Question: When did Survivor get so woke?

Survivor has always considered itself a microcosm of society. I know this because Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst have used that expression about a gazillion times since this show went on the air in the year 2000, as have I. But let’s be completely honest: that stuff has tended to get lost over the years as the focus has been much more on hidden idols, secret advantages, backstabbing, and blindsides. Those are the fireworks that fans sign up to see.

However, all that has really taken a back seat this season to fascinatingly frank discussions that make me feel like I am back in my Sarah Lawrence College freshman seminar on Differences in Traditional Marriage Practices, Unfortunate African-American Stereotypes, and Dangerous Gender Assumptions. (You think I’m kidding about that seminar, but at the liberal arts bastion of higher learning that is SLC, that’s not so much of a stretch.)

SURVIVOR: Island of Idols
“I Was Born at Night, But Not Last Night” – Janet Carbin, Jamal Shipman, Karishma Patel, Kellee Kim, Dean Kowalski and Noura Salman on the Seventh episode of SURVIVOR: Island of Idols airing Wednesday, Nov. 6 (8:00-9:01 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Survivor: Island of the Idols has turned into Survivor: Island of the Cultural Exploration and Explanation. And it has been pretty awesome to see. That’s not to say I want every episode of every season of my favorite TV show to turn into an NBC One to Grow On PSA. (Unless it involves Mr. T, that is.) But every season of Survivor tends to have a theme in terms of how everything plays out, and if this season’s theme is working through some of these issues that are usually swept under the rug in our society and on the show, then that works for me.

As I wrote a few weeks back, I can’t help but feel that a large swath of America for the very first time heard the perspective of a woman who wed through an arranged marriage. Very cool. Then, last week, we were treated to a shockingly civil exchange about the perils of stereotyping African-Americans — an exchange that actually seemed to bring alliance partners Jamal and Jack even closer together. Again, cool. But perhaps the most fascinating discussion of all went down at this week’s Tribal Council, but for reasons that weren’t really even fully explored on the show. And just a warning to all that I am about to go DEEP on this, because I find all sides of it really interesting.

Okay, let’s set the scene: Jamal opened up at Tribal, saying, “I am very fearful of an all-girls alliance right now. Look, Jeff: I work an at all-girls school, okay? I know the power of women when they get together and they understand their collective power. And in this tribe, 4-3, we’re outnumbered.”

This rankled Kellee who responded that, “I find this idea of a woman’s alliance so sexist. It’s really offensive to be like, ‘Oh, the women outnumber the men. They can just take over.’ The amount of fear in Survivor about a women’s alliance outpaces the number of times there’s actually been a women’s alliance. Not to mention, we don’t talk about men’s alliances. We don’t fear men’s alliances. And yet three men have been sitting at the very end. And that’s not a thing. For some reason, it would be a thing for three women to be sitting at the very end.”

There’s a whole sub-conversation to have about three men at the end versus three women at the end — the gender disparity of which I delved into a few weeks ago, and I encourage you to click on the link if you missed it, but let’s stay on track and get into this discussion on whether it was sexist and offensive for Jamal to bring up the worry about a women’s alliance and think that the women might band together solely because they are women and then choose to vote among gender lines. Because on its surface, it sounds pretty bad, not to mention completely absurd to assume that women are incapable of thinking strategically or socially beyond that. As Janet pointed out, “To assume that women are going to bond based on gender is very negative. That’s putting women down.”

A lot of talk followed at Tribal about the seismic cultural shift that occurred thanks to the Me Too movement, and how that and Times Up have made discussions like this, that in the past would perhaps be brushed aside, now come front and center to have a more productive dialogue about gender norms and equality. And I think there is probably something to that. Again, cool.

