Surviving Each Other: When Contestants Enforce Bigotry on the Island
Finally, it is important to acknowledge the more overtly racist and sexist tendencies that contestants carry with them from the real world into the game, and how they impact their actions. Some contestants have used sexual assault and racism to oust women and people of color from the tribe. In two early seasons, Survivor: Thailand, and Survivor: All Stars, sexual assault victimized contestants and destroyed their games, with few consequences for the assailants. In Thailand, Ghandia Johnson accused contestant Ted Rogers Jr. of grinding on her during the night. Rogers denied anything had happened, and few contestants believed Johnson. Johnson was voted out early as a consequence of being on the outside of her tribe, likely as a result of the sexual harassment allegations. In All Stars, original winner and frequent nudist Richard Hatch intentionally trapped and graphically grinded naked on fellow Borneo alum Sue Hawk during a challenge in front of everyone. Though many contestants claimed not to have seen this in the chaos of the challenge, the incident was so disturbing that it caused Hawk to quit the game, claiming that all she could think about was how her husband would react, and how embarrassed she was. The fact that Hatch is gay did not minimize the trauma Hawk suffered from the incident, though this trauma went unrecognized by other contestants in the game. When Hawk quit unexpectedly, Probst was caught completely off-guard, and upon asking other contestants for their reactions, only one spoke up to support Hawk. After Hawk exited, her tribe relentlessly mocked her, doing impressions of her and insulting her personally. Hatch was voted out at the Tribal Council following the incident at the challenge, but for completely unrelated reasons. It speaks to the level of trauma that Hawk suffered that she quit even after she found out Hatch had been eliminated. She could not live on the island with the emotional pain he had caused her.
Sexism and racism are weaponized in other ways on Survivor to oust women and minorities. In Survivor: South Pacific, contestant Brandon Hantz single-handedly convinced the tribe to vote out Mikayla Wingle, a young woman, for no other reason than the fact that she “tempted” Hantz to stray from his partner. Wingle, as far as the show depicted, demonstrated no flirtatious behavior toward Hantz whatsoever. However, Hantz deemed her “Delilah” and a temptress, blaming her for his sexual attraction toward her, and subsequently convinced his tribe to vote her out early in the game. This is not an isolated incident. In the early stages of the game, any reason to vote someone out is a good one, and often people will go along with it just to ensure that they themselves will not be voted out. Therefore, a man who has garnered the respect of his tribe can target a woman or a minority for no other reason than his own sexism or racism, and the tribe will comply because it is safer than allowing themselves to be on the chopping block. In Survivor: One World, Colton Cumbie developed an enmity early on for contestant Bill Posley, a black man, for little discernible reason to the audience. Cumbie hated Posley so much that after his tribe won immunity, he convinced it to give immunity to the opposing tribe so that they could go to Tribal Council to vote out Posley early in the game. At this Tribal Council, Cumbie told Posley (who is a comedian) to get a “real job,” and calling Posley “ghetto.” Speaking to the idea of tribe members remaining silent about injustice in order to protect their own interests, Posley commented after the season, “People were afraid to speak out against him, because they were afraid to have the target on their back next.” This is the power of being a white male leader in the tribe early in the game.
The structure of Survivor is certainly a part of the problems with race and gender in the game, but the individual actions of contestants in the game cannot be overlooked, and some contestants have even spoken out about it. In a New York Daily News article following the airing of her season, Survivor: Samoa contestant Elizabeth “Liz” Kim claims she was caught off guard by her fellow competitors’ attitudes, stating, “In this era, it surprised me very much that people can be racists. Being a woman of color, and living in New York, where everyone is so progressive, that experience heightened the awareness that other parts of the country are not necessarily as progressive as New York.” Kim was on a season with a particularly virulent racist, Ben Browning, but she was certainly not the only one to deal with overtly racist castmates. The show has cast many blatant racists. Some, such as Browning, were perhaps cast without the casting department’s knowledge that they were racist, as it is often difficult to detect that behavior in the casting process. However, the show has voluntarily cast players with public histories of racism, such as former Major League Baseball player John Rocker, who was well-known for his racist and homophobic remarks, yet was cast on Survivor: San Juan del Sur anyway. The fact that casting chooses to allow known bigots to play demonstrates that, as any TV program does, they value entertainment far above fairness for players of marginalized identities. When a player can weaponize bigotry to target a specific contestant, there is often little that contestant can do, as fear generally drives the tribe to go along with the person leading the charge. Intimidation and aggression through both racism and sexism are tools in the arsenals of white men that other groups simply do not have. They provide opportunities to isolate other contestants in ways that women and people of color cannot do, providing yet another advantage exclusive to white men.
Survivor serves as a microcosm to demonstrate racism and sexism in human behavior. It removes all luxuries and leaves people to their most basic instincts. This combined with the possibility of winning one million dollars causes contestants to behave in ways that they would not in real life for fear of social punishment. In society, many censor their prejudices for fear of judgment. For many, the promise of one million dollars outweighs this fear of judgment, and thus Survivor allows us to see racist and sexist tendencies in a more basic and pure form than in society. Despite these differences, the results on the island speak to those off of it. Much like many social movements, white women and black men fare better than black women. This reflects social movements throughout U.S. history. The history of black rights and women’s rights movements frequently exclude black women, most obviously in the cases of the 15th and 19th amendments, which granted black men and white women suffrage, respectively. The languages of these amendments are in terms of discrimination based on race or sex, though both excluded black women. Survivor parallels these problems with social movements being focused on one identity at a time, allowing black women to fall through the cracks despite their important contributions. Much like society, Survivor demonstrates barriers in terms of race and in terms of gender, but the most challenging and complex obstacles exist at the intersection of race and gender, posing problems for black women that cannot be seen if one simply looks at racism or sexism in the game.