The Survivor controversy exemplifies how the show reflects society — for better or worse: Opinion
Jodi Walker is a frequent EW contributor.
The best reality TV moments often come when a series is able to reflect the audience’s world back to us a meaningful way. That is…not what happened on Survivor Wednesday night. While certainly memorable, watching Kellee and Janet be silenced and ostracized after speaking out against Dan’s well-documented inappropriate touching of the young women on his tribe wasn’t meaningful; it didn’t facilitate an opportunity to grow, or learn, or gain a new perspective. No, watching Wednesday night’s all-too-realistic reflection of why women feel disinclined to come forward when they experience harassment simply hurt.
This season of Survivor has put a big emphasis on how the series is a microcosm of the real world. Though that has always been central to the series’ concept, in season 39 — whether due to a diverse cast that reflects the real world more than ever before, or to nuanced social issues presenting themselves in ways that are indistinguishable from the season’s driving narrative — the editors have showcased that mirror to reality more successfully than any other season in recent memory.
This season, there’s been open-minded discussions about culture, race, and gender. And what’s been most heartening when those issues have arisen, is that the people on the receiving end of negative feedback — namely, Jack and Jamal — have thoughtfully listened and learned where it would have been much easier to become defensive. But on Wednesday night, that progressive growth hit a wall. At the end of the two-hour episode, as I sat in a state of stunned silence, feeling numb, cheeks wet from watching a Tribal Council that struck me full of so much pain for the two women who had spoken out in truth only to be hung out to dry by nearly everyone who led them to believe that they would be supported…
I realized with dawning horror that no meaningful reflection of Kellee and Janet’s awful experience was to come. Indeed, this episode was a microcosm of our society, but this time, in the most negative sense possible: just a sheet of two-way glass through which to witness with discouraging clarity the frequent injustice and disappointment of reality.
For a thorough gameplay analysis of the decision-making that could have possibly fueled Wednesday night’s horror show, please look to Dalton Ross’ in-depth recap. But the most basic facts are these: Kellee was made uncomfortable by Dan’s intrusive physical touching within week 1 of the game. Risking alienation, Kellee clearly expressed her discomfort to Dan, and for the remainder of their time in a tribe together, he seemed to lay off touching her. After the tribe swap, Missy, Elizabeth, and Lauren were exposed to Dan’s touchiness, and express to each other in a somewhat joking manner that it was over the top. Once the tribes merged into one large group in Wednesday night’s episode, Dan resumed touching Kellee in a way she was uncomfortable with, such as tucking her hair behind her ear and putting his fingers on her scalp as she literally ran into the ocean, telling him not to do that.
After the merge, Kellee and Missy, who had never met before, ended up having a two-hour conversation that included bonding over how uncomfortable they had been made by Dan during their time with him. Personally, I believe Missy first shared these feelings in earnest.
But two things quickly happened following Kellee and Missy’s conversation: First, Missy is told that Kellee plans to vote her out, so Missy begins plotting to use the distaste for Dan as a rallying cry to vote him out, when really, she now plans to blindside Kellee. To do that, they need to convince Janet they want to vote out Dan. Missy instructs Elizabeth to play up her discomfort with Dan’s handsiness to Janet and to “have a very open mom-daughter moment” in order to play on Janet’s instinct to protect them, creating a decoy vote; Elizabeth eagerly obliges.
Meanwhile, Kellee has been pulled aside for an interview where she gets emotional realizing that Dan’s inappropriate behavior toward the young women on the beach is clearly a pattern: “It takes five people to be like, ‘Man, the way I’m feeling about this is actually real. It’s not in my head. I’m not overreacting to it.’ No, he’s literally done these things to five different women in this game, and that sucks. That totally, totally sucks.”
And for the first time in Survivor history, we hear a producer speak out to Kellee on camera, telling her, “If there are issues to the point where things need to happen, come to me and I will make sure that stops.” After hearing from Kellee and Elizabeth about the discomfort — this is in addition to similar comments from Missy, Lauren, and (previously eliminated) Molly — Janet decides, “I cannot ignore these girls.” According to the title card that flashes across the screen next, the tribe is gathered off-camera the next morning to be “cautioned about personal boundaries and reminded that producers are available to them at all times.” Dan was apparently also “issued a warning for his behavior” individually, and the game continued as a result of those conversations.