But here is where the discussion gets really interesting, and this was barely touched on in the show. If you are bothering to read this recap, odds are that you have watched a lot of reality television. Lord knows I have. Way too much, in fact. In between Survivor, Big Brother, and Celebrity Big Brother alone I have sat, watched, and studied 62 seasons of this stuff. (I have no idea why my wife has not divorced me.) And here is a fact that as much as we want to ignore it because it does not fit into the narrative just presented on the show, we cannot, and that fact is this: The vast majority of talk on reality shows about women’s alliances come from women, not men. And it’s not even close.

I don’t think there has been a single season of Big Brother or Celebrity Big Brother in which a woman’s alliance has not been discussed by the female players in the game. (On the first season of Celebrity Big Brother, several contestants even talked openly about the fact that they would only award the winner’s prize to a woman, which helped Marissa Jaret Winokur defeat Ross Matthews). And Survivor has had multiple seasons in which women have talked about wanting to emulate the most successful and entertaining Survivor alliance ever — the all-woman Black Widow Brigade from Survivor: Micronesia (whose amazing exploits are recounted in glorious detail right here).

Just this season alone on Survivor, we saw the women on the original Lairo tribe talk all about the women’s alliance they wanted to form. Meanwhile, on the original Vokai, Noura openly discussed wanting to form a women’s alliance there. That means on both tribes there were women forming or wanting to form women’s alliances. I guarantee you not just from watching what happens on screen, but from doing hundreds of interviews myself both before and after the game that women talk about women’s alliances far more often than men do.

And then there is this: Let’s say you are a Survivor fan watching at home and you see the Black Widow Brigade, and you see the rock-solid women of Survivor: One World, and you hear talk pretty much every single season about the possibility of setting up a women’s alliance. If you watch all this, isn’t it natural that once you get out on the island, you would be attuned to wanting to recreate that or being worried about it? The players — both male and female— have been conditioned through viewing the show to believe this could be a thing.

Kellee is 100 percent absolutely right that there is always talk about women’s alliances and never talk about men’s alliances. That is a massive double standard. But the key question out there that was not really answered on the show is… Why? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy in the fact that the more women’s alliances are talked about on the show season after season, the more people watch that, and then when they get out on the island themselves assume they should also talk about setting one up (women) or being afraid of one (men)? The way we have been conditioned to think about this becomes cyclical when viewers who have seen this all before on the show become players and repeat the cycle.

And that is not the only way viewers have been conditioned to think about women’s alliances. One of the biggest refrains you have heard from both fans and onscreen from players that make it onto shows like Survivor and Big Brother is: Why can’t women’s alliances ever stick together? That’s an unfair slam that gender stereotypes women as being incapable of working together. For one thing, they can, as proved by the examples laid out above in Micronesia and One World.

But also, hardly any alliances — regardless of gender — stick together on these shows. An all-female alliance on this past summer’s Big Brother was formed immediately… and broken apart almost as immediately. And Chelsea told me that the women’s alliance on Lairo also quickly took a backseat to a different inter-gender fivesome. But you will find just as much dissension and defection in pretty much any reality show alliance, regardless of gender. Again, if people ever talked about “men’s alliances” they would assuredly break up just as easily.

Jesus, why am I still going on all about all of this? You probably just want me to make fun of Boston Rob and Sandra’s Tribal Council hot box so we can all get out of here. I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have brought any of this up. I’ve made this all way too confusing and muddled. I should have just let the show package Kellee’s comment as a nice simple female empowerment moment sticking it to the man for being worried about a women’s alliance and we all could have just moved on. But I wanted to go deeper. I can’t ignore facts, even when they are inconvenient. And the simple fact is that women’s alliances are waaaaaay more of a talking point among women on these shows than men, so to bury Jamal for bringing it up as a possibility is to also casually ignore the multi-layered reality of the situation (which we have already witnessed on both tribes).

But, at the same time, there also is definitely inequality in the way women and men are perceived and treated in the game, which again, we got into a few weeks ago. And Kellee’s comments were actually brilliant in a completely different way… which brings us to phase 2 of the discussion. (Phase 2 is shorter, I promise.)

