Survivor: Game Changers

J.T. and the Fall of the Alpha Male

Sarah Channon, who formerly posted as Sarah Freeman writes special feature blogs for RHAP. This feature, “J.T. and the Fall of the Alpha Male”, looks at the gender dynamics of Survivor: Game Changers.

J.T. and the Fall of the Alpha Male

I wasn’t planning on writing another blog so soon, but after last week’s episode, one thing really stood out to me: four out of the first five boots have been physically strong men. Of the ten men who started the game, the four oldest remain, along with two who have never been to Tribal Council. If there’s one thing you can count on me to have an opinion on, it’s gender dynamics!

This doesn’t have the uncomfortable political connotations of last season’s oddity, when the pre-merge saw only one man voted off but all the women of color had their torches snuffed. Nevertheless, it’s just as fascinating to me. A gender disparity in early boots more typically goes against women. Taking out quits and medevacs, seven seasons have had four out of the first five votes be women, and one (Fiji) went five for five.

Yet it’s not unknown for that needle to swing against the men. Game Changers is the fifth season to have four men going home in the first five votes, following All Stars, Micronesia, Nicaragua, and Cagayan. What stands out to me is that three of these are returnee seasons.

To be fair, Caramoan is among the eight seasons that targeted women early on, but that was largely due to a run of losses by the Fans tribe of new players. The other times women have dominated the early boots have been newbie seasons (with the quasi-exception of South Pacific.)

To generalize, the first instinct in the game is to keep your tribe strong. If you lose immunity, you vote out your weakest link in hopes of avoiding further Tribal Councils. Women are typically perceived to be weaker than men. However, most returning players are the ones who lost after the merge; it’s the individual game that’s preying on their minds the second time around, not the tribal one. This time, they want to strike against the threats first.

Cagayan had a similar effect for different reasons when the Brains tribe lost the first two votes. Rather than consider who was the weakest, Garrett led his alliance against David Samson, the ‘leader’ of the tribe—only for Tasha and Kass to pull the same move against him at the next vote. These players had been labeled “Brains” so they weren’t going to play standard newbie Survivor. They were going to go all in on “Big Moves!”, day one.

What we’re seeing this season is what happens when you get a group of returnees and label them “Game Changers.”

Of course, if this was simply about physical strength being disposable, all that should have happened was for the playing field to be leveled. We should be seeing as many women voted off as men, but we’re not. Why are men so much more likely to be taken out in the early days when the contestants are playing hard?

Several factors might be playing a role, and unfortunately for J.T., he’s a poster child for all of them.

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Go Big; Go Home

There’s a certain amount of legacy going on: J.T. and Tony were both winners, and along with Malcolm, have a reputation for pulling crazy upsets—especially when idols are involved.

One of the notable gender differences in Survivor is that more men than women find idols. Indeed, this season, all three idols so far were found by men, Tai is on course to find another, and idol-hunting was a key part of Tony’s strategy. While we know some of the women have looked for an idol, it appears none of them stuck with it the way that these men did.

There are probably many factors that go into why men have a better success rate than women, but my theory is that it comes down to risk management. The downside of looking for an idol is if you’re caught looking, it puts a target on your back—and if you don’t find an idol, that target could be fatal. Just ask Tony. The typical male approach is to look at the end goal and decide if it’s worth the risk. Yes, Tony put a target on his back, but he was a target anyway and had he succeeded in getting an idol, he’d have made it to the tribe swap.

The typical female approach is to manage the risk, i.e. look when it’s safe to do so. There are two women this season who have previously found idols: Andrea and Sandra. In both cases, they obtained their idols when the whole tribe was openly hunting, and nobody was being judged for joining in. Obviously, not every woman who has found an idol did it in such a constrained fashion, and Andrea’s group hunt was a complicated situation, but historically, the women are more likely to wait for the right opportunity to search, while the men throw caution to the winds earlier and take the risk of being caught.

This approach carries over to other gameplay. Speaking very generally, the male players are often the ones making the big and flashy moves while the women prefer to play under the radar. Just look at this cast’s history: there are a few Big Move female players, but the men have the lion’s share of those, and it was mostly women about whom we said: “Why are they Game Changers?”

