I started watching Survivor in 2012, during the show’s 25th season. I was in college and the only reason I started watching was because I had a crush on a person that loved it. But, as a long-time reality TV fan, I was immediately hooked. I went back and watched every episode available on the internet and soon became that annoying person who yelled, “No spoilers!” when I had prior commitments on Wednesday nights. I found solace in the strong women and cheered for the underdogs. I spent hours internally debating whether I was a Sandra or a Parvati (I’m a gay Denise, in case you were wondering), and I even tried to make fire with sticks once.
Like many Survivor fans, I caught the bug and began dreaming of being a castaway myself. As I brainstormed ways to make my audition tape stand out, I began to peel back the layers of the show. I took notes on challenge strategies, shelter building, and alliances. I watched hours upon hours of it and, when I came up for air, I came to one definitive conclusion: Despite my deep admiration for the show, I will never play Survivor.
Exhibit A for why not: The treatment of Kellee Kim. In case you missed season 39 (Island of the Idols), Kim is a brilliant Harvard and Wharton grad; a woman of color who played a strategic game throughout her short tenure on the show. From the very beginning of her season, Kim voiced her discomfort with the way fellow contestant Dan Spilo was treating her, including, but not limited to, regular, non-consensual physical touch. Kim tried to rally her tribemates to vote him out, citing his sexual harassment as evidence, but instead, they voted her out. A few episodes later, Spilo was removed from the show by producers after another, off-camera incident occurred involving a crew member.
Kim had told everyone an uncomfortable truth, but nobody at the time listened — or cared. Instead, Survivor’s showrunners used Kim’s experience when it benefited them, and turned it into a pandering attempt at a #metoo moment during the reunion show, when host Jeff Probst called Kim’s situation complex and unprecedented and repeatedly said that they were turning Kim’s situation into a “positive.” This positive he spoke of consisted of new rules and procedures around harassment reporting on the show, which is great, but should have already been in place to begin with, and Kim should have been listened to from the get-go. Probst also apologized to Kim for her “pain,” but not for facilitating its existence. Kim told Probst that what had been hardest for her was that Spilo wasn’t removed from the game after she spoke up: “I wanted to be supported and believed, but I wasn’t, and now my Survivor experience is defined by sexual harassment.”
Despite the verbal show of support offered to Kim during the reunion show, it doesn’t appear that Survivor helped her heal in other ways. While other players who endure traumatic moments during the show have been offered psychological help after they compete, Zeke Smith, who appeared on Millennials vs Gen X and Game Changers and is friends with Kim, told Refinery29 that Kim was not offered any kind of mental health assistance after the show. Kim declined to comment for this story.
This was not an isolated incident of sexism for the show. Over and over again, Survivor’s women are forced to teach its men about the misogyny that runs deep in the show’s veins. One example that rattles in my mind involves Max Dawson, a Worlds Apart contestant known for teaching a Survivor college course before his appearance on the show, who worked to combat the show’s inherent sexism. During his season, Dawson quickly aligned himself with Shirin Oskooi, a woman of color who was called “psychotic” and “sociopathic” by some contestants, simply because she had learned how to kill a chicken before playing the game. After Oskooi was told by another contestant to “just sit there and look pretty” when she offered her opinion about who to vote off next, Dawson and Oskooi created a strategy they called “manslating” in order to play successfully with the rest of the contestants. “Shirin would tell me, and then I would tell the tribe, so they would think it was my idea,” Dawson told me over the phone. “They would listen to me, but if Shirin said the same thing, they would immediately shut it down.”
From shelter building to who gets to use the fishing gear to those final tribal council moments, there is sexism embedded at every turn in Survivor. At one of the last tribal councils of the most recent season (Winners at War, during which past winners of the game were pitted against each other), contestant Sarah Lacina explained the sexist optics at the core of Survivor: “If a woman in this game lies or cheats or steals, then she’s fake and phony and a bitch. If a guy does it, it’s good gameplay. If a guy does it, he’s a stud. What it is, is a gender bias, and it holds women back from how they should be allowed to play the game.”
