This season of ‘Survivor’ is tackling the social issues of today with varying degrees of success
By Craig Allan, Staff Writer
When it comes to reality television, Survivor is the genres biggest landmark. Started back in 2000, Survivor is the show that began the reality TV boom. While Survivor’s draw has always been the shows’ mystery and anticipation, one of the key facets of Survivor is the social dynamics of the people on the playing grounds. People from different parts of America, and different walks of life.
In the early days, Survivor really touched on these issues of different people working together. In its first season, homosexual Richard Hatch and the hardnosed Navy veteran Rudy Boesch came together to make it all the way to the final three. More recently, in season 13 the show started off by dividing the tribe into four racial groups of Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, European American, and African Americans. In newer seasons, the show has not embraced the social divides of society as much as they had previously. However, the new season of Survivor—season 39, entitled Survivor: Island of the Idols—has seen the show go back to its roots of social commentary. It’s handling of current issues, however, has been hit or miss.
The first such instance of this came up in episode six. During this episode, black male castaway Jamal Shipman was teaching his Lairo tribe how to do an African dance. While teaching everyone this dance, one of the other tribe members (Jack Nichting) wondered if Shipman was going to use his “durag” for the dance. Shipman was very off-put by Nichting’s use of the word. Instead of leading to a complication however, it lead to a very formal discussion on the issue. Nichting was immediately apologetic and showed sincere remorse for his mistake. Shipman accepted, saying that Nichting’s apology was a genuine one that would resonate with him for a long time.
Ironically, it would be Shipman who would soon find himself on the other end of intolerance. Shipman’s Lairo tribe was going to Tribal Council to vote someone off. In the Lairo tribe, there was talk of the majority women forming an alliance. Women’s alliances on Survivor are often plagued by harmful misconceptions about the danger of them.
While there are some presidencies like the women in season 16 Survivor: Micronesia, and season 24 Survivor: One World—where a strong women’s alliance makes it to the end of the game—such alliances do not occur often. Shipman stoked the fears of the women’s alliance by saying, “I work at an all-girls school, okay? I know the power of women when they get together and they understand their collective power.” Contestant Kellee Kim took offense to this and felt that Shipman was being sexist with this assumption, yet this issue was not entirely dealt with. The next incident would dwarf the previous and make international headlines for all the wrong reasons.
In the next two episodes (episodes 8 and 9) both airing on the same night, the tribes merged into one. Kim was reunited with someone she played with in the beginning named Dan Spilo. After reuniting, Kim brought up the issue that Spilo was touching her inappropriately in the game. Other players like Missy Byrd and Elizabeth Beisel also confirmed this, further confirmed by footage shown of Spilo touching the women inappropriately. With all of this, the women felt the right decision was to vote Spilo out. One castaway who was aligned with Spilo, Janet Carbin, agreed to turn on Spilo and vote him out just to make sure the women were not uncomfortable. However, it was Kim who would be voted out—due to Byrd and Beisel turning against her. When Carbin approached Byrd and Beisel back at camp, they both said that they had over exaggerated Spilo’s misconduct in order to distract Carbin from the real plan of voting Kim out. In the end the issue was abandoned by the show… but not by the audience.
This event lead to widespread condemnation of the show, with many outlets feeling like Survivor did not handle the issue well. Many say that Spilo should have been removed, and derided the move by Byrd and Beisel to use sexual misconduct as a game advancing strategy. Survivor still has a few episodes before its finale, with Spilo still in the game. Considering the reception the show has received because of this, the finale is a chance at redemption for the show… but it could also serve to add more fire to an already burning topic.
Events similar to this have happened on the show before—but those instances were back in the early 2000s’. In today’s world, these issues are paid attention far more than they were back then. The show has had a lot of great social moments in the season, but for many, Survivor: Island of the Idols has been tainted.