The other day I saw an ad for the twelfth season of Survivor based in Panama. This time there's a "twist" and every week a member of the "tribe" will get sent to something called Exile Island. For the span of a television season, a swarthy group of sixteen middle class, mostly Caucasian, participants will pretend to live as if they were truly destitute. They will have to actually -- gasp! -- fend for themselves AND play group games for the chance to win a million US dollars.
I can see marketing material for potential participants now: Yes, you too, can learn to live like you were truly poor AND have a chance at winning a million dollars! That's not surviving. That's like going on a poverty vacation. Furthermore, in some circles that's called "detox". Here's a reality check: those who are really poor just stay that way; they don't win nothin'.
And why do these folks have to go all the way to Panama? If it's supposed to be REALITY TV why not make it interesting? Why not drop them off in the middle of the South Bronx? Without any money. Or clothes. Better yet, why not drop them in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro? Or the slums of Calcutta? Or the shantytowns/townships outside Johannesburg where AIDS has ravaged whole populations? Now that's REAL surviving. Day One's task could consist of contestants running around trying not to get shot as they found a way to clothe themselves and begged for money and food. But I guess America's viewing public wouldn't want to see something like that; it would hit too close too home. They would rather watch an artificial environment of abjectness be created than witness the real thing.
If one of our intrepid, Machiavellian contestants could make it out of one of these places alive, they would deserve the million dollars. Which raises the question: what is TRUE survival? Is it being shipped via private jet courtesy of CBS studios to some tropical paradise and hanging out for several weeks while cameras watched your every move? Is it getting voted off and making rounds on the talk show circuit and then, if you're lucky, landing a bit part in some B-minus comedy alongside an old SNL cast member? Is it actually winning the million dollars and, after thirty percent of it gets taken away by the government, getting to buy a new S.U.V., getting some massages and eating your weight in McDonald's? Is that survival? I think not.
Is this the best we can come up with? On one channel you have model wannabes eating worms and swimming around vats of cow innards trying to fish out sheep testicles with their teeth for a million dollars while on another channel you have some surgically-enhanced narcissists trying to score a lifemate as well as a million dollars. True survival is living with starvation, disease, poverty, crime, a disability, overwhelming social and cultural obstacles etc. and living to see the next day without succumbing to the perils and addictions around you. The person who deserves that million dollars is someone who makes it out of these communities intact. Not some office manager or stock broker or performance artist who took some time off of their day job so that they could yuck it up on national television.
Shows like Survivor are a true example of all the ridiculous ways in which the bourgeoisie like to amuse themselves. Their lives aren't really all that bad so they seek ways in which to make it more "exciting". Is Survivor the gladiatorial spectacle of our day? Is it a slice of voyeuristic suffering for the masses so that we are appeased enough not to analyze the current social and political issues? Is reality TV the new opium of the masses?
If you were really starving and if you were really homeless, you wouldn't have a need to go through it for entertainment purposes. If you were from an actual slum living in these conditions, you wouldn't need to be thrown on some island in order to prove how you could "survive". If our forefathers hadn't destroyed ninety percent of the indigenous culture when they settled this land maybe these people wouldn't have to go all the way to Panama to experience the dynamics of being in a tribe; the Survivor: South Bronx edition would have people placed in actual gangs.
Moreover, Survivor celebrates the absolute worst in people. Instead of encouraging contestants to band together in the face of adversity and build a solid, supportive community, they are pitted against one another in true Lord of the Flies style. Survivor is a microcosm of avarice, which is not only celebrated but also rewarded. You get a million dollars for being the biggest back-stabbing jerk you can be! I propose a another "twist", I propose a million dollars be rewarded to the viewer who survives yet another ridiculous season of Survivor.