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Survivor Champ Sophie Clarke Says Latest Season 44 Vote Was a 'Smokescreen'

We talked to the winner of Survivor: South Pacific about why women keep getting voted out, the glut of fake immunity idols, and more.
  • Survivor: South Pacific winner Sophie Clarke (photo: CBS)
    Survivor: South Pacific winner Sophie Clarke (photo: CBS)

    Survivor 44's third episode ended with the third consecutive woman being voted out of the tribe, continuing a troubling trend from the last few seasons. This is the second straight season that women have been the first three vote-outs, and the 8th time in the show's 44 seasons. For perspective, it's only ever happened once that the first three vote-outs were all men. This has led to questions about whether Survivor needs to provide structural fixes to remedy this imbalance. The last few seasons have comprised three tribes of six people, with no pre-merge player swaps, a situation that encourages valuing team strength over alliances.

    The episode also saw two fake immunity idols introduced into the game, as well as Ratu tribe member Jaime eating an earthworm just for the heck of it. To help us process the highs and lows of an episode in which tribe strength and challenge prowess were measured against social strategy and alliance building, and Claire Rafson was voted out after having sat out three consecutive immunity challenges, we had a chat with a former Survivor player who knows quite a bit about all of that. Sophie Clarke was the winner of Survivor: South Pacific, then returned for the epic Winners at War season, where she finished 10th. She had a lot to say about the gendered way early-season vote-outs can go, whether fake immunity idols are good for the game, and how soon is too soon to be eating worms.

    What are your thoughts on another season where women were the first three voted out? On South Pacific, your first season, five out of the first six vote-outs were women, and you were the only woman in the final six.

    I think in general it's hard to point to any one specific reason why this is happening. I almost think it's more of a reflection of the hundred reasons in society that women tend to have fewer opportunities. I’m sure it’s a combination of challenge strength, but then there's also this weird thing where I feel like women, especially young women who are smart, they tend to be seen as sneaky, and the attributes that make them potentially good at Survivor are immediately seen as negative from a tribe. Whereas a man who might have the same attributes somehow gets away with it in the beginning of the game, in a way that the women don't for some reason. The one vote that really sticks out in my mind is from Survivor: Samoa, where Russell targeted Liz Kim. The female version of the male archetype just doesn't get away with it as much as men do in the beginning.

    I'm not sure there's an immediate fix, because it's kind of a reflection of a societal issue. It's not like Survivor can just add one single rule to the game to solve this problem. But I do think there are structural things they could do to even the playing field a little bit. One of the biggest ones, which you just brought up, is just the number of people on the tribe. In a nine-person tribe like we had in South Pacific, you don't have to be as focused on tribal strength from the get-go. There's more room to maneuver. Versus these six-person tribes where, especially if you're already down one player, people start to get paranoid about what if we get decimated? You know, what if this is a Stephenie and Bobby Jon situation? And they defensively just start to vote out whomever has the highest body fat or whatever.

    My experience on South Pacific, though, I was thinking about it, I think there is a very gendered reason why we ended up voting out five women [among the first six vote-outs], but it's not the same as the reasons I just said. This is why I feel like there are so many different reasons. South Pacific, and this is incredibly gendered on my part, but I remember part of the reason I liked the alliance that I fell into with the men was I felt like this was a good position as a woman to be in, because I would be underestimated by these men and would not be seen as a threat amongst them. Which of course is a very gendered perspective for me to have. But that was very much a driving force behind why I personally liked that alliance; I can't speak for the men. But I imagine if you look at each of those eight seasons, and each of those three first vote-outs, I think there are probably eight different reasons why things went the way they did. But they're all gendered reasons, and that's what's so scary. There were eight separate gendered reasons why a woman would be voted out first.

    This particular vote in last night's episode for Claire, what do you make of this idea that, “well, you sat out the challenges so what good are you to this tribe?” versus Claire's argument, which was "I can help build a strong strategic alliance"? What was your experience with that kind of attitude on your seasons?

