Why Loving Survivor Means Putting Up With Its Bro-ey Hero Worship

This week's "threat alliance" is part of the show's irksome tendency to equate male-ness with the word "threat."
  • Jeremy Collins, Adam Klein, Nick Wilson and Wendell Holland in Survivor: Winners at War. (CBS)
    Jeremy Collins, Adam Klein, Nick Wilson and Wendell Holland in Survivor: Winners at War. (CBS)

    SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.

    As someone who loves Survivor and has stuck with it through 20 years and 40 seasons, I know that fans have to make certain compromises. A big one for me is finding a way to navigate around the show's often antiquated gender politics. Survivor isn't nearly as misogynistic as, say, The Bachelor, but the more you watch, the more apparent it becomes that the producers and editors treat the show's male and female competitors in starkly different ways. Athletic male leader types who dictate game play and take ownership of their competition are the heroes of choice. Winning challenges is a virtue unto itself, so when an alpha male uses his athletic prowess to make it to the end of the game, he's played the right way. Think of Survivor legends like Colby Donaldson, Ethan Zohn, or even "Boston" Rob Mariano, who was as villainous as you please, but when he won, it was for being an athletic and assertive alpha.

    Women who win Survivor tend to do so with storylines that portray them as under-the-radar social players or, more rarely (if far more thrillingly) scheming villainesses. Think Parvati Shallow, who rode an all-female alliance to a win in Survivor: Micronesia and when she returned on Heroes vs. Villains, was slotted as a Villain for her trouble. Sandra Diaz-Twine had to win twice to be afforded the kind of respect that certifiable lunatic Tony Vlachos gets for winning once. Parvati had to make it to two final tribal councils. In recent years, female winners like Kim Spradlin, Natalie Anderson, and Sarah Lacina have been edited more respectably, but we've still had winners like Denise Stapley and Michele Fitzgerald treated like back-benchers because their games weren't dynamic enough.

    This irksome tendency played out again this week as the Winners at War tribes merged, joined by Edge of Extinction challenge winner Tyson Apostol, and the traditional scramble to form alliances and coalitions to target the right player commenced. Almost immediately, Ben Driebergen sough out Tyson, Tony, and Jeremy Collins and proposed that, in this season of winners, the true "threats" — i.e. them — need to band together so that the less dynamic, lower profile players don't pick them off one by one. This was a sentiment expressed by Tyson earlier in the season: that the threats need to keep each other around as each others' shields. It's an offshoot of the "meat shield" strategy that Jeremy used to win his season. It's a legitimate game plan with real strategic merit, but it's no accident that the players who band together as "threats" all happen to be alpha males.

    For one thing, "threat = male" is about the only possible definition of "threat" that could apply to a player like Ben, who burned every possible strategic bridge in his original season and only made it to the end thanks to a string of immunity idols and a last-minute rule change at final four. Ditto Tony, who played fast and loose with the strategy in his winning season and owed much of his win to having found a "super idol" that kept anyone from ever voting for him, then returning on Game Changers, running around like a Loony Tunes character, and getting voted out second.

    Meanwhile, there sits Denise, whose double-idol play not two weeks ago ousted Sandra, who seemingly every player wanted to vote out this week because her case before a jury would be too strong, but she's not part of the threat-shield alliance because … why exactly? Why is Sarah, one of only two remaining players (along with Jeremy) to have won an all-stars season, who has proven to be a stellar strategist and overall game player, not part of the threat alliance? Why does "threat" on this show always mean a big tough man?

    You see this vibe play out among the other male players as well. Tony tells the camera that his threat alliance wants to target Nick because he's one of those lesser winners, who, according to Tony, will lurk in the weeds until the alphas have taken each other out and then scavenge the scraps, like a hyena. Except … that's not Nick's game at all. Nick won the David vs. Goliath season by making two strong tribal alliances and leading one right after the other to the end. He was central to both. He didn't lurk; he led.

    And then there's poor Adam Klein, who won the Millennials vs. Gen-X season with cunning instincts and strategically built social bonds, but who's been edited this season as a whiny, scheming baby who, as depicted this week, is so frantic about being voted out that he starts to cry at one point. Obviously the editors don't invent these moments out of whole cloth, but Adam is absolutely being set up as the beta villain up against his more alpha opponents.

    The only solution to all this macho posturing about threats? For a woman to win this season, of course. And with Wendell Holland getting the boot this week, each of them are one step closer.

    As for the rest of this week's happenings…

    Winner of the Week: Sophie Clarke. After all that business about a threat alliance, one of the "non-threats," Sophie, was the only one to correctly assess the situation: that in a Wendall-or-Nick situation, Jeremy was lobbying to keep Wendell around because they've been severely bro-ing down since the merge. Sophie acted quickly, lobbied more successfully, and in the end, Wendell was sent to Extinction, and Jeremy lost his ally.

    Sub-Winner of the Week: Denise Stapley. With what appeared to be the entire merged tribe sizing her up for the vote-out after hearing of her Sandra-slaying heroics, Denise held on and won the immunity challenge, buying herself another three days (plus a fire token).

    War of the Week: Adam versus himself, as he struggles to keep his nerves under wraps and fights off his clear need to double check with everybody to make sure he's not the target.

    Alliance Report: This new "threats" alliance appears to be Ben, Jeremy, Tony, and Tyson. Michelle and Nick are left allied as the only two who didn't vote for Wendell, though we'll see if they stay as close next week. Everybody else (Sophie, Sarah, Kim, Denise, Adam) is either on their own or secretly in cahoots. Stay tuned.

    Dispatches from the Edge of Extinction: Tons of EOE to deal with this week. With the battle-back competition at hand, everybody on the Edge emptied their purses to exchange their fire tokens for an advantage. Ultimately, in what appeared to be a buzzer-beater finish with Rob, Tyson emerged victorious and returned from Extinction, leaving everybody else to return and wait out the second return competition, at final 5.

    Advantage Report: Okay, let's see …

    • Sophie has the Yara idol.
    • Kim has the Dakal idol.
    • Jeremy holds an advantage that will allow him to leave tribal council and return to camp before a vote is held (essentially immunity but you don't get to vote).
    • Sarah holds a Steal-a-Vote advantage.
    • Both Rob and Natalie used their excess fire tokens to buy a hidden immunity idol in case they won their way back in. They didn't, and since the idols won't do them much good on EOE, look for them to try to sell them for fire tokens soon.

    Fire Token Report: After this week's wheelings and dealings …

    • Michele leads the field with 4 tokens, having been gifted one by Wendell upon his exit.
    • Nick got a third token upon Wendell's exit as well.
    • Denise won a fire token along with immunity, bringing her total up to two.
    • Jeremy likewise won his second fire token at the immunity challenge.
    • Sophie has two tokens, after inheriting one from Yul last week.
    • Adam, Ben, Kim, Sarah, and Tony each have one token apiece.
    • Everybody on the edge of Extinction cashed in all their tokens this week in advance of the competition, including Tyson, who won his way back in.

    War of the Weeks Ahead: Nick and Michelle are left to scramble, and Adam continues to fret wildly.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Survivor, CBS, Ben Driebergen, Denise Stapley, Jeremy Collins, Sophie Clarke, Tony Vlachos, Tyson Apostol, Reality TV