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How responsible is Survivor for its fans’ racism?

How responsible is Survivor for its fans’ racism?

The one redeeming part of Survivor 41, and the one element saving it from becoming one of the worst seasons in the CBS show’s history, is its cast. They’re some of the most dynamic players to play the game, and they’ve deftly navigated the mindbogglingly dumb hodgepodge of twists and turns the producers have thrown their way.

Whatever is remembered fondly about this season will be because of—and it will be—these 18 people: Eric, Sara, David, Brad, JD, Genie, Sydney, Tiffany, Naseer, Evvie, Shan, Liana, and the final six, Danny, Deshawn, Erika, Heather, Ricard, and Xander.

They’ve provided entertainment while navigating the game and each other: the complex partnership between Shan and Ricard; Xander being the sole remaining survivor of his tribe; Evvie’s strategizing, Naseer’s resourcefulness, Sydney’s ego; overeager JD and bumbling Brad.

Their game moves haven’t always been perfect—of course!—and there’s a lot to discuss about some of their decisions, but that’s a key part of what made the show so engaging since Survivor: Borneo.

Yet some Survivor fans are furious at the show and the cast, and there’s a simple reason: racism and bigotry.

All you have to do is look at the Survivor page on Facebook to see how much racism there is in the fanbase, both overt and implicit. While abuse of reality show cast members on the Internet is, sadly, nothing new, what some members of this cast are experiencing is particularly violent.

The vile explicitly racist comments are disturbing but easier to dismiss; it’s the implicit ones that pile up and may go unnoticed.

Those implicitly racist comments range from comments about the attractiveness of this season’s players to people dismissing this season as “political” or “woke political correct BS” (racism usually doesn’t come with great grammar).

They’re mad about having to hear about people’s life experiences on a show that has, since its very first season, shared its cast’s life experiences with us. Or those fans see the cast talking about their life experiences and somehow feel like they’re being excluded.

Then there are the fans who accuse the people of color in the cast of racism, because they don’t understand what racism is.

A significant amount of these sorts of comments have been directed at the Black players who formed an alliance. The comments come from fans who see four Black people working together and see that as an attack on white people, echoing some Big Brother fans.

The fans posting these comments threaten to stop watching Survivor, but do so publicly because what they really want is validation for their racism, even if they don’t recognize it because they can’t see past their own white privilege. (I recognize that because that was me a few decades ago, thinking racism was a thing of the distant past, unaware of how much I benefitted from just being white in this society.)

During her episode 11 Tribal Council speech, Liana spoke about the diversity of this cast, referring to the “the fan base that’s watching this” and how important it is that “they get to understand that Blackness is not this monolith.”

That is so important because that’s what Survivor delivered for nearly all of its 40-season, 20-year history, when white alliances were everywhere because there were a lot of white people, and, say, just one Black man, or Asian woman, or gay person. Those cast members were othered by default—and that impacted the game, with early votes against people of color increasing over the past decade.

CBS’s decision to require its reality TV shows to have casts that were at least 50 percent BIPOC was a first step in helping to rectify all of this, and to demonstrate that Black people, or queer people, or Asian people aren’t a monolith.

But what responsibility does it have for the way fans are reacting to this change?

How Survivor 41 screwed up

Jeff Probst, lower left, talks to the cast at the start of Survivor 41, when he asked them if he should retire his phrase "Come on in, guys."
Jeff Probst, lower left, talks to the cast at the start of Survivor 41, when he asked them if he should retire his phrase “Come on in, guys.” (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

Survivor did not create racism in our society, of course, nor did CBS, showrunner Jeff Probst, or executive producer Mark Burnett. They also don’t control who watches their shows, and fans are responsible for their own bigoted comments and reactions.

But I think Survivor has contributed to it, and in several different ways.

To its credit, Survivor has included open and honest discussions of race and the players’ experiences. CBS, via its social media team, continues to celebrate the cast’s diversity outside of the show, with posts like this one. But CBS is also allowing racist comments, so it’s just a tiny scroll from Danny’s quote to the racism.

On Facebook, it’s not possible to turn comments off—after all, Facebook profits when we’re all angry at each other—but it is possible to filter out certain words and phrases. CBS could also just do better at moderating—and if they are moderating comments, it’s quite ineffective. On Twitter, they could turn off replies, or hide the vile ones.

The show’s mistakes began in pre-production. The biggest error was to fundamentally alter the game of Survivor this season at the same time the cast’s composition changed so dramatically. Instead of trusting their cast, producers decided to to manufacture drama with twists that repeatedly undercut and undermined everything we love about this game.

Survivor gave its bigoted fans a clear line of thinking: this cast is ruining their favorite show.

The same thing happened during the first episode, with the absolutely inept decision to blame the players for a small change that Jeff Probst could have made on his own: dropping “guys” from “come on in, guys.” The change is ultimately so minuscule that most of us wouldn’t have noticed, but by calling such explicit attention to it (in two separate scenes), the show invited fans to draw a connection, blaming the cast for changes they didn’t like.

Meanwhile, the editing has been incredibly clumsy, introducing characters with long bio packages and flashbacks to their home life, instead of just letting us meet them organically. I appreciate getting to know the players, but the storytelling this season has favored exposition, and that feels like a lecture rather than character development inside a narrative.