    I feel like what happened last night was a total smokescreen. It makes no sense to me, this idea of voting out a player because she's sitting out challenges. First of all, why would you ever vote out a weak person for sitting out challenges when you're up in numbers? The whole benefit [of being up in numbers] is that you get to continue to sit her out. Who cares?! It's not like she's sitting out and nobody has to sit out. Somebody has to sit out the challenge. So I feel like that tribe is at a prime moment to not have to vote out the weak person. That tribe is in a situation where they could potentially take a shot at somebody who's a little bit stronger, because they have so many numbers. So to me that seemed like a little bit of an excuse to target her more than anything, I didn't quite buy that, I don't know about you.

    I didn't necessarily either, except for the fact that on Survivor, it just feels like it's always a bad idea to make yourself the conspicuous one. And part of that was Jeff Probst constantly calling her out at the beginning of challenges. "Claire sitting out again!" Not that it wouldn't have been noticed, but he pointed the arrow at her.

    I actually think more than anything, if I had to put my bets on it, I think that there is something to the fact that when you play a challenge with somebody, you just form such an intense bond. I mean, you're physically relying on these people. Challenges on Survivor feel like high school sports times a million. It is the highest highs and the lowest lows. And I imagine you get home from a challenge, you're either so excited or you're exhausted, and there's this kind of awkward person there who is participating in the win or the loss, and yet you're like "You didn't do anything." Either you didn't do anything to help us win or you didn't didn't have to feel this loss. And so I wonder if just the fact of Claire sitting out so many times somehow othered her, and it made it potentially easier in people's minds to get rid of her, versus somebody they've truly gone to battle with.

    The immunity challenges have for years seemed so dependent on getting that puzzle solved at the end. That always seemed intended to be the great equalizer in terms of neutralizing brute strength. Because if you're not good at puzzles, you're not gonna win the challenge. And yet physical strength seems to endure as the marker of tribe strength. What is your experience of that? Is it because you can't see puzzle prowess visually? Does that make it harder to get people to realize that tribe strength can also be mental strength?

    It's a really odd thing, and this disconnect continues throughout the game. Think about how many times people are targeted at the merge for being the big dangerous guy, and yet those guys are not the people who win individual immunities after the merge. There is no individual immunity challenge for, like, who can hold up the most weight. It tends to be… I don't know–

    It's balance, a lot of [those challenges] are about balance.

    Yeah! And yet throughout the game, I think you're right, I think part of it is what can people visually latch onto. And then I think the other part of it is that the puzzles often feel so abstract. Like, you don't know what kind of puzzle it's going to be. You don't know what kind of, I don't know, ball challenge it's going to be at the very end. But you always know for sure there's going to be somebody who's going to have to lift someone. And so I feel like that is part of it. The certainty that you're going to need some sort of muscle might outweigh the more important aspect of needing just a little bit of a brain on the tribe.

    My big bugaboo from last night's episode was the fact that we saw two fake immunity idols get entered into the game, which seemed like they were designed by production to be used as fakes. My feelings were already that there are too many advantages in the game, now we're flooding the system with fake advantages. And now maybe the preponderance of fake idols provided by production could make the real idols almost meaningless going forward. There's a potential for that, at least. What are your feelings on that? Are you as weirded out by that as I am?

    I feel like I probably have a different perspective as a viewer and as a player. As a player, I'm incredibly anti-[fake idols]. There are two issues with the fake idols. The main issue is the fact that people don't know that they exist. It just adds so much randomness into the game and [creates] an inability for players to make sound decisions and strategically control their own game. That's true with these fake idols, but it's also true with the twists that nobody has any idea about. I felt this way on Winners at War when there was a twist where Jeremy could just walk out of tribal council. There was a part of me that was like, "Oh my God, this is crazy!" But that was the viewer part of me. The player part of me was like, "I feel like I'm playing a game where I don't know the rules." And when you play a game where you don't know the rules, it's just not that much fun. You end up feeling like you have zero power, and actually it makes the gameplay kind of boring, because I think it eventually forces people to be either incredibly conservative or have so many backup plans [to the point where] it's too convoluted to even understand.

