Survivor: 14 Years of Problematic Depictions of Women

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Venerable reality series Survivor returns this week for a 14th year and a 29th (!!!) season. Despite its longevity as top-rated show in a long-dominating genre, when I talk about my love of Survivor and Jeff Probst, the response I hear most often is, “Oh, is that show still on?”

Photo: Reality Rivals

Yes, Survivor is still on. And Survivor is still great.

The social game is fascinating, the challenges are fun, everyone is good looking, and Jeff Probst is one of the best counselors and hosts on reality TV. Seriously, when he talked down Brandon Hantz after a rice-pouring meltdown back in Caramoan, he diffused a tense situation that could have gotten yelly and violent.

But Survivor is not a perfect show. Probst connects well with men (and bros), but he doesn’t do as well talking to, or understanding, women. Survivor casts and edits women with strict and often unrealistic roles in mind.

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In a 2012 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Jeff Probst said, “There just aren’t as many colorful women characters in Survivor history. For whatever reason, we’re loaded with interesting guys. Maybe that says something about our casting process, or maybe it says something about how men and women behave differently in conflict.”

Watching any season of Survivor will reveal Probst man-crushing on Rob Mariano, Colby Donaldson, Brad Culpepper, and other buff dudes. Probst’s (and the show’s) treatment of female contestants, on the other hand, is consistently condescending, when it’s not outright sexist. So to paraphrase Jeff Probst: “For whatever reason,” here are the female archetypes of Survivors past.

The Black Widow

Photo: CBS
Parvati Shallow. Photo: CBS

Examples: Jerri Manthey (Australian Outback, All-Stars, Heroes vs. Villains), Parvati Shallow (Cook Islands, Micronesia, Heroes vs. Villains)

In the run-up to Survivor’s second season, Jerri Manthey was teased as the villain, a female manipulator on par with an evil Bond girl. Jerri had a kind-of-flirtation with Colby Donaldson, who is the natural-born son of Matthew McConaughey and Captain America, until they came down on opposing sides of the social game. Colby became the golden boy and Jerri became the evil schemer, plotting to (gasp!) manipulate her fellow contestants and win the game.

Parvati Shallow played her first season as a self-described flirt, but when she came back for a “Fans vs. Favorites” season in Micronesia, her strategy was to make friendships and alliances, exploit them, and play smart with people she could trust. But she also came up with the name “Black Widow Brigade” in Micronesia, for an all-female alliance that sent home a bunch of the boys and even convinced one of them to give his immunity to them.

The Crazy One

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Examples: Sue Hawk (Borneo, All-Stars), Abi-Maria Gomes (Philippines).

Sue Hawk delivered one of the most iconic Survivor moments in season one, with a symbol-heavy, grammatically horrifying, speech about rats, snakes, and denying a dying woman a drink of water.

Sue came back for All-Stars, but she quit following an incident when Rich, her ally in season one, pressed his naked body up against hers during a challenge. Rich was voted out in the same episode for unrelated reasons. At the next challenge, Jeff Probst bought up the incident by saying, “Richard Hatch, sorta being inappropriate. Anybody have any comments?”

Sue’s fellow contestants stared at the ground, saying nothing. Sue made it clear that it wasn’t “sorta inappropriate,” it was harassment, even if Richard Hatch thought it was funny. “I was violated, humiliated, de-humanized and totally spent, Jeff. It wasn’t sorta, Jeff… There’s no way I can continue with my emotions pushed into the ground that much.”

Probst, clearly caught off guard, fumbled with how to respond. “So, okay,” he said. “So, when you say you’re done with the game -- as in, you’re out of the game?”

“My mind left this game 24 hours ago,” Sue said.

One of Sue’s fellow contestants -- Shii Ann Huang, who is on the opposite tribe -- at least recognizes that the incident took place, saying, “I’m so sorry, Sue. I didn’t see -- I’m so sorry.”

Maybe Survivor treated this incident as best they could. Richard was already gone, and a boat was called in to allow Sue to leave the game. But the silence with which Sue’s statement was met is indicative of the response many women get when they report sexual harassment: silence and ostracism of the victim. To the show’s credit, they didn’t just edit this uncomfortable sequence out of existence. But overall, Sue’s depiction is that of a hotheaded Midwestern hick.

More often, the Crazy One is simply shown to be foolish. In the Philippines, Abi-Maria is manipulated into turning against her ally RC by Pete, the kind of dude who compares himself positively to Fight Club's Tyler Durden. The viewers are in on the joke the whole time -- Abi-Maria is getting fooled! -- whether we want to be or not.

The Ice Queen

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Examples: Candice Cody (Cook Islands, Heroes vs. Villains, Blood vs. Water), Kim Spradlin (One World)

Candice made good moves, but came across quiet onscreen. Until she returned in Blood vs. Water, that is, when she was edited as being a bossy ballbreaker, telling her husband what to do.

Kim played a winner’s game in One World from the start, the kind that took Boston Rob four seasons to learn how to play. But she did so humbly, quietly, and intently. She won handily, and we’ll probably never see her on that island again.

