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Survivor's Surprisingly Nuanced Pivot Into Social Issues

Recent episodes have tackled race and gender as never before.
  • Jamal and Jack on Survivor (CBS)
    Jamal and Jack on Survivor (CBS)

    Jeff Probst has long touted Survivor as a "social experiment." Stripped of creature comforts, he's explained, castaways are their realest, most authentic selves, and the diversity of backgrounds and personalities in the cast typically creates an environment where genuine connection and keen insights into the human condition can be explored.

    Season 1's unlikely friendship between the openly gay Richard Hatch and crotchety Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch has long been the show's touchstone when it comes to  demonstrating its unique powers of connection and social commentary, but what frequently gets lost in these discussions is that Season 1 was nearly twenty years ago, and the show has not consistently remained on the cutting edge of progressive, thought-provoking content. While nobody wants their reality television to get preachy, and of course there's a game to play, it's also true that when it comes to teachable moments, Survivor has often fallen short over the course of its 39 seasons.

    It's been several seasons since Survivor has made any kind of overt attempt to tell a story centered around issues of social justice. In Season 34, Jeff Varner outed fellow contestant Zeke Smith as transgender, which led to an emotionally fraught Tribal Council in which the tribe unanimously ejected Varner from the game and threw their full support to Zeke. While this wasn't handled perfectly, the show was at least on the side of "outing people on television is bad," Zeke's tribemates handled the situation compassionately, and Zeke himself handled the situation with grace. The past few seasons, however, have mostly shied away from any sort of controversy or dissection of privilege and power.

    Last week's episode bucked that trend in the best possible way, showcasing a groundbreaking moment of connection. While tending the fire at the Lairo camp, Jack Nichting, who is white, made a comment to his tribemate, Jamal Shipman, who is black, in which he referred to Jamal's buff (the stretchy bandana-like accessory used to differentiate between tribes on the show) as a "durag." Jamal was taken aback, and Jack was immediately embarrassed.

    What followed, as Jack approached Jamal later, in private, to express his regret, was one of the most clear-cut and incisive explanations of microaggressions and their power to harm. Probst's posturing to the contrary notwithstanding, this is definitely not something one expects from a show like Survivor, especially in the modern era of the show. What made the exchange particularly powerful is the way in which it didn't appear to affect Jamal and Jack's friendship both inside and out of the game. Jack asked Jamal how he could do better and then genuinely listened to what Jamal had to say about his own experiences without insinuating that Jamal was wrong to have been offended. And Jamal, for his part, explained gently and respected Jack's genuine intent, while also pointing out where Jack was unaware of his own privilege. Their candor was particularly remarkable when overlaid with the context of Survivor itself: a game in which rocking the boat carries the risk of being voted out. "It's hard to know when it's safe to come on strong with this kind of thing, "Jamal explained to Jack. "It can be divisive and we're playing a social game." But rather than jeopardizing their bond, the moment brought them closer together.

    This week, the trend of socially conscious conversations continued, but it was Jamal's turn to learn from a misstep. During tribal council, Jamal noted his fear of a "girls' alliance," based on almost no evidence that one was forming. Jamal's tribemate Kellee Kim retorted that fear of a phantom women's alliance has been epidemic on Survivor for years: "I find this idea of a women's alliance so sexist... we don't talk about men's alliances, we don't fear men's alliances, and yet three men have been sitting at the end and that's not a thing. We're splitting this arbitrarily by gender. Why is that?"

    The other women on the tribe were quick to jump in with their own experiences, invoking the #MeToo movement and noting that societal trends overall had made it easier for women to speak up for themselves, but not, 59-year-old lifeguard Janet Carbin was quick to add, at the expense of their male allies: "to assume that women are going to bond based on gender... that's putting women down. In my experience, you can't be a powerful woman without men and women backing you." As with his conversation with Jack in the previous week, instead of reacting defensively, Jamal left the exchange seemingly delighted to have had a candid, real conversation filled with individual shared experiences.

    While season 39 has handled both of these exchanges in a way that feels neither heavy-handed nor dismissive, a third sensitive storyline appears poised to bubble over in the coming weeks. Over the course of several episodes, the Vokai tribe has raised concerns about Hollywood agent Dan Spilo and his general lack of regard for the personal space of his female tribemates, and while the story has not yet developed beyond casual complaints about his handsiness, repeated mentions of this tendency seems to be foreshadowing more to come.

    Historically speaking, Survivor's track record in this arena has been far from perfect, particularly in the early seasons. In 2002, after Survivor: Thailand contestant Ghandia Johnson accused tribemate Ted Rogers of "grinding" on her while huddled together in the shelter, the rest of the tribe ostracized her and ultimately voted her out. Two years later, Sue Hawk would quit Survivor: All-Stars following an emotional tailspin resulting from an over-the-line moment of harassment from fellow contestant Richard Hatch. After the initial awkwardness, certain tribemates criticized Hawk's "rage," while others came close to playing the incident for laughs, as her tribemates celebrated her departure and noted they'd have voted her out anyway.

    It's still early in the season, and it's anyone's guess how — or, if you want to take a more dismal view, if — this storyline will be resolved, but the fact that the editors have included multiple instances of Dan's inappropriate behavior and some discussion of the fact that it is inappropriate suggests that it's a plot point that will receive some resolution, whether Dan is voted out as a direct result of his actions or, at the very least, made to answer for them in ways where earlier seasons of the show may have fallen short.

    Dialogue on this level may well have been happening on Survivor from the beginning, but in recent years, the idea that Survivor contestants can learn and grow from the experience of living on an island with people who come from a variety of backgrounds has taken a backseat to strategy, game twists, and the thrill of competition. Which isn't to say there's anything wrong with those things, it's just that it's great to catch glimpses of the social experiment the show initially purported to be, and to see the show using its platform to educate about that experiment. Moreover, it's encouraging to feel as though the mirror it holds up to society reflects an environment conducive to empathy, acceptance, and growth.

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    Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie

    TOPICS: Survivor, CBS, Jeff Probst, Reality TV