Now, I could be wildly off on this. I am very impressed by Kellee’s game and could, therefore, be giving her way too much credit here, but allow me to post a theory, and the theory is this: Kellee was not actually all that offended by what Jamal said and simply did it to put him on the defensive at Tribal Council.

Again, I could be wrong, but we know Kellee was targeting Jack and Jamal and wanted to weaken their games as much as possible. To that end, she devised a wild plan to take out Jack by not only secretly giving Dean her idol to save him, but then still voting against Dean anyway to help inoculate her from suspicion in taking out Jack. That’s pretty damn cagey. So she’s gotten rid of Jack, but still has Jamal to worry about. What’s a way to put another player she wants to neutralize on the defensive and to perhaps weaken his connection to someone like Janet? How about calling him out at Tribal, and in a way in which he can’t really fight back? I can’t say for sure that’s what Kellee did here, but she seems smart enough and I wouldn’t completely discount it. And if that was indeed her plan? Like I said, brilliant.

Okay, last note about all of this. What will be really intriguing to see is if Survivor changes what they show us on screen as a result of this conversation. What happens if in season 40 the women once again all talk about forming a female alliance? Is that shown, especially after Kellee’s speech? Are women no longer allowed to talk about gender alliances? And are men no longer allowed to acknowledge their possible existence? I have no idea! And, to be honest, I don’t really care. But it will be absolutely fascinating to see how it all shakes out.

Okay, that went on for a while. But it was fun, right? Kinda, at least? Not particularly funny, so sorry about that, but social politics are nifty, especially when they are discussed in a healthy, non-combative manner as we’ve seen these last few weeks. The fact that we, as viewers, can still have these conversations while watching a reality show in its 39th season is pretty bitchin’. And, as 1980s era NBC would say, that’s one to grown on!

Okay, we’re going to get through the other odds and ends of this episode in just a second, but I do want to say a few quick words about Rudy Boesch, who passed away on Friday, Nov. 1. I was so happy the show honored him at the end of this week’s episode with his picture and a tribute card that read “A Survivor Icon. An American Hero.”

Younger viewers who came to Survivor late may not understand what a big deal Rudy was. As the first big breakout character on the first network reality TV show, he owns the title as first true reality television superstar. Viewers were riveted watching the often politically incorrect former Navy SEAL form an unlikely friendship with the gay and naked Richard Hatch, turning the duo into reality TV’s original odd couple. And “Me and Richard got to be pretty good friends — not in a homosexual way, that’s for sure” may just be the first-ever classic reality TV quote.

To think that Rudy did Survivor back when Survivor was brutally, brutally difficult at the age of 72, and then again at 75, is mind-blowing. (Both times he set the record for oldest Survivor contestant ever, which still stands today.) I was fortunate to be out there on location for his second go-round on Survivor: All-Stars. I got to chat with him for half an hour before the game and then watch his first three days on the beach. I was fanboying hard. And Rudy was just…Rudy. He never made a big deal out of anything, which was exactly his appeal. He did his thing, told it the way he saw it, and alway seemed mildly confused as to why everyone else found him so entertaining.

Fun little fact: Entertainment Weekly planned to do a cover for the winner of the first season of Survivor, but because we had to go to print immediately after the winner was revealed, we had to prepare four different covers in advance, one for each of the final four — Richard, Rudy, Sue Hawk, and Kelly Wiglesworth — in case they won. I still have print outs of all four, three of which never made it onto newsstands. That includes Rudy’s, meaning he will always be a winner in my house.

Okay, let’s get back to the episode!

Light My Fire
One hand giveth, the other taketh away. I just defended Jamal somewhat in that whole weird nonsensical diatribe above, so now I have to take him to task for being Mr. Bossy Pants when it came to making fire. He scoffed when Janet asked if she could do it, then keep trying to take back over when Kellee tried. To his credit, he seemed to recognize he may have overstepped, asking Jack, “Am I out of line?” (a question many men do not even bother to ask), but one can’t help but wonder if this was the seed Kellee was really reacting to later at Tribal Council.

