Survivor responds to the current issues of import and looks performative, or they blatantly ignore them and continue to do the same old things but will be met with harsher criticism.  In an ideal world, big media would “do the right thing” before succumbing to societal pressure, but this is not an ideal world.  It instead becomes a guessing game as to whether people will get angrier with performativity or with ignorance.

I’ve always been amazed by the loyalties castaways often form with the random group of people with whom they are placed in a tribe.  I’m reminded of the famous Robber’s Cave experiment from psychology, where researchers studied groups of boys at a fake summer camp.  Although it has since been variously critiqued, the important takeaway is that researchers were able to manipulate the subjects into forming strong group identity, based on nothing but their random assignment and a slight prod towards competition.

Survivor is similar in that the producers create tribes, usually with even genders and an even distribution of POC—unless the theme of the season is specifically based on some type of identity, such as Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty or Heroes vs. Hustlers vs. Healers—purportedly randomly.  But regardless of commonalities in tribemates, by and large, pre-merge tribe loyalties tend to be the default; if castaways flip, they can be seen as schemers or untrustworthy—in fact, this was the theme of a very popular season, Heroes vs. Villains.  Clearly, humans are wont to make connections with each other and, when given the chance, will do so.  But when, in the real world, homogenization is the norm, the ease with which diverse groups can be formed and bonded together is more difficult to see.

Season 42 appears to be shaping up to be somewhat of a cool down from 41.  Thus far, there is still an emphasis on the diverse identities represented; in the first episode a contestant was pulled from the game for disclosing his lithium medication too late for the producers to accommodate the side-effects from withdrawal, sparking dialogue from the tribe member about his mental health struggles from being a caregiver for a sick parent, along with his experience transitioning genders.  This is a very personal story, inextricable from the real world.  It was treated, however, like a B-story instead of the main plot, whereas in 41, I think it would’ve gotten more airtime.  Is that a good thing?  For ratings, probably, as it seems unlikely they’d get much worse.

Since these seasons were filmed back-to-back, presumably the bulk of footage captured is similar.  What has been done to said footage tells more of the story.  Clearly, the response to season 41 wasn’t entirely positive.  Former winner Parvati Shallow said of 41,

I think Jeff might be having a bit of an identity crisis…because I think he’s just coming in and he’s like, ‘I got to be super woke. I got to say all the right things to make sure all the different groups of people are feeling heard and seen.’…There’s also the getting rid of the ‘Come on in, guys’… (qtd. here)

In the first episode of 41, Probst asked the contestants if it was still kosher for him to use the phrase “come on in guys.”  Initially there were no complaints, a nonbinary contestant even expressed their neutrality to using “guys,” but at the next challenge a contestant brought up his qualms with the phrase and Jeff officially retired it.  Regardless of whether “come on in guys” is a phrase which should be used in a gender-neutral fashion—personally, as a woman, I find nothing wrong with it—the way in which it was handled seemed to ruffle some feathers.  Probst didn’t just stop using the phrase, but he had to make it a nontrivial part of the episode that he was going to stop using it, which feels performative, understandably so, to many.

Of course language changes over time, but this felt more like the embodiment of cancel culture than it did of a genuine want to make the show feel more inclusive.  Some corners of social media took on a very particular tone starting around summer of 2020, and it seems like these made the template for the recent Survivor seasons.  Make changes now, ask questions later, and refuse to listen to those who don’t subscribe to the exact same viewpoints.  And, to a certain extent, that backfired, because wokeness is now not as in vogue as it was mid-2020.  Maybe we can blame this one partially on Covid—Survivor 41 and 42 could not film until 2021 due to travel restrictions.  Thus, many of the steps Survivor took in response to Black Lives Matter and just the general public acceptability of wokeness came off as too little, too late.  If 41 had come out in fall of 2020 instead of a year later, I guarantee the reception would have been slightly better.

Take a look at social media nowadays.  Sure there’s still the occasional infographic or awareness post, but it feels like we’ve nearly regressed to the mean—although the mean may now be a bit higher.  As sad as it may be, in our digital age, movements are distilled into moments of attention, until the next shiny thing arrives.  Sure, many people are just as committed to equality now as they were a couple years ago, but the vast majority are likely just as unaffected as they were pre-Covid, and still others took this period as an invitation to lean into contrary beliefs.

And as individuals exploit movements for social capital, so do businesses for literal capital.  More and more, companies are picking sides, making things like shopping and eating inextricable from values.  Sure, it’s nice to be able to support a company that supports your political and/or social views, but I do wonder whether further polarization of an already hyper-polarized country is the right solution.  Should we have to think about politics outside of, well, politics?

The past few years, if nothing else, have made the country very tired, and very lonely.  It’s a good thing that more people are examining their privileges and thinking about ways to make the world more equitable, but I think we’re forgetting that the most vital part to understanding people who are different than you isn’t screaming your beliefs so loudly that others refuse to listen to you, but making a genuine effort to get to know people, yes, of different identities, when polarization hasn’t made doing so impossible, but also talking to people with different affinities and values, and trying to understanding the reasons why their life experiences have led them to different conclusions than yours, and, for me, this is what seems like one of the most critical parts of Survivor, and something the producers have known for a long time.

This season, we see Mike, a retired firefighter from Hoboken, bonding over being a big and tall man with Johnathan, a surfer from Alabama, and respectfully learning from fellow castaway Omar, a Canadian veterinarian, about his experience being Muslim.  The show, by nature, brings together a group of individuals who span the breadth of the country, and now the continent, who often remark on how they would never meet people like each other in the real world.  And to me, that seems more important than the performance of wokeness for an audience who has probably already made up their minds on most social issues and will not be swayed by a reality tv show.

The purpose of reality TV, and of other forms of media that are considered less than high art, appears to primarily be escapism.  So many contestants, such as Duke alum Daniel Struck, when he was suffering from cancer as a child, mention how the show provided relief for them in a tough period of their lives.  Many people don’t watch Survivor to think very hard.  As Shallow noted, Survivor is having something of an “identity crisis.”  The question remains as to the extent to which Survivor will continue to track the political climate of the country as the shows marches on through its third decade, and to whether reality TV really is just mindless entertainment or whether it can and should be something more?