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'Survivor': Why that 'wicked stepmother' speech enraged me

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Missy
CBS

Last night, three women made it to the final three on Survivor for the first time in five seasons—and Natalie Anderson, who was clearly the best player, won. (Read Dalton Ross’s recap here.) You’d think that might be a victory for Survivor fans who like to see smart, tough women triumph. Right? But toward the end of the season finale, something happened that so enraged me, I wanted to snuff out my own torch and use it to stab my TV.

Finalist Missy Payne was attacked, very personally and nastily, for acting in a way that’s supposedly unbecoming for a mother. (Her daughter, Baylor Wilson, also competed this season.) First, jury member Alec Christy criticized Missy for not being “motherly” this season. Then Reed Kelly delivered a particularly nasty screed, calling Missy “the wicked stepmother” of the tribe. You can watch his speech below:

None of this should surprise me. On Survivor, women who have children are often viewed as mothers first and competitors second. Patricia Jackson of the Marquesas season was called “Mama.” Players like Dawn Meehan and Denise Stapley were openly chastised for being unmotherly when they dared to play the game competitively or break alliances. Nicaragua’s Holly Hoffman, who sacrificed her own happiness for the benefit of the tribe by forfeiting a reward win, was praised for being the ultimate den mother. Can you remember any male Survivor contestants who’ve been so thoroughly branded as the tribal patriarch? I can’t. (Remind me in the comments if I’m wrong.) No one dissected Keith Nale’s level of fatherliness, even though his son was sitting right there beside him.

Maybe this is because it’s still rare in our culture to see men as fathers first, human beings second.

To be fair, the word “motherly” can be a compliment, and some Survivor players characterize themselves that way. When Boston Rob voted off Kathy Vavrick O’Brien, she said that she felt as if her own son had betrayed her, and Missy used similar language to describe her close bond with Jon Misch. I have no beef with mothers defining themselves as mothers. I’m a mother, too, and proud of it. It’s the question of who is branding women that way, and why, that makes me uneasy. It reminds me of something the writer Heather Havrilesky wrote about in a New York Times column called “The Mommy Problem”:

Why does this word irritate me when the wrong person says it? When my kids call me “Mommy,” I feel a surge of pride and happiness. “Mommy” is also my mother’s name, thanks to the fact that my older sister shamed me when I tried to switch to “Mom” in my teens. But the “Mommy” I say to my mother or hear from my children is a private word, a word that defines the relationship between me and my mother, or me and my kids. It’s like the word “sweetheart” or “lover,” but arguably even more intimate. It’s a word that feels awkward when it comes out of the mouth of a teacher or a stranger or a cable news pundit.

Or, for that matter, a Survivor jury member. Havrilesky goes on to point out that you can love being a mother and still chafe at being addressed as one by someone who’s not part of your family, because the term is “rife with contradictions”: “On TV and in movies and in modern fiction, mothers are frequently portrayed as protective yet focused on the trivial, wise yet neurotic, sexy yet sexless, monumentally important but deeply silly,” she writes. Worse yet, we villainize mothers for failing to live up to the standards set by the latter-day Donna Reeds we see on screen, even though those contradictions make those standards impossible. Mothers can be anything, we’re told, as long as they’re both that thing and its opposite, and as long they’re not any one thing too much.

This is a good summation of the double-bind that Missy faced on Survivor. She’s portrayed as protective of her “children,” both real (Baylor) and symbolic (Jon)—but maybe a little too protective, because she tries to shield Jon from getting the axe when he’s clearly the biggest threat in the game. Or maybe she’s not protective enough: Baylor often mentions that she went through three divorces and failed to shield the family from men who took advantage of them. Jeff Probst even introduces her as a three-time divorcee, as if that were integral to her character. From the very beginning, she couldn’t win.

In his screed, Reed insists that Missy is a wicked stepmother because she spoils her loved one by giving her more rice at dinner or a better place to sleep in the shelter. Making sure her child is well-fed and well-rested: Isn’t that something a good mother does? And supporting your loved one at the expense of everyone else: isn’t that what everyone in this game did? He also defines the wicked stepmother type as “the eccentric woman who comes in and makes demands on everyone for the things to which she feels so entitled.” Now, swap the genders on that sentence: There’s no better description of Reed.

Maybe it’s not Survivor‘s fault that Reed has such a twisted view of motherhood. Even so, it’s time for the show to stop devoting so much airtime—including a big chunk of the reunion—to rehashing unfair stereotypes. And it’s time for Survivor‘s host, Jeff Probst, to stop defending them. In an interview with EW’s Dalton Ross, Probst said that the speech was “well-written” and “beautifully delivered” and that Reed is “still a good guy.”

Just because she has a daughter doesn’t mean that Missy has to be a great role model in the game—though, in my mind, she is one. She came into this season with great ambitions. She betrayed her friends. And she dragged herself to the finish line in a cast, bent on defeating her rivals. That’s not wicked. That’s how you win.