Oh, he also mixed it up with Noura for taking what he deemed as too much rice. Noura responded by proclaiming, “I hate Jamal. I’m so over him. I’m over his face.” Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

Thanks, but No Thanks
FINALLY! Thank you, Janet Carbin. Thank you for not being swayed by the celebrity of Sandra and Boston Rob. Thank you for restoring strategy and patience to the proceedings at Island of the Idols. Thank you for making like Nancy Reagan and just saying no. (Whoa, two first lady references in two straight paragraphs? Get ready for your close up, Angelica Singleton Van Buren! And that’s even though you were merely the wife of the son of the widowed president and therefore had to fill in as First Lady. It was all worth it! You just got mentioned in a reality television recap in extreme proximity to someone saying, “I’m over his face.” Your place in history is now secured.)

In this week’s Island of the Idols visit, Rob told Janet that her lesson was about calculated risk, saying there were countless opportunities to apply it. The producers then took a calculated risk of their own, choosing to risk enraging millions of viewers by flashing back to the guy who was voted out on day 8 essentially winning the game by giving up immunity at the final four last season — something which the other voted-off people he bonded with on Edge of Extinction told him he had to do.

And I am going to take a calculated risk that there is at least somebody still reading at this point and welcome you to this week’s excerpt from Boston Rob’s celebrated tome, The Boston Rob® Rulebook: Strategies for Life. Unfortunately, the chapter that would be the best match up to this week’s lesson, “Be a Risk Taker,” we already explored, so instead let’s delve into the chapter titled “Miscellaneous Stuff.” Here are a few of the gems taken straight from the book:

• Dress shoes should be worn to weddings and funerals only. For everything else, white-on-white Adidas Shell Toes are totally acceptable. So long as they are store-bought clean.

• Steak should be cooked at medium-rare to medium temperature. Never well done.

• Martinis and anything that’s served in a martini glass are for people over the age of 70. Or chicks.

• All types of pasta should collectively be referred to as “macaroni.” Never “pasta.” If someone asks you what kind of macaroni you want, then and only then should you get specific and say linguine, ziti, cavatelli, etc.

• Always carry your cash and credit cards wrapped in a rubber band or maybe a money clip. Never a wallet.

• If you’re a guy and you need to use the hairdryer, you need a haircut.

• It’s never okay to mess around with the best friend’s girl. Your best friend’s girl’s best friend, on the other hand? That’s another story.

God, I can’t tell you how much I wish those were actually the lessons being taught on Island of the Idols. I’m dying to know what the “macaroni test” would have been. In any event, the Robfather told Janet that he had a risk vs. reward game, and if she won it she would get a “safety without power advantage” that protected her from being voted out at one Tribal Council, but she also would not vote. But if she lost, she would lose her vote at the next Tribal.

In a remarkable feat of restraint, Janet did not jump in and accept the offer before even knowing what the offer was. And then she did something even more remarkable — she sat and actually considered her options. After weighing the pros and cons, she turned down the offer, believing that screwing over her alliance by leaving Tribal early would make her a target.

Super smart play by Janet. And super impressive she was not swayed by wanting to please the Survivor celebrities sitting beside her, as previous visitors to the island have been. (By the way, definitely take some time to read my mid-game interview with Boston Rob, where he evaluates the visitors so far and reveals his pick for the non-visitor that has impressed him the most.) So now, not unlike the way Janet flashed her tribe on the way back to Lairo, let’s flashover quickly to Vokai and see what went down there.

Sell Out or Get the Hell Out
Man, I thought we were past Dan getting way too touchy-feely with other contestants, but it seems Handsy McGee was back up to his old tricks, throwing his body over Elizabeth in the shelter while sleeping. Missy called it a “danger zone.” Lauren told her not to feel violated. My question is, did anyone say anything to Dan? And my next question is, would it even make a difference? We already saw Kellee have a sit-down discussion with him about it, and yet here we are getting close to Ted and Ghandia level uncomfortableness again.

Now down in numbers after the block-a-vote advantage, Lauren and Tommy figured the best way to stay alive was to band together and sell Dan out. “I’ll do whatever I need to do to make Dan look like a very, very sneaky player,” Tommy told us. The problem for Tommy is, the other side could see how close he and Lauren were. As Missy said, that made Dan “irrelevant.”

I’ll admit that I was kind of disappointed when Vokai won the immunity challenge that followed because I was quite curious to see how that was all going to shake out. And now with next week’s merge, we’ll never know.

A Puzzling Situation
You all have heard me say it a million times: None of the physical stuff in a challenge matters. It’s all window dressing, and all that actually matters is the puzzle. If you are faster in the puzzle, you will win the challenge. Period. And I’m usually right. But not this week.

In a nail-biter of an ending, Vokai — who went into the puzzle with a huge lead after shooting coconuts into a basket — won by mere seconds over Lairo in a season logo puzzle, and only because Lairo could not get their final piece to fit quickly enough. Those precious seconds Vokai gained by outshooting their competition gave them the margin they needed to win. So this is my very public apology to John Kirhoffer, Milhouse, A.B., and everyone else on the Survivor challenge team, and an acknowledgment that all their hard work in creating the coolest games on the planet not only provided great television but also made a major difference in the game. Look for my next apology in season 78.

Idol Thoughts
I’m fascinated by Kellee’s move to give Dean her idol. I’m fascinated by the way she came up with the idea right in the middle of a confessional interview. I’m fascinated in wondering if she did it because it was the last chance to play that idol and playing idols is more fun than not playing idols so she found an excuse and way to do it, or if she really believed this was her soundest strategic course of action because she wanted to work more with Dean than Jamal and Jack and it was worth potentially breaking up her Vokai majority heading into the merge to do it. I’m fascinated by the way she gave Dean the idol and yet then still voted for him anyway to hopefully keep suspicion off of her shoulders. And I’m fascinated to see how it all plays out back at camp later that night.

I don’t know ultimately if the move will be good for Kellee or not, and I do think there is probably something to the fact that she felt an idol burning a hole in her pocket and was dying to use it rather than lose it. That’s totally natural. But, as stated earlier, I also have a lot of respect for Kellee’s game and like the way she employed it while at least trying to keep her fingerprints outside of the crime scene. We’ll see if that works or if Dean blows up her spot by squealing to others about it, but it was a bold, inventive play by Kellee, and I’m into it.

Let’s also acknowledge Jamal playing his idol… for Noura!!! Noura, who was “over his face.” Noura, who had been gunning for him for days. Noura, who then returned the favor by voting out his biggest ally in Jack. Jamal had told Dean to vote for Noura, so clearly figured that’s where his vote was going and tried to protect his majority alliance. When he then saw two votes for Jack, that had to sting. Misusing your idol and watching your ride-or-die go within a minute of each other. Brutal.

But that’s Survivor! And next week’s merge means another reset. It means the deck will get reshuffled once again, and if the previews are any indication, it looks like scramble city will be in full effect. Speaking of things being in full effect, check out our exclusive deleted scene from the episode above. And check out our weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst. And check out our exit interview with Jack. That’s a lot of stuff to check out! And also don’t forget about my mid-game interview with Boston Rob. It’s 100 percent macaroni free! If you need even more, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

But now it’s your turn. What did you make of all the women’s alliance talk at Tribal. Should Janet have taken Rob and Sandra’s offer? And was Kellee’s idol play brilliant or the thing that takes her down? Hit the message boards to weigh in, and I’ll be back next week with a double-sized scoop of the crispy!

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