As J.T. explained to Dalton Ross, he’s there to win, and you have to make moves to win. “Sometimes it works out and sometimes it don’t.” He’s not the first guy to express that sentiment; Another one-time winner, Tyson, shrugged off his Heroes vs. Villains implosion with the observation that if switching his vote had worked (i.e. booting Parvati while winning Russell’s allegiance), he would have looked like a genius.

Something else Tyson has said is that if he had to go up against anybody in a game of Survivor, he’d rather it be somebody who had won their first time around, because they’re used to everything breaking right. That is certainly true of J.T.’s first season—he worked hard for his win, but aside from a tribal challenge losing streak, he rarely experienced failure. Knowing he can do it, he keeps on swinging, ignoring his misses because he’s waiting for the hit.

J.T. was already on the outs and he knew the tribe was angry with him for the Malcolm vote. But he found an idol and Michaela was causing conflict. It took those two things breaking his way for J.T.’s confidence to be restored, and he gave no further thought to the resentment from the previous Tribal Council.

Conversely, two of the higher profile female players, Aubry and Sandra are playing more cautiously. Each woman has wanted to target the other since before the season started; neither has yet made a serious attempt at it. Sandra has kept Aubry isolated from the voting majority while putting out other fires. Aubry, who has played a sterling game of betting on the wrong horse, has quietly followed voting orders while plotting rebellion. In a way, she’s become Sandra’s Sandra… that person you can always get rid of later. In her online confessional, Michaela tells us that the original plan last episode was to vote off Aubry, but J.T. made himself too much of a problem.

So, swing for the fences or keep your head down? Both approaches can and have worked on Survivor, and both approaches can and have failed. Aubry’s hung on for that second tribe swap, but there’s no guarantee the numbers will break any better for her this time, and for all her patience, she may never find her footing in the game. Outlasting J.T. doesn’t mean she’ll be any more successful.

But I do think it’s notable that while J.T., Tony, and Malcolm have all had success with Big Moves, the one who wasn’t making them this time around was the one who’s never won. Malcolm sat back and let the game come to him… and as a result was never targeted by his own tribe. It was production’s Big Move that didn’t work out for him.

Why did the opposing tribe want Malcolm out over anybody else? Because he was a big, strong guy who could make moves and win challenges.

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The Alpha Perception

Caleb never got the chance to make a move, but he was on the target list too, even before the tribe swap when Tony wanted to include him in his alliance of threats—presumably based on physical strength.

When the tribe works together to win challenges, it’s to be expected that a physical player used to competition take a leading role. What’s curious is how often that extends to camp-life and strategy. It’s a common fan complaint that there aren’t more female leaders on Survivor, but your typical tribe automatically regards a man as a leader, usually the oldest guy who’s still a challenge threat.

Female leaders generally emerge when that demographic—the mature, athletic male—is lacking; otherwise those alpha women tend to seek their power behind the alpha male’s throne; those who don’t may get voted off early. Sandra, in this season, is probably the most notable exception we have yet seen to this rule, and it took her two wins to achieve that default respect normally accorded to a physically strong man.

Obviously, leadership always comes with a target, to the point that many men go into the game at least saying they want to avoid that role. Many of those can’t help but play from the alpha position or they have that position thrust upon them by the rest of the tribe. There’s an assumption either that they’re the most qualified to be the leader or that they’ll only be happy if they’re the leader.

With leadership—even perceived leadership—comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes resentment. Brad Culpepper knows a thing or two about that! Yes, Debbie’s the least reliable narrator out there, but there’s a reason she went after Brad and not Sierra or Tai. It’s the same reason Marissa and Candice went after Brad in Blood vs Water—or even why Natalie and Jeremy blamed John Rocker for their own loved ones’ demises in San Juan Del Sur. He fits the type.

To be fair, it was Rachel Foulger who instigated the FUBC movement after several days of observing Brad in a tribe. This week’s Codycast has some insights into Brad as a person, including his tendency to put his foot in his mouth. I can well believe that Brad can come off a little more condescending than he should, but that is exacerbated by his status in the tribe… and by his gender.

I think Brad is aware of this—perhaps in memory of his first time around; certainly his insecure appeals to Debbie were oddly endearing. I remember a friend once anxiously and unnecessarily saying to me: “Please don’t take this as mansplaining…” (For the record, as a habitually condescending person myself, I will never accuse anybody of mansplaining.) A lot of men are on guard against their own stereotype…. and some aren’t.

Plenty of statements that seem innocuous enough to a man will have a more loaded significance to a woman based on her personal experiences. Women returning to Survivor, having seen their edit and how they were perceived the first time around, are often keen to play much more aggressively and get recognition for their game. That’s why I cringed when Caleb’s interviews recounted how Sierra asked him to make his case for staying and he told her she was “just another girl”. I have no doubt that she was being patronizing as well, but if he wanted to offend her, there could be no more efficient way of doing it.

That’s an obvious example of tactlessness, but there’s plenty of opportunity for others. Debbie and Michaela were frothing with resentment over being sidelined in the challenges. Both women are alpha personalities who know they must take a backseat for the sake of their game, but it’s not sitting well with either of them nor can they hide that. Debbie is so extreme a personality that her over-reaction succeeded in rallying the rest of the tribe behind Brad, making him a more sympathetic figure in his tribe’s eyes.

The more self-aware Michaela did a better job, inasmuch as she only alienated half of her tribe, but the friction between her and J.T. (and Malcolm) had its roots in the challenges where the men would take the lead role—and, from all we know of Michaela, probably the clutch position that she’d like to have. It’s an odd situation where we and Michaela know she can be a huge asset in Survivor challenges, but her tribe has no faith in her, and she can’t seem to prove herself—her and Varner being so slow on the balance beam portion is probably what cost them the most recent immunity challenge.

Varner and Sandra, who aren’t going to take the lead in challenges, had a better relationship with Michaela. From Michaela’s online confessional this week, it seems that being women of color was a factor in bonding with Sandra. They’re different races, but Michaela feels Sandra understands where she’s coming from and admires how the older woman gets away with speaking her mind. Varner is also a minority, although I don’t know if Michaela is aware he’s gay. Whether his sexuality plays a role or not, Varner has a history of aligning with minority women (Alicia, Peih-Gee, and Abi-Maria) and of being entertained rather than annoyed by their conflicts. He’s capable of finding empathy for them and they respond to that.

This was not the case for J.T. and Malcolm, nor perhaps Aubry, though she tried. I don’t know whether there is some sort of minority divide here—either them not being able to see Michaela’s perspective or her not trusting them to—but things only escalated with J.T. (egged on by the incorrigible Sandra). Even Aubry thought he was being ridiculous to believe that Michaela had eaten all the sugar and licked the jar. (She didn’t realize Sandra was the real culprit, instead assuming all of them had been sneaking spoonfuls.)

Yet this talking point led J.T. to think that the whole tribe wanted Michaela gone, and things turned nasty on both sides at Tribal Council. J.T. probably didn’t intend the accusation that way, but laziness is a racial stereotype, which raised the stakes too high for Michaela and quite possibly others on the tribe as well, judging by the way Aubry took the care to describe Michaela in a much more flattering manner.

It’s a little absurd to say that J.T. was leading when he was in a minority, but his whole attitude that Tribal Council was one of patronage. He was confident in his position, speaking for the tribe, and scolding the insubordinate. Even when strategizing, he was remarkably condescending. According to his exit interviews, he was offering the original Manas protection at the next swap or merge, so that they wouldn’t be picked off by the superior numbers of original Nuku.

Unless he was offering a finals position with that, it was a poor deal, especially if the others realized he was closest with Aubry. Sandra and Varner could find his protection only saves them over Troyzan and Hali. At most, he might carry them to mid-jury before proceeding to the endgame with his best Nuku-buds.

Such a nebulous promise might have saved J.T. over Aubry, but never over Michaela who should be loyal to Sandra and Varner because she’s directly felt their support—and who might make herself a more tempting boot over them.

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Big Game Season

So we have players who want to play aggressively, and we have these big alpha male targets who are annoying them. You can argue the actual strategic pros and cons of these votes, but a lot of the time, players use strategy as a rationale for what they want to do, and there’s a feel-good factor in this.

Which isn’t to say that the strategic repercussions aren’t interesting. It’s going to change the dynamics of the jury for a start. Aubry and Tai received a battering from the alphas in Kaoh Rong’s Final Tribal Council. While there are plenty of alphas still in this season, a significant portion of the jury will be sympathetic to the betas and misfits of the game. I don’t know if anybody had that in mind when choosing their targets, but it’s absolutely worth factoring in. Certainly, we’re all but guaranteed a female majority on the jury now, though that’s not a predictor for the winner’s demographic. Tony and Fabio won after similar starts to their seasons.

There’s one relevant strategy that has been openly laid out in an online confessional: Sierra’s plan to vote out the athletic men as early as she dares in order to improve her odds of winning immunity later. That seemed to be a stretch to me when we first heard about it after Caleb’s boot, but now it’s only Ozzy left of the obvious challenge beasts… If he goes home early, that really opens the field up for female domination. (Zeke, Brad, Tai, and Troyzan could also win immunity, but I don’t see any of them going on a run of immunity wins.)

To make matters worse for Ozzy, he now has less value in the tribal challenges. He’s still an asset, but the other tribes no longer need somebody who can compete with the muscle and (perceived?) prowess of Caleb, J.T., and Malcolm. Fielding a team against the remaining physical threats, e.g. Brad, Sierra, and Andrea, is a much less daunting prospect. Ozzy might not only be seen as disposable, but his new tribe could assume they need to get him out before the merge, or he’ll sweep the immunities.

Of course, while an immunity streak is currently working for him (yet again), Ozzy is trying to use his social relationships to keep himself alive. I’m not sure how successful he’s being. He seems confident in the players on Tavua, but Zeke originally excluded Ozzy from the inner alliance. J.T. also talked about a hierarchy in the Nuku tribe that conflicts with what we have heard from the deleted confessionals… but the Nuku hierarchy has yet to be tested. (Though I’ll note that we’ve heard Sarah’s name in three different inner circles now, from Debbie, Zeke, and J.T. How she juggles that should be interesting.)

Brad is the other remaining alpha male (as Troyzan seems unlikely to regain numbers anytime soon). He’s becoming increasingly visible as a physical threat, but he’s also demonstrably conscious of his social standing and relationships. As I said, he seems to be in sympathy with his tribemates, though it’s not clear if that’s siding with Brad as opposed to against Debbie. Does Hali take “Blue Eyes” as an affectionate nickname or as condescension? How long will Sierra leave his muscle in the game? Online this week, Brad talked about how Tai uses his broken English to make himself seem less threatening. That’s not an option for Brad, but it’s a good sign that he’s aware of such tactics. Perhaps the antiquing and other eccentricities might be his path under the radar?

I’m also curious to see how Sandra will manage. It’s unlikely she’ll swap with the numbers this time, but Sandra’s used to playing from the subordinate position not the leading one, and she’s always made it work for her. On the other hand, her target also gets bigger with every big name that is taken down. It’s been suggested that Sandra was at least partly motivated to vote off J.T. and Tony so that they couldn’t take her two-time winner record, which I think is entirely possible as Sandra isn’t one to worry about the long-term ramifications of her moves. This time though… being the only winner out there could come back to haunt her.

That’s what it all comes back to: The players now have a taste for glory. You see it in the exultation of Mana’s secret scene, and in how Sandra and Michaela hammed up that Tribal Council (becoming every bit as patronizing as J.T. in doing so.) It’s exciting to be the person to take out a legend; it’s exciting to see the shocked reaction of the other tribes when you dare to vote off your strongest person… Now you’re a Game Changer.

While this can only escalate so far before we have no legends left, is it too anticlimactic to target Sierra or Michaela again? If the players are looking to put a trophy on their wall, they will be taking aim at Ozzy, Cirie, or Sandra. Maybe Aubry whose star was so newly on the rise at the time of the game. Or Brad who’s got the alpha status. I hope that sensationalism isn’t going to overtake common sense, but there are probably only two votes left before the merge—and the merge is not known for slowing the game down.

Whatever happens, this wasn’t J.T.’s game and perhaps never could have been. At least J.T. can take solace in the fact that he’s already achieved Survivor glory. For most of the remaining players, that quest continues…

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