Survivor’s errors stretch back decades. It has fumbled repeatedly, and been implicitly racist itself.

That began in Borneo, when the editing reinforced stereotypes about its only two Black players, Gervase and Ramona. When Gervase learned he’d become a father, for example, the show gave attention to his white tribemates critiquing his parenting behind his back.

Survivor’s casts have been more diverse than most other network reality shows, and in seasons 13 and 14, it even had the kind of racial parity that CBS mandated only last year. Yet for Survivor: Cook Islands, the producers divided the players by race, reinforcing divisions and creating a literal race war.

Meanwhile, producers and editors have opted to ignore how racism has affected its players, such as when racial slurs were used casually around camp. That was neither shown on TV nor prohibited in the game.

All of this comes from the top: CBS executives have for years defended and/or dismissed the racism and other forms of bigotry that has been a constant presence on its reality competitions. Despite insisting in copied-and-pasted press statements that they “do not condone,” they’ve continued to do not exactly that.

The message has been clear: This behavior is okay.

Fans have seen that for decades now, so it should be no surprise that there’s a wave of racism washing over this season from part of its fanbase. It’s grotesque but predictable that this amazing group of people would be the subject of so much hateful abuse.

At the same time, the racist reactions have made it explicitly clear that diversifying casts was necessary and the right move. But it’s only a small part of what Survivor needs to do.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

Discussion

I value our community at reality blurred, which connects people through open and thoughtful conversations about the TV we’re watching and the stories about it.

Comment rules: My goal is for us to be able to share our perspectives and exchange ideas in a welcoming, supportive space. That’s why I’ve created these rules for commenting here, and by commenting, you agree that you’ve read and agree to them. Happy discussing!

Sean

Thursday 6th of January 2022

I am a fan and have watched every episode of every season. I’ve seen the cast and the messaging of the show change and evolve over the years. The problem I had with this season was the way that some of the contestants of color verbally say that they trusted each other because of their race as well as gender. If a couple of white men had said that they would have been run from the show and chastised in society. We do not need to understand their perspective in order to solve racism. You do not fight racism or sexism with more racism and sexism. I guarantee that will not work. This is one of the reasons racial tensions are as high now as they have been in years.

Kenny

Friday 24th of December 2021

Season 41 was filled with racism, but it was from the players you liked not from the people that are tired of the woke rampant racism. Just imagine white people on Survivor put together alliances and voted based on race. That would never air, but it's okay for POC to do it. In fact, it's celebrated by people like yourself who are really the true racists.

The worst part of this woke culture is that it has destroyed a once beloved show like Survivor and the ratings reflect it. They literally lost ONE MILLION viewers during tis season alone.

You can say diversity was the right move, but in the end it will be end of Survivor because people don't like being reminded every second of someone's race, gender and sexuality is. You and others are trying to fix something that wasn't broken.

Some of the comments on here are ludicrous and delusional.

Andy Dehnart

Tuesday 28th of December 2021

No one on Survivor 41 voted based on race. Not one player ever said they should doing that, and no one ever did. Yet for some reason, you viewed an alliance of four Black players as an attack on white people. Why is that?

Nicole Mucalo

Friday 17th of December 2021

I think the new survivor kind of sucks, the twists and turns are good but, the amount of days makes the game seem too easy now for the contestants. It should remain 41 days. The game is more fun for the viewers who love and have watched the series all their lives...

Kay Brewer

Tuesday 14th of December 2021

Your article is so clearly one man’s opinion. And that’s probably what you intended. Even if you didn’t mean it to be a generic slur on white people, that was the result. IMHO. I’ve watched Survivor EVERY season since the first episode and looked forward to every season. I turned off my tv tonight during Survivor during Liana’s soliloquy and will never watch Survivor again. This feeling has been growing all season. I refuse to be taunted with ‘white privilege’ and guilt when I’m trying to be entertained. I’m not a racist and don’t want to see it being foisted on me during Survivor. The white people on the show were forced into a defensive mode by the producers allowing obvious and defined black alliances. A white alliance would never be defined or allowed. Jeff and his scared cohorts have put racial peace back by 20 years. They encouraged and abetted racial division. They should be ashamed.

BadMitten

Wednesday 15th of December 2021

@Kay Brewer, sounds like you've spent a little too much time with the dial on fox. Guess you can tune in there since you won't be watching survivor anymore. Toodles!

Ben

Thursday 9th of December 2021

Part of why I read the SURVIVOR articles at this site (beyond every other viable resource that used to address the show either dissolving or becoming a Bachelor(ette) fan club) is to get a perspective that isn't my own and to see if there is something I can learn from that other POV. Unfortunately, almost all of the things written here on the show boil down to the "if I had a billion dollars" argument, wherein the show should do everything the way it would if Reality Blurred was somehow put in charge of it. That's bad writing because the site is a passenger not a driver on this show, and its ideas don't work if they just land with a small amen corner that would agree with anything posted here. I'm not interested in lame conspiracy theories on important subjects and I'm not interested in them with regard to TV shows. So it's best that I return to doing what I did for the first 18 years of SURVIVOR's run, and not use this site as a resource going forward. Good luck.