Now, depending on how many teaspoons of ruthlessness you take with your Survivor, Missy and Elizabeth’s plan to get Janet and Kellee to vote for Dan could still just be gameplay…
But things get really, really bad after Kellee is successfully voted out. Janet comes back to camp heartbroken that Missy and Elizabeth used her own good will against her. When Janet tries to explain to her former ally Dan why she voted for him seemingly out of the blue, Missy and Elizabeth claim to Dan (as well as Janet and the viewing public) that not only were they never uncomfortable with Dan’s behavior, but that this narrative of him being inappropriate was purposefully misconstrued “by Kellee, by Janet.” In a matter of minutes, Elizabeth and Missy manage to not only gaslight Janet about Dan’s misconduct in the name of winning a game, but also to discredit Kellee’s legitimate feelings of violation after she’s no longer there to speak up for herself.
Even worse, when the next vote rolls around, Kellee has to sit silently on the jurors’ bench while Dan whines about how Jeff Probst won’t just let these pesky misconduct accusations go, while Aaron accuses Janet of victimizing herself and risking Dan’s real world reputation — because surely if anyone really felt uncomfortable around Dan, then Aaron would have known about it. Thank goodness for Jamal, who once again steps up to the Tribal-teacher-plate, clearly stating to Aaron that his reaction is exactly why women’s stories of harassment and abuse are often not believed once they come out in the real world: “We are not entitled to know things just because we’re men or just because we’re in power,” Jamal says. “You believe women if they choose to bring that up because it’s difficult enough to do that in and of itself—we have a responsibility to hear women, listen to women, and believe women when they’re ready to tell their stories.”
Aaron continues to roll his eyes at Janet’s anguish over “never wanting to create a problem with this platform,” and Missy and Elizabeth remain deafeningly silent as the actual manipulators of said platform.
Survivor is frequently touted as a social experiment meant to mirror society, but what it actually reflects most closely is a cutthroat professional setting. Contestants have chosen to submit themselves to this experience, yes, but they’re also at its mercy. Though Kellee was extremely uncomfortable with Dan’s repeated inappropriate touching, she and Missy bonded in that initial conversation over the fact that, just like in real life, there wasn’t much they could do about it without blowing up their own games. Because the fact is: speaking out against misconduct so rarely benefits the victim, and almost always has a negative impact on their forward trajectory in whatever arena it was where they were mistreated.
For Kellee, that arena was Survivor.
And the reactions of the people around Kellee who lured her into a false sense of security and protection are perfectly paralleled in the reactions that so often protect and proliferate the misconduct of those in power in the real world. From Elizabeth, it was: this misconduct doesn’t bother me personally, so it’s fine. From Missy: this misconduct benefits me, so it’s fine. And from Aaron: I didn’t hear about this, so it must not be true. Those are the reactions that silence Kellee’s very real feelings; that isolate Janet’s attempts to help; that keep Dan sitting on at Tribal while Kellee and Jamal are voted out.
Even knowing that Dan’s inappropriate touching in the shelter, on the beach…at the merge feast…at tribal while trying to prove that he’s not an inappropriate toucher by manhandling Noura without her consent…the list goes on…would obviously be well documented, Dan still felt confident denying that he’d done anything untoward, eventually issuing an “if I did it” apology that ended with him proclaiming himself “one of the kindest, gentlest people I know.” And perhaps just as bad, Missy and Elizabeth felt comfortable capitalizing on Kellee and Janet’s vulnerability to gain more power on the back of Dan’s misconduct.
That Dan remains in the game while Kellee was voted out and Janet has been put in a highly unlikely position to succeed is disappointing — but it is not in the least bit surprising. That dull sense of familiarity is what induced the queasiness that so many viewers seemed to feel following Wednesday night’s episode: even on Survivor, victims are held far more accountable for their harassment than their actual harassers.
Kellee spoke up, Janet stepped in, production offered protection, and yet, there Dan sits: very much still in the game, as chosen by a majority of his peers. Then there’s the added, equally nauseating pain of having to listen to Missy and Elizabeth admit that they exaggerated their discomfort with Dan’s behavior simply as a means of getting ahead in the game, not only validating Dan’s misconduct, but contributing to the conflated idea that women regularly make false accusations for their own benefit, and making it even harder for women to come forward with their true stories for fear of not being believed.
To quote Kellee in her moment of clarity: this totally, totally sucks.
If there is any hopeful point to end on, it is Survivor Nation’s resounding outcry against Wednesday night’s display. To most of us, it was clear that Kellee and Janet were backed into a corner that went far beyond the appropriate confines of this competition to outlast, outwit, and outplay. Manipulating a very real and vulnerable social issue may work in the short term, but when the whole truth comes out — which people like Kellee, Janet, and Jamal will make sure it does — it will almost certainly not make you the sole survivor in the end. And we can hope that aspect of this game might eventually reflect back out into our own all-too-real world.