    As a viewer, I understand why the producers do it, and I understand the TV appeal. I've been listening to Jeff Probst's podcast, and he said last week that one of the ways that they think about advantages is they think first about the end result they want to get. And it's clear what they want to happen here; they want that moment when somebody plays a fake idol and it's wrong and they're made to look like an idiot. I think the problem is that's a much more beautiful moment when it's organic.


    And there's something so contrived about this. Where it feels like they're writing the game rather than letting it happen. I wonder if there are ways that they could still try to push that to happen; because we all want a fake idol to be played, that's gonna be hilarious. But are there other ways that they could do that from a producer standpoint that isn't just handing out what looks like a totally real item.

    Well, the way I put it in my recap was that, in the early days of fake idols, you think of Survivor: Gabon, where Bob makes a fake idol and Randy plays it, and we all hated Randy so it was really fun to watch Randy play a fake idol and be wrong. But I think now you look at this like, am I gonna feel satisfied to watch Jaime play a fake idol through no fault of her own? Am I gonna be excited to dunk on on Matt for–

    Yeah! Like, "You idiot, you found what looked like a totally real idol wrapped in a totally real clue!"

    So that's my argument from a viewer's perspective. Yes, in general, these twists are a gag to watch. But part of me also wants to feel satisfied by watching these twists, and as a viewer I just feel bad for Matt and Jaime now that these things are going to make them look stupid through no fault of their own.

    That said, I found the one that Matthew made was slightly more satisfying. That was at least somewhat organic, compared to the ones where they're just given this medallion. From a production standpoint, I think the reason they're adding all these crazy twists and idols into the game is to allow more "rubberbanding," this idea that even if you're at the bottom, you could come to the top. It's like in board games — a board game isn't fun if there's no rubberbanding. If whoever starts winning in the beginning eventually wins, it's just not fun. It's a little bit like what happened in South Pacific is what they're trying to prevent, right? They're trying to prevent some majority alliance from just running the game. And I think that doesn't show enough faith in their players. I think these days particularly, when they're casting such gamers, I have a hard time believing we're gonna see a straight Pagonging, even if there were fewer idols and advantages.

    That's the thing! Matthew had that quote yesterday where he was like, "I want to play a sneaky game, because I want to experience the full survivor experience," and that's what players are like today. They will make a move just to make it because it's like they can say they were on Survivor and made a sneaky move. They don't need all these prompts and advantages to do it.

    No, I completely agree. It reminds me a little bit of— do you play Settlers [of Catan]?

    I don't. I should, though, it seems like a thing that I would be into.

    The pure Settlers of Catan game is so much fun. It's pure strategy. There's an expansion pack which is called "Cities and Knights," basically is like new-age Survivor. There's tons of crazy twists and things that you never thought would be possible. Somebody's removing a road from the board, and you're like, "I thought that was set in stone, you know, once you put a road down, it's down." And when you play it the first couple of times, it can feel so fun and so wacky. Your mind is blown, because everything you thought was real is no longer real. But the more you play it, the more boring it gets, because randomness and surprises, when they go overboard, actually become boring. When you're too eager to provide surprises, there's no longer any surprise to it. And I think that's a little bit of what I fear going down this route with the new-school Survivor. At what point are we all going to just be jaded by all of these twists?

    What players in these three episodes have impressed you the most, or have stood out to you in a way that you want to mention?

    One would be Sarah. I think many people would have responded really poorly to the situation that she was put in yesterday. There's always that time where there's this one person who realizes that they're on the outs with their tribe, and I was– who was the guy last season who would pitch a fit about? Owen! Contrast Owen — sorry, Owen — with Sarah, she was so poised. She's doing exactly what she has to do, which is 1) to try to convince the tribe that she's back with them, but 2) never trust them ever again. And so while she hasn't done anything spectacular yet, I feel like she's giving me very good vibes when it comes to her energy and her wherewithal to be able to withstand something that's already put her in a really tricky position.