The Lazy One (a.k.a. the Beach Beauty)

Examples: Sarah Jones (Marquesas), Morgan McLeod (Cagayan)

The Lazy Ones are almost always young, cute, and skinny. It doesn’t help their energy levels when they’ve been living on tiny cups of rice for several weeks, but when Maraamu tribe arrived on their beach, Sarah Jones opted to be carried in on the raft that her tribe mates were paddling. Every season reaches a point where the conversation turns to who “contributes” to the tribe and who sleeps the day away, followed by a cutaway shot to girls in bikinis lounging on a bed of bamboo. Unless the camp is near a lagoon, in which case there is a cutaway sequence to the women washing each other’s hair.

The Adorable Tomboy

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Examples: Colleen Haskell (Borneo), Kat Edorsson (One World, Blood vs. Water)

Awkward. Funny. Strange. Colleen played the game in season one and never returned, saying no when asked to play Survivor again, but saying yes when asked to star in a Rob Schneider movie. Hey, the heart wants what it wants, right? Meanwhile, Kat crawled around on all fours when her cousin came to visit as part of the One World “loved ones visit,” which was … um … better seen than described. This is the one archetype I can get behind. More Survivor weirdos, please.

The Ostracized African-American

Examples: Francesca Hogi (Redemption Island, Caramoan), Candace Smith (Tocantins)

Okay, this is the most depressing one. Again, it’s practically a Survivor perennial. Aside from Cook Islands, the (unfairly maligned, in my opinion) season where the tribes were divided by ethnicity, it’s very rare to see more than one African-American woman in a single season of Survivor. Francesca has the … honor? of being the only contestant to be voted out first, twice.

In Tocantins, Candace proved herself athletically, but clashed with tribe leader Coach over how to cook the rice and beans. Time and again, there’s “just something about” the African-American women of Survivor that makes them an early target for being voted out.

Now, this isn’t true across the board. Vecepia Towery-Robison won her season, and Cirie Fields is a three-time player generally regarded as both strategic and very likeable. But, come on, Survivor contestants. Maybe stop voting African-American women out at the first opportunity?

The Mom

Examples: Tina Wesson (Australian Outback, All-Stars, Blood vs. Water), Dawn Meehan (South Pacific, Caramoan)

Mom-figures on Survivor have a pretty predictable arc. Either they go in the first few votes, usually due to “keeping the tribe strong,” or they make it deep in the game. Both Tina in the Australian Outback, and Dawn in Caramoan, made it deep because they were able to dodge early expulsion, then made strong strategic alliances. Tina won her first season while Dawn lost to her ally Cochran, but both received similar criticisms: that they were carried to the end and made no moves of their own. It’s an inherently sexist criticism, almost always leveled against women or minorities who are sitting next to white men, who are deemed to have been “stronger players.”

Which leads us to…

The Sidekick/The Goat

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Examples: Amber Brkich (Australian Outback, All-Stars), Natalie White (Somoa)

Only “The Goat” if they don’t become Sole Survivor, it’s become common for an opposite-sex pair to go to the end with the man presenting himself as the athlete/schemer/leader, and the woman made out to be -- either by her partner or by that season’s jury -- an unworthy coattails rider. That’s rarely the real story, since getting to the end in any configuration is a result of skill, luck, and good gameplay.

...and Sandra.

http://youtu.be/LNFFU9SWDM4
Examples: Sandra Diaz-Twine (Pearl Islands, Heroes vs. Villains)

Sandra has done what no other contestant on Survivor has done: She’s played twice, and won both times. She played the game that was best for her, going with the flow when she needed to, starting fights when she needed to, and letting others crash and burn when they just couldn’t help it. Sandra stands on her own because her gameplay, her edit, and everything about her is uniquely Sandra.

But the thing is, she’s not the only fully-formed woman to ever play Survivor. It just means that, to again paraphrase Jeff Probst, “for whatever reason,” Sandra played a game that defied the easy edit.

I love Survivor. It’s a rewarding and fun watch, even when the winner steamrolls their way to the end. This list is certainly not meant to represent the totality of every woman who has appeared on Survivor, but rather out how the producers and editors of the show frame the way those women are represented.

It’s worth pointing out that my favorite reviewers and critics who write about Survivor are both women. Sarah Freeman is part of a team that covers the show for RobHasAWebsite, run by two-time contestant Rob Cesternino, and she looks at the strategy behind each player, as revealed by their on-air edits and deleted scenes. Linda Holmes occasionally covers Survivor for the NPR pop culture blog MonkeySee, including a post that specifically tackled the sexism inherent in Survivor’s first Blood vs. Water season.

“I like Survivor,” she wrote in 2013, “but I cannot deny that having to sit through all this preening by bullies is beginning take a toll on my enjoyment, especially when I feel like the show and the host are on their side.”

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Survivor has had a lot of imitators over the past 14 years, but very few are still standing today. Survivor is a great game show, an interesting social experiment, and a living legend of reality television. Now all it has to do is live up to its own promise.

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