Survivor and Cultural Control

I’m an off and on Survivor fan. It’s one of the mainstays of my family so I’m more often than not along for the ride. Recent self-imposed writing commitments have kept me from the show, though, so I only caught the final bit of tribal council last night (13 April 2017).

Summary: in the heat of defending himself, the tribe’s latest sacrificial victim, Jeff Varner, attempted to point out the duplicity of another tribemate, Zeke Smith, by outing him as transgender. This quickly escalated to pointing out that Varner had crossed a line.

Now there’s a lot that could be discussed and is being discussed in the context of the characters involved, the rights of LGBT individuals in outing themselves, and even what counts as “crossing the line” in a show built upon lying, cheating, and stealing one’s way to a million dollars. Go elsewhere for that.

My interest lies squarely with Jeff Probst (the survivor host), the producers of Survivor, and the way media frames our culture.

Survivor is a Reality TV series. The actual game takes place over some 39 days – no one wants to watch all that, so it’s edited to cover the time of a typical television season (around 15 hours). More than half the entertainment of survivor comes from a team which looks over the material they’ve videoed to craft interesting stories from it. This may mean just showing what happened, but it also means carefully splicing together selected scenes to ramp up tension, emphasize a rivalry, or hide the gaping hole of boring that occurred in the handful of days each episode covers.

This type of editing also occurs in the show’s trademark tribal councils. It’s made to look like these events occur in the 10-20 minutes the show depicts, but closer examination makes clear these are edited to have just the right reactions shown, cut out excess fat, and carry forward the storyline built up that episode.

But, again, this is a Reality TV show. Thus for all of this editing and story crafting, we are left feeling like we’re seeing real events and actual relationships. While it’s more akin to watching a scripted show than we’d care to admit, we emotionally feel like invited voyeurs into people’s lives. This adds an emotional connection that’s hard to remove oneself from Ostensibly, this is reality, because its pieces are real – questioning it would be like questioning reality. But it’s all still carefully crafted by the producers.

Ergo, that Tribal Council last night? The one where Varner outed Zeke? That actually happened, but the whole event was carefully edited. And so, the editors had a specific goal in mind.

Let me make clear that I am not a defender Jeff Varner’s actions. My opinions around transgender issues will not allow me to speak of things like “rights”, especially with our current understanding of that term, but I can say that any act which seeks to defame another without due and reasonable cause (e.g. pointing out a criminal or saving another’s life) is wrong, is sin. Varner’s outing of Zeke was specifically for the sake of defaming his character for the purpose of saving his own opportunity for a million dollars. There’s no defending the action.

As an interesting aside, it should also be pointed out that Probst et al. were complicit in this outing, or at least escalating it – Varner outed Zeke to his tribe and the crew of Survivor. Probst, in pursuing questions on the matter in Tribal, and the survivor producers, in editing the council as they did, brought this issue to a worldwide audience. I’m not sure of the conclusions to be drawn there, but it’s food for thought.

My bigger concern is in how this episode framed this issue. I recommend watching the Tribal Council to see this framing. The big fireworks begin around 1:40.

The scene has two major themes, both interpenetrating: The Emotional and the Societal.

Firstly, the emotional. This theme starts it all off and is unrelenting. Varner is first seen in turning directly to Zeke, combative, violent, striking in his words. Zeke is shown being confused and wounded. Fellow tribe mates are shown being shocked, hurt themselves, and overwhelmed. As the scene continues we see a backlash as everyone comes to Zeke’s aid. In the midst of it, we see Probst with a schocked face, unable to properly answer. Varner then becomes defensive, but ultimately falls apart, recognizing that he’s crossed a line. All this is boilerplate, edited and put together to ramp up that feeling of being shocked and outraged

The societal discussion really begins at 4:40. Probst brings in the “real world” – the response of the LGBT community. Probst has Varner confront how his own community, being a gay man himself, is going to respond to this. At 5:54, Probst also brings in Tai, another gay man, to bring his reactions forward. From his mouth, we get the defense of an individual’s prerogative in outing themselves. We see Varner start breaking here. In Andrea, at 6:30, we hear the voice of young innocent, traumatized in seeing this crime committed. At 7:33, Probst turns to Zeke, commending his strength then questioning him about whether being trans was something publicly known in his life, giving Zeke the opportunity to talk about how the game and these events have changed him and let him become the better man he is today. At 9:40, we get Sarah, angry and not accepting Varner’s apology. She speaks about how she has overcome the prejudice of her midwest, conservative life to see Zeke for who he is.

It all culminates, of course, in Varner being voted out by unanimous vocal decision. After leaving, Probst comments that this was a “complicated but ultimately beautiful night that will never be forgot.”

It’s hard for me to say there’s a “problem” here, but that’s the problem. This isn’t a black and white matter. There is a great wrong that was committed. However, it was used by the producers to promote a specific agenda.

You see, the episode has perfectly aligned the emotional and societal aspects so that to refute one is to refuse the other. The reason these individuals feel the way they do is NOT because of the act of defamation, but because of their connection to the LGBT community and LGBT rights issues – at least this is the emotional argument of the scene. If you feel that what Varner did was wrong, well, you should see that the rights of LGBT people are at stake and need to be defended.

Don’t point out logic here, one way or the other. This is not cold, sober logic. This is straight up emotional manipulation, rhetorical magic. Logic doesn’t work here. And really, it’s not the audience’s responsibility to see the logic here.

It is, though, the producers’ responsibility. And they know exactly what they’re doing. They’ve edited this scene to highlight this emotional connection, the logic be damned. Probst’s questions attempt to specifically highlight this emotional connection. The witness of Tai, Andrea, and Sarah highlight this emotional connection. The whole arc of Varner’s movement from attacker to penitent highlights this emotional connection.

In the end, the emotional mess is so tied up that you’re sure, at some level, that if you disagree with the view of the producers and characters, you must be some sort of monster.

And this includes believing that acts and lifestyles and procedures which go contrary to the traditional male-female dichotomy are perversions. In fact, one cannot make such a claim without having it transferred to the person involved, so thick is the emotional connections being formed.

I’ll have some more to say on this later. My own 21st century liberal brainwashing is giving me anxiety just pointing this out.


About Tomas

Catholic. Texan. Philistine. Teacher.
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