“Survivor” was the first reality television show. It has served for as a model for shows like “The Amazing Race,” “Big Brother,” “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Fear Factor.” What drives the reality genre is the idea that the participants are “real people” and not actors. To make the adventure more interesting a carrot (read: prize) is dangled before the participants thereby encouraging them to pander to the lowest common denominator.
In the first episode of this year’s “Survivor,” twenty contestants were divided into two teams. The teams were named Foa Foa and Galu. It did not take long for the “real people,” to start acting out. Russell of the Foa Foa tribe made alliances with three women and called it his “dumbass girl alliance.” The misogyny that he displayed made it clear that not only is he to be this season’s villain, but that as in most things, women are considered a threat should they dare to disturb the patriarchal order by not falling in line.
Russell even went as far as to lie about being a Katrina survivor and dumped out all of the water from the canteens. It’s all about his desire to be a stressor on the team, leading to infighting that allows Russell’s own misdeeds to be ignored. It seems that though the producers are casting Russell as the newest invention of evil, it is simply business as usual for “Survivor.”
Over the coming weeks, it will be my mission to chronicle the episodes of “Survivor” using a critical lens. Though the pitch of this show is “real people”, it is my belief that in all things, whether we are talking about a work of fiction or a TV show about “reality,” we are never outside of discourse.
The second episode begins on day four of this season’s “Survivor.” Most of the episode focuses on the events at camp Foa Foa. The show begins with Russell declaring that he was happy that Marissa was voted off in the last episode:
“Marissa is gone but for no other reason than me and that’s a fact. You play with fire and you’re gonna get burned, and she got burned. I’m excited that Marissa is gone. I don’t have to worry about her strong mind. She is a strong woman. You can’t have that out here. I can’t have it.”
It is clear from his statements that Russell is indeed intimidated by a woman who is assertive and sure of herself. Most misogynist males have a problem with women that are not easily intimidated, because it limits the males’ ability to assert their underserved authority.
In conversations with Jaison, Russell decides to look for the hidden immunity idol. He surmises quite correctly that with possession of said idol, he will have more power in the game. Unfortunately, after a short search, he discovers the idol in the hollow of a tree. Russell then shows the idol to Jaison to embolden his trust. Even with all of his conniving and scheming, Russell is well aware that it is not possible to win “Survivor” without an ally, and so he has chosen Jaison because of his quiet demeanour.
The elimination/reward challenge is immediately problematic. It requests that contestants come to the challenge painted as Samoan warriors. “Survivor” has never had any problems portraying the locals that it visits as backward and uncivilized in comparison to the US, but taking on the traditions of another culture is clear-cut appropriation. This is not done as a form of tribute or respect, it is merely a form of play for the purposes of entertainment.
As with any previous episodes of “Survivor”, the teams are looking to get rid of dead weight. Due to their age, Mike and Betsy know that their heads are on the chopping block should their team lose. Ageism has always played a role in each season. Rather than the participants understanding that there are various ways in which one may participate, they simply regard anyone middle age and above as a liability. This attitude mirrors our social understanding of the elderly. We readily dismiss them and construe them as an inconvenience, forgetting that they have important lessons to teach. Unfortunately for Mike, a fear of being voted off causes him to push beyond his personal boundaries. When medical examines him after Foa Foa has the lost the challenge, he is removed from the game on doctor’s orders.
Back at Galu, Shambo reports that she has lost the mouthpiece to the fishing gear that the team just won. Already Galu is beginning to ponder getting rid of her.
At Foa Foa, Yasmin introduces herself after being sent there by Galu to observe the tribe. She quickly rubs the members of Foa Foa the wrong way, after referring to them as babies. No one likes being kicked when they’re already down. Problems with her visit escalate when she decides to confront Ben for physically tackling her during the competition. Yasmin believes that even though it was a team competition, it was unacceptable for a man to physically tackle a woman. As the argument escalates, Ben refers to Yasmin as “grammar school” in an attempt to demean her. Yasmin does not back down and pushes her point while defending herself. Ben’s commentary gets even more disturbing when he states:
“Yamsin is just a piece of work. Yasmine has a big mouth. Yasmine smells bad. She’s got really poor grammar. I think Yasmin is pretty close to being a hooker. She’s ghetto trash plain and simple. She needs to go back to eating ketchup sandwiches and drinking kool aid and doing whatever else she does.”
Ben is attempting to cement his reputation as a rebel. First he achieved the distinction of being the only survivor to be kicked out of a challenge and then he followed it up with his clearly racist and sexist commentary about Yasmin. Why is it necessary to slut-shame Yasmin, who is a Black woman, for disagreeing with his behaviour? One can only surmise that Ben chose that tactic specifically to demean her for having the courage to speak freely to a White male. His “ghetto trash” commentary further smacks of racism, as it is understood socially as a slur specifically aimed at Blacks. From this position, he not only distanced himself from her, but placed himself above her. A White man on top of the power pyramid is nothing new.
In the end, Yasmin listens in on the tribal discussions where she is called out for insulting the tribe. There is little commentary regarding Ben’s behaviour towards her, thus affirming that it is acceptable for a White man to be racist and sexist towards a Black woman. Ben even dares to comment: “That talking to her was like talking to an idiot. She is ghetto trash and needs to go back where she came from.” This caused a few to make frowns of disapproval, but once again silence ensues.
Even inside a game we cannot exit the social hierarchy that we have been raised to believe is not only normal but naturally occurring. When Betsy was eliminated at the tribal council, it reaffirmed that the youth, race, gender, strength and class ultimately matter more than the individual. This is just one more reason to believe that “Survivor” is not about creation or exploration, but about the negotiation of isms while appropriating aspects of other cultures for entertainment.