“Outwit, outplay, outlast,” could be the slogan for pretty much any game that’s designed to break down relations between its players. But it’s particularly pertinent as the tag line of Survivor, a reality competition that—much like Jumanji, without any of the magic or knife-throwing monkeys—has always been played at the expense of the participant.
Survivor, a show that bred a new, hyper-competitive form of reality TV—and has been hailed by critics as “the biggest game-changer in the past 20 years of television”—is, in essence, a showcase of resilience. “You are witnessing sixteen Americans begin an adventure that will forever change their lives,” host Jeff Probst said in a voiceover, introducing Season 1. The adventure Survivor promised viewers was traditional: contestants marooned on a desert island face playground challenges like walking through fire, building shelters from scraps, and starting fires with their hands. What viewers were actually witnessing, though, was a live experiment that rewarded those contestants who were unwaveringly able to play the dirtiest game for the sake of money.
So perhaps the sexual harassment allegations that have disturbed the most recent season of Survivor shouldn’t come as much of a shock to longtime viewers. This season, a group of contestants took the machiavellian gameplay that’s synonymous with the Survivor brand and expanded it to the kind of sexual harassment that’s increasingly not tolerated in an era of MeToo. In the eighth episode of Season 39, Survivor cast member Kellee Kim accused Dan Spilo, a player and Hollywood talent agent, of repeated unwanted touching over the course of filming. