The Tribe Has Tokens: The Influence of Casting on Alliances and Race Relations
Before one can begin to dissect how contestants fare on the island through the lens of race and gender, one must first understand how and why these particular people got to the island in the first place. Casting plays an enormous role in determining the tone and gameplay of the season, and the casting process may be where the race and gender troubles on the island begin.
According to an interview with Ken Raskoff, who worked in casting for the show for five years, the most important attributes the show looks for in contestants are “sex, humor, and conflict.” By “sex,” Raskoff is referring to sex appeal – people who look good on the island to potentially create sexual situations with other contestants, as well as look good to the audience members. While there are certainly instances of men likely being cast for their looks, it appears much more frequently for women. This can be observed simply by looking at most casts, which invariably have several gorgeous women who mostly fare poorly in the game. With women being cast to fill the sex role far more often than men, fewer women are set up to win the game. Of course some women who are cast for their looks do end up being great players, but when casting sets aside some female spots each season for people who are not supposed to be good players, it limits the pool of women who could reasonably win the season. As Sarah Freeman points out in her article, “The Cascade of Gender Bias in San Juan del Sur,” “This is a marketing decision, not an ethical one, but the consequence is that we end up with a lot of younger women lacking life experience, skillset or even the competitive drive to play aggressively—at least at the start of the game.” Freeman also points out that those slated as “super fans” – those who have watched and studied a great deal of the game before going out to play – are most often white men, giving them an advantage simply by understanding how the game works.
Much like how some women are recruited for their looks, type casting also matters in terms of race. If young women are often the “sex,” black women are often the “conflict” that Raskoff describes. As demonstrated in the data, black women fare poorly in the game compared to any other group, and there is evidence to support that this is in part due to the casting department looking for a certain “type” of black woman to serve as an entertaining character, rather than a viable player. The trope of the loud or angry black woman is a common thread in reality TV, appearing in almost any show in the genre, and Survivor is no exception. In Survivor: The Australian Outback, the second and most-watched season of the show, Alicia Calaway, a black woman, became an icon when she famously got into a fight with another contestant about whether or not they should eat a chicken at camp. Calaway’s oft-recited line “I will always wag my finger in your face” became a tagline representing the “sassy black woman” trope on Survivor, starting fights over nothing and screaming at other contestants. Since then, this type of character has appeared on many seasons, including NaOnka Mixon in Survivor: Nicaragua, and, recently, J’Tia Taylor in Survivor: Cagayan, as a woman who is impulsive, creates chaos, and often makes for great television, but terrible gameplay. A combination of casting and editing makes black women look like this, and creates a feedback loop for future black contestants: When production sees that this makes good TV, they continue to cast this archetype, and black women continue to fail. Similarly, when future black women play, even if they are not behaving this way at all, other competitors have an idea of how they will behave based on the actions of previous contestants who look like them, and may vote black women off early due to preconceived notions.
There are other racial problems that occur in casting regarding representation. The well-documented idea of “stereotype threat” – or the fear of your actions reflecting upon your entire group rather than just yourself – severely inhibits performance, and widens gaps in achievement between groups. Stereotype threat may inhibit contestants’ games on the island if these contestants are the only members of their racial group on the season, because they may feel that if they perform poorly it will reflect on their entire race, causing undue pressure that white contestants do not have to contend with. This is why Survivor: Cook Islands, and Survivor: Fiji are unique. As previously discussed, these are the only seasons that have equal or very near-equal representation of races, reducing the effects of tokenism and stereotype threat. Additionally, these seasons allowed for voting blocs of people with shared identities. As a result, the final four of both Cook Islands and Fiji were all people of color, and Fiji featured the only all black final three. As aforementioned, clearly the higher ratio of people of color increases the likelihood of some people of color performing well in the game. However, it is also a possibility that since, for the first time, people of color outnumbered white people, the ability for people of color to build a dominant alliance with each other informed the outcome of the game as well. Gender-based alliances are common in the game, so it stands to reason that, if given the opportunity, race-based alliances would form as well. This brings to light another inherent disadvantage that people of color enter the game with: While white contestants will always have the opportunity to build an alliance with people who look like them, people of color do not get this opportunity on a standard season of Survivor. First impressions are key on the island, as alliances are formed on day 1, and a large amount of research including that from the Kirwan Institute shows that “people generally hold implicit bias that favors ingroup.” In a game where alliances are formed on day one, first impressions can be crucial. White people always have the option of forming immediate alliances with ingroup members, as there are nearly always more white people than people of color on the island. On the only two seasons where people of color had this same opportunity, they fared extremely well, producing the only two men of color winners, which demonstrates the significance of being able to form immediate coalitions with ingroup members.