    Matthew is another one. For me, I feel like the first time I went on Survivor, I did not have Matthew's attitude. The second time I went on Survivor, I did have Matthew's attitude, which is like, "This is the experience of a lifetime, how can I have as much fun as possible out here?" Clearly he's playing to win, but he's also trying to have a lot of fun. I actually think doing that will help him win. Being somebody who is constantly exploring and adventuring, it's going to help land him in the right situation. I think particularly in this era of Survivor, you just can't ever be on your back foot. You always have to be like a Tony, you always have to be changing the game, you always have to be ahead of everybody else. And you can't do that if you're sitting down by the fire sleeping.

    So long as you don't injure yourself too badly that you have to get removed from the game.


    Speaking of Tony, I wanted to ask you, as somebody who's played with Tony Vlachos, what do you make of Danny? I feel like Danny is giving me Tony energy with a twist.

    I don't know. I don't want to say that he's playing up a character. He has that same kind of Tony devilish pride, with eating the clue doing the somersault last night. To me, it feels like he has the look of somebody who's playing the game really hard, but there's almost something cartoony about him. Or I'm worried that he's doing all of the flashy things, but he might not have the actual depth behind it to socially back that up.

    The thing that made me a little bit more encouraged about him last night was when Heidi mentioned that Danny was her number one. And that Heidi never really seemed to seriously entertain the notion of going over to Claire's side, because she was so loyal to Danny. So he's done a good job of building at least some social alliances with Heidi and seemingly also with Josh.

    And sometimes people with a lot of flash can actually do really well because, with someone like Danny, he's kind of like, I don't know, I just want to hug him. He makes me smile when I see him. And I could imagine that he might not be seen [by his tribemates] as doing the kind of things that he's doing. He might be seen as just the lovable guy. So that might actually be helping him.

    Last question: is it necessary to be eating earthworms out there? I feel like there's potential for more problems than benefits.

    I completely agree. Are you watching that show Outlast on Netflix?

    No, but it sounds wild.

    it is. I only watched a couple episodes, but they are also eating earthworms on like, Day 2. I'm like, what is going on here? And I feel like on Day 2, your adrenaline is still high enough that you definitely do not need an earthworm, at all. I remember Jeremy on Winners at War was eating some kind of big sluggy beetles, but that was on day 20-something. And even then I feel like Jeremy was not necessarily doing it 100% for the protein. It was a little bit more like a funny game.

    When you come back from Survivor, the number one question people ask you is what's the weird thing that you ate? I think from like the early seasons of Survivor and the food challenges, people are [still] thinking of that. Like Survivor is all about eating weird stuff. In my experience, the only thing I ever got close to eating, which today I think "Oh my God I cannot believe I would have eaten that," was on South Pacific, like scary late in the game, Day 30-something. We didn't have any rice rations on South Pacific, so we were straight-up starving. I lost so much weight on that season; I lost over 30 pounds. So I remember at the end, I couldn't even get up from the fire without feeling really lightheaded, I just felt out of it. And one day sitting there by the fire, I looked down and I was like, "Oh my God, guys, there's mushrooms growing here." And my mind really saw a mushroom. And so I bent down and reached over to pick up the mushroom, and it turned out it was the back of a mouse.

    Oh my God.

    And the mouse scurried away. And I was totally freaked out, but I remember also feeling like, "Oh my God, I wish I caught that mouse," because I really wanted to eat that mouse.

    Well, sure, at that point you were the Warner Brothers cartoon on the raft, and you're looking over at Coach and he turns into a big turkey drumstick.

    It was 100% one of those situations. I definitely remember in that moment realizing like, oh that's why Natalie on Samoa killed that rat. You are hungry enough for that. But again, I don't know about these new-school Survivors. What's the game now? 26 days? I'm not sure you should be eating like rats or earthworms before Day 26.

    This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

    Survivor airs Wednesday nights at 8:00 PM ET on CBS. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer 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, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Survivor, Claire Rafson, Danny Massa, Jeff Probst, Sophie Clarke, Tony Vlachos