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After hiatus, how "Survivor" returns is critical

<h6>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian

The reality competition show "Survivor" has frequently been praised as the "greatest social experiment ever" by the media, its host Jeff Probst, and its contestants. I’ve been watching “Survivor” since I was seven years old, and I’m excited for it to return this month after a yearlong hiatus. My primary method of procrastination for a while has been catching up on older seasons, doing deep dives into obscure analyses of voting patterns, and waking my sister up with 3 a.m. texts about funny moments.

But as I’ve gotten older I’ve also been watching critically, and find myself disturbed by the producers’ poor treatment of contestants from marginalized groups. With CBS announcing that all future seasons of its reality shows will have casts that are at least 50 percent people of color, this is a crucial time to amplify ongoing conversations about what “Survivor” does right, what it does grievously wrong, and where it should go from here.

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The show is premised on a group of “castaways” marooned and split into “tribes” that compete to win protection from being voted out. Players negotiate ways to target their opponents and backstab their allies without getting outsmarted. Meanwhile, they’re living out in the open, with little to eat, managing the social stress of spending 39 days with strangers.

This past year, two groups of Black “Survivor” players, the Black Survivor Alliance and the Soul Survivors Organization, expressed their displeasure with how many Black contestants are treated: the narratives created around them were based on racist stereotypes, such as being “sassy,” “lazy,” “crazy,” or “angry.” Black women especially have been stereotyped as aggressive — Crystal Cox-Walker of “Survivor: Gabon,” for example, has said that her positive interactions and personality traits were omitted, leaving her depicted with no nuance.

Additionally, women of various races are often stereotyped on “Survivor,” depicted as bossy or conniving for making the same cutthroat moves that are lauded as game-changing when performed by men. All-women alliances are portrayed as uniquely dangerous, but as competitor Kellee Kim mentioned on “Survivor: Island of the Idols,” the same is never said of all-men alliances.

In one instance, the wardrobe department sent Kelly Shinn onto “Survivor: Nicaragua,” with only a bikini and a sundress in the middle of Nicaragua’s rainy season, while other players had jackets and warmer clothing. Shinn was evidently cast as the “attractive young woman” character without regard for her well-being. But she found her actual circumstances too harsh to continue, so she quit — and then received virtually no screen time in the season.

Shinn isn’t the only example of “Survivor” under-editing women. Confessional interviews are a window into a player’s perspective and a large source of their overall share of airtime. But by one fan’s accounting, in only eight of the 40 seasons did women have more interviews than men. The highest percentage of women’s interviews was only 57.33 percent, reached on two seasons. In comparison, in the 32 seasons where men spoke in more interviews than women, there were 14 seasons where men spoke in over 60 percent of interviews.

By the same fan’s tally, “Survivor: Guatemala,” had no Black people in its cast. 10 seasons did not have any Hispanic or Latinx cast members, and 13 had no Asian contestants. And there have only ever been four “Survivor” contestants who were Native American. This imbalance is striking and concerning.

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These are serious issues with the treatment of “Survivor” players by the show’s production. But there are equally serious issues regarding the treatment of players by their castmates, and the production team’s mishandling of the aftermaths of such situations.

In the 2019 season, contestant Dan Spilo frequently touched women in ways they were not comfortable with. Kellee Kim was especially affected by Spilo’s harassment. Early on, she asked Spilo to stop. Later, after Kim expressed in a confessional interview her distress that Spilo’s actions had continued, the production team gave him a warning but he still did not stop. He was eventually ejected from the game “after a report of another incident, which happened off-camera and did not involve a player,” according to the card displayed on-screen after his removal.

To be blunt, the way production handled this harassment was abysmal. Spilo should have been removed the moment that Kim and others became concerned about his behavior — which was documented on camera. Kim should have received more support, and the production team should have been more clear in their warnings and check-ins with the players, which several described as vague and confusing. Though Probst has said that policies have been instituted going forward to better handle misconduct, it is baffling that they hadn’t been in place from the show’s inception.

Unfortunately, though, season 39 was not the first time sexual assault or harassment occured on the show, and those previous instances were handled poorly as well. Ghandia Johnson told other competitors in “Survivor: Thailand” that fellow player Ted Rogers, Jr. had touched her inappropriately without her consent, and some cast members responded in ways that suggested they didn’t believe her. When she became — rightfully — upset by this, others called her a “crazy lady” and “childish,” and Johnson was stereotyped as the “angry Black woman.”