The idea of being outnumbered on the island is not limited to tribe members. As contestants Kass McQuillen of Survivor: Cagayan and Survivor: Cambodia described in her Ask Me Anything session on the website Reddit:
“The thing you don’t realize about Survivor is that almost all the crew out there are men. The cameramen, producers, sound people, and people in the field are predominantly men. Until this is more even, the women will always be outnumbered and feel the effects of having a 25 to 1 ratio. Most women, particularly younger women, are not used to being in this type of situation. Reverse the numbers and put 25 women running things to each male contestant and you will see a totally different scenario.”
This is an important point about race as well: Production is also predominantly white. While white men have the advantage of being constantly surveyed by people who look like them, women and people of color are observed by people who may view them as other, and may be hyper-aware of themselves in a way that the white male contestants are not. When one is placed in a scenario where he or she is “other,” one may instantly become more self-conscious than if he or she is in a homogenous group. There is a large body of research that demonstrates being more aware of one’s race or gender identity as different from the larger group impairs performance in tasks, and that this is most pronounced when race and gender becomes salient due to being different from the group. Therefore, women, black people, and most notably black women are disadvantaged not only by being outnumbered by their tribe mates, but also being outnumbered by the production surrounding them.
Who Tells the Story? How Bias in Editing Reinforces White Male Dominance
Editing is another important factor on the production side that influences the game. While unlike casting, it hardly has an influence on the actual outcome of the game, it has a huge effect on the end product of the show, and therefore can have implications for future seasons in terms of gender and race. The audience can only see what editing shows, and that means we often see a story in which white men are overwhelmingly the protagonists. In her discussion of Survivor: Worlds Apart, one of the shows ugliest seasons in terms of sexism, Linda Holmes claims, “This season has been almost entirely a story of men being unpleasant and dismissive of women. That either means they cast a bunch of women who sit around doing nothing and showing no agency whatsoever (which is a casting problem), or what the women are doing is not shown (which is a show problem).” This is not an unusual phenomenon. Not only does the show often not show women standing up for themselves in the face of blatant disrespect, it often doesn’t show women doing anything, even if it is important to the story line. Freeman too emphasizes the role of the edit in interjecting sexism into the show. When she speaks of “modern Survivor,” she is referring to seasons 19-30, though the point certainly holds for seasons before this era. Freeman asserts, “The inconvenient truth is that, in modern Survivor, a season with a male winner tells the story of how he won… while a season with a female winner tells the story of how a man lost.” It is likely that female winners are under-edited due to the fact that they play less aggressively, as there is a plethora of evidence that shows women are socialized to be less aggressive and take fewer risks. When women make fewer aggressive moves in the game, there is less for editing to show. However, there is clear sexism in the editing as well. This is evidenced most obviously by confessionals, which are the time that contestants privately talk to the camera, often to narrate the game and explain what they are thinking, how they are feeling and what moves they are making.. Women have the most confessionals in only 8 out of 30 seasons. Only four female winners have had the most confessionals of their seasons, while only five male winners have not had the most confessionals of their season. This sort of treatment of female contestants only feeds the idea that women are less interesting because the show does not tell their stories in the way it tells men’s. When women are obscured it confirms the idea that they are boring, and continues the cycle of putting less effort into casting interesting women, leading to less screen time. While women’s socialization may be a part of the problem, it is unlikely that nearly all female winners do and say less than male winners, and more probable that editing simply chooses to show men more than women, further demonstrating the production bias toward men – white men in particular, since the top 5 confessional-getters of all time are all white men.
It is not only women who often have their stories minimized by the edit. Dating back to the very earliest days of Survivor, people have taken note of the way that seasons 1 and 2 demonstrated poor editing of the few black contestants. As Tim Goodman points out in an article from the second year Survivor was on the air, the editors relied on portraying three of the four black contestants in the first two seasons as lazy. Goodman highlights that contestant Gervase Peterson is characterized as, “lying low, not getting into the work ethic. But that’s fine, because he’s being upstaged by Ramona [Gray], the other black cast member – clearly the lazy one – avoiding all work and whining.” Goodman notes that it is unlikely that they simply cast two lazy black people (which would still be a problem, but in casting rather than editing) since Gray is “a research chemist with a master’s degree in science from Howard University and a black belt in karate.” Goodman also stresses that Gray later claimed that she was sick, the edit just chose not to include that and chose instead to portray her as lazy. The stigma from this trope of season 1 carries into season 2 as well. Again, there are two black people. While Alicia Calaway, a body builder, originates the aforementioned trope in Survivor of the loud, confrontational black woman constantly starting fights, Goodman mentions, regarding Nick Brown, the only black man on the season, “Every shot Nick was in shows him sitting on his butt, doing nothing, being lazy. He will later complain, justifiably, about the editing. Despite his accomplishments, he’ll have to tell people he really isn’t a slacker.” These editing choices demonstrate that from the very beginning of Survivor, black contestants have been pigeonholed and portrayed in a negative light, creating a cycle for future casting as well as how future contestants view black contestants.