During the Winners at War tribal council, Lacina, who also appeared on Cagayan and Game Changers, went on to explain various microaggressions that she had seen throughout her years on Survivor and began to tear up when she admitted that she felt like a bad person for playing strategically during the Game Changers season, which she won. Although it seemed like the men around her tried to understand what she was saying, one contestant could only relate by adding that we have to respect women because they are our “mothers and daughters” — bringing up the trope that women are only worthy of empathy due to their relationships with men. Survivor host Jeff Probst responded to Lacina’s speech by saying it invoked a cultural shift that’s “beautiful and amazing.” But what he failed to mention is that this isn’t the 1950s — it isn’t radical for a woman to fight her way to the top, it’s necessary. And once women do make it to the top, there is a constant battle to prove why they deserve to be there. In the end, Winners at War was won by a white man — a cop. Lacina’s speech didn’t change the game, it just further illuminated how it is irreparably broken.
While Lacina brought sexism to the forefront of this season’s finale, Survivor’s ingrained racism was wholly ignored. This was a season composed of winners — supposedly the best of the best of the Survivor universe — and yet there were only five people of color (the majority of whom were men) out of the 20 castaways. During the show’s 40 seasons, there have only been four Black winners — all of them men. The show has failed at racial diversity since the beginning. Many of the early seasons were majority white, and the people of color are often depicted according to racist stereotypes. Ramona Gray Amaro, the only Black woman on the show’s first season, told NPR the show depicted her as “lying around her team’s campsite early in the competition [making] her look lazy, feeding into stereotypes about Black people.” In reality, she had been taking a break because she suffered from dehydration. Amaro only lasted 12 days, making it less than a third of the way through. And she wasn’t the only Black contestant to tell NPR about their racist edit; in the Cagayan season, J’Tia Hart felt she was portrayed as lazy and uneducated, despite having a degree in nuclear engineering.
The show has publicly attempted to diversify, but the results leave a lot to be desired. In 2006, for its first foray into an actually racially and ethnically inclusive season (rather than just featuring one or two token people of color out of a cast of 20 people), Survivor decided to group contestants by race, and created four tribes, labeled “African-Americans,” “Asian-Americans,” “Hispanics,” (which is not a race, but I digress) and “Caucasians.” Unsurprisingly, this didn’t sit well with viewers, coming off as a publicity stunt rather than a true look at the show’s race problem. The season did produce the show’s first Asian winner, Yul Kwon, but it also forced players to “represent their race,” a phrase that is used throughout the season as the contestants try to explain to the cameras why they felt uncomfortable with this approach. After that season, Survivor never attempted to split tribes by race again.
While producers for the show were clearly eager to ignore racism — unless it could be utilized as a marketing gimmick — the contestants weren’t so easily silenced. During a tribal council on Island of the Idols, contestant Missy Byrd told Probst that she was disappointed that, after two Black people had won immunity, nobody brought it up as a win. Probst responded by admitting he didn’t even notice, and would have felt uncomfortable bringing it up if he had. A few moments later, Byrd was voted off the island. In this same season, Jamal Shipman was tasked with educating Jack Nichting on the racial microaggression of calling his buff a durag. They have a conversation about race until Nichting feels that his apology is sufficiently accepted. A trend emerges — people of color are either forced to educate their white counterparts so that the show can get a pat on the back for directly dealing with racism, or POC are forced to change their behavior to fit within the veiled white supremacist patriarchy inherent to the game.
While Shipman was tasked with educating fellow castaways, Byrd felt that her time on the island was most important for the viewers at home. “I felt more of an obligation to educate than I did to win,” Byrd told me. “Of course the million dollars would have changed my life and my family’s life, but when you’re out there it’s apparent that one of these things is not like the other and that one thing is me. The day after another Black player and I won the necklace and we didn’t speak about it, I was angry. I suddenly cared so much more about talking about race and our accomplishments as Black players than I did about the game. My immunity win felt like a fluke to the producers; it wasn’t part of their storyline.”
When she watched her season, Byrd felt that she was absolutely tokenized and that her edit was one of a stereotypical scary Black person. “I was cutthroat, I played hard, but my edit only showed that side of me,” she explained. “I’m a Cancer — I cried every single evening because I was so happy to be there. Yes, I was strategic, but I also danced naked in the rain. My edit never even showed me crack a smile. When fans walk up to me now, they’re surprised that I can smile. I was stereotyped as scary and angry and I can feel it still.”
Byrd’s storyline is not the only one of its kind — we see similar storylines with players such as Michaela Bradshaw and J’Tia Hart. Hart was written off as “crazy” during her season (Cagayan) and Bradshaw basically had to be taught to play better with the white people. In Game Changers, Cirie Fields, an older Black woman, mentored Michaela Bradshaw and encouraged her to work on hiding her emotions. The two became allies, but Bradshaw’s edit remained the same — she was seen as mean until the moment she was voted off.