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Later, in “Survivor: All-Stars,” Susan Hawk endured unwanted contact from former winner Richard Hatch and decided to quit the game. Some of the remaining contestants even celebrated her departure. The production team did not step in in either Hawk’s case or Johnson’s.

So what needs to change looking ahead to season 41? The new policy of having people of color compose fifty percent of each cast is a good start and will hopefully help to alleviate some problems, including the unfortunate trend of people of color being ostracized and alienated from majority white teams. But it doesn’t fully remove possibilities for harm. For one thing, women have always made up roughly fifty percent of each cast, which has never stopped misogyny by other players or in the edit, so the situation might not improve for people of color either, even if they’re more present on the show. Numbers alone won’t accomplish much if white players continue to mistreat people of color and the production team continues to represent them poorly.

As the Black Survivor Alliance and the Soul Survivors Organization have advocated, there needs to be a more diverse crew behind the cameras that’s better trained in how to tell stories about people from marginalized communities. There needs to be more active support for players from production — the fourth wall can and should be sacrificed for the sake of stopping bigoted harassment.

And there needs to be a more rigorous vetting process for casts. As Gabby Pascuzzi of “Survivor: David vs. Goliath” said, “Just because crappy people exist in real life doesn't mean that the cast has to contain crappy people.” Villainy can be appealing and interesting without it being racist and misogynist; compelling conflict can occur without one party being traumatized by the other.

The most basic strategy in “Survivor” is to eliminate people who stand in the way of your path to victory. Although not making too many enemies is important to winning, it’s still not a “nice” game where competitors always get along, and that fact has been largely accepted for most of the show’s tenure. There will and should be conflict in the show, for it to maintain both narrative interest for the audience and social challenge for the players.

There is absolutely no reason, however, that that conflict has to victimize someone based on their membership to a particular identity group with the potential for lasting trauma, particularly given that this is a reality show where that trauma lands on the shoulders of a real person rather than a fictional character. Some of the most iconic moments in “Survivor” history have involved conflicts based on personality clashes, camp life, betrayals of out-of-game friendships, and deliberately chaotic behavior. Casts can easily include players who audiences will love to root against without any bigoted vitriol being involved.

Another necessary change is improved psychological aftercare for contestants, including aftercare that caters to the specific needs of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, who face additional difficulties during and after filming.

Two-time competitor Zeke Smith has spoken about this issue. On “Survivor: Game Changers,” Smith was outed as transgender by Jeff Varner (Varner was then unanimously eliminated). As a result, Smith received additional care from the show’s psychologists, and says he “needed every second of it.” But he realized that many other competitors came home with their own trauma from the show, and didn’t receive the same support.

For example, he said, when he played in 2016, the resources given to players about reacclimating to real life after “Survivor” referenced seasons filmed in 2001 and 2002. Much has changed in “Survivor,” in the world, and in mental health treatment since then — and it’s unacceptable for the care players receive not to evolve as well.

None of this is to say that the show should ignore or sanitize social issues if they arise. But it should not be provoking and relishing in racism, or sitting idly by while sexual harassment goes unchecked. In Pascuzzi’s words, “We've seen 40 seasons of a microcosm of society ... Society can be racist and sexist and random and unfair and ugly. I don't need the game to be those things ... A season can be dramatic without being nasty or contrived.”

If CBS has made significant changes during the show’s hiatus, the coming seasons could shine. With more support for competitors, it could mitigate its recent over-reliance on surprise twists and hidden advantages, by instead driving the narrative through interesting personalities from a more diverse array of people, who can play better when they aren’t being severely mistreated. It could have more surprising seasons by giving balanced edits so stereotypes don’t control the narrative.

But if it hasn’t made those changes, watching social and strategic intrigue play out isn’t worth the price of the health and dignity of marginalized individuals. Numerous writers and players have spoken up before, and “Survivor” has had too many chances already.

Molly Cutler is an Assistant Editor for The Prospect and a TV & Shows Critic who often covers podcasts and internet art. She can be reached at mcutler@princeton.edu, or on Twitter at @clarinautilus.

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