The racism and sexism in Survivor is apparent on-screen, but it began off-camera. “There are very few people of color who work on the show and none in senior positions. There was one white woman who was high up on the show, but she has since left,” two-time contestant Zeke Smith told me. In the end, Smith is the person who convinced me never to audition for Survivor. Though he played an exquisite game, Smith also had to endure being outed as trans in an attempt to prove he was deceitful and should be voted out. “I think the show is getting better,” he told me. “But if you look at who is cast, they’ll cast any body type when it comes to men, but women, across the board, have to look good in a bikini.”
This kind of gender normativity shouldn’t be surprising on a show where, Smith said, “most of the top-level people… are almost exclusively white, cis, straight men,” but it does highlight Survivor’s problematic treatment of queerness. LGBTQIA++ people make up a very small percentage of Survivor contestants, with a majority of them being cis white men. There have been some lesbian contestants, but casting has avoided breaking any molds in that regard, and still stuck close to their aim of finding women who, as Smith said, “look good in a bikini.” Most of the time, though, queerness is ignored, brought up only during family visits (audiences might have assumed Elaine Stott was queer on her season, Island of the Idols, but it was only confirmed during a family visit and then not talked about much after). However, the presence of queer cast members is also used as a tool to feign inclusivity — creating situations where queer people are forced to expend emotional labor in order to educate a bigoted contestant. And, in one horrific instance, Survivor allowed a trans person to be outed for strategy.
Smith knew going into the game that his transness might be brought to light, but he was adamant about it not being his story — he didn’t want to be “the trans Survivor player.” He made it through his first appearance, on season Millennials vs Gen X, without mentioning his transness, but when he came back for Game Changers, he was outed by fellow contestant Jeff Varner in a failed strategy play. Though Smith felt good about the way the show handled that episode, he was disappointed with the behind-the-scenes aftermath. “After being publicly outed, it would have been really nice to talk to someone [like a psychologist], who wasn’t in the game, but I was thrown back in,” Smith said. “Those 11 days that I played after being outed were some of the darkest days of my life.” While the producers did provide him with a therapist for one year after he was outed, Smith told me that due to his experience he “would absolutely never play again.” He went on to explain, “There is a significant toll that the game takes on your mental health, especially as the game has gotten more cutthroat. I was lucky enough to be given a therapist for a year afterward, but my work isn’t done, I’m still working through it.”
Smith was the first person that I spoke to when I began researching the show. I went into our interview starry-eyed and excited to speak to a queer player and left wholly disappointed with a franchise to which I had given so much of my time. Whereas I once sat back and enjoyed the magic of Survivor, I can no longer ignore the darkness so deeply embedded in the show’s DNA.
The problems that lie at the heart of Survivor have been there from its beginning, and while it would be nice to think that the show’s success happened in spite of its problems, the reality is, its success has probably been dependent on them. Survivor is one of the longest-running reality TV shows in history, with 40 seasons under its belt, over the course of 20 years. During that time, the show and host Jeff Probst have claimed to make progress on issues like racism, sexism, and homophobia. In particular, Probst has insisted that he loves to learn on-screen; he loves to talk about what it’s like to live as a trans person or a woman or a person of color. But perhaps what he means is that he loves to seem like he’s learning in order to give audiences the narrative arc they intuitively want. Real learning — for Probst and producers — would mean that there would be changes in everything from casting choices to manipulative edits that enforce gender stereotypes. Instead, the show has demonstrated that it only learns when it wants to learn, and acts like a ‘50s sitcom when it wants to entertain. Hearing players such as Smith and Dawson — both of whom once had deep love for the game — tell me that they’ll never play again was eye-opening for me. After years of having Survivor as a staple in my life — a problematic fave, admittedly — I’ve realized that, until the show reckons with its systemic prejudices, I’ll be snuffing my torch, maybe for good.
Survivor’s network CBS and contestant Dan Spilo had not responded to Refinery29’s request for comment at the time of publication.
In its early days, reality TV was an easily mocked amusement that “serious” people talked about in hushed tones. Today, it’s an Emmy-awarded genre in its own right, and perhaps the most important and relevant form of entertainment in a world where we document and distribute every moment of our lives in high definition. But now, against the backdrop of anxiety-inducing headlines and societal upheaval, the previously low-stakes genre provides welcome relief (See: Hyori’s Bed & Breakfast ), cultural commentary (see: Survivor ) and an examination into how the country got here (see: Vanderpump Rules). In 2020, there’s truly no escape from reality, whether it is playing out on our screens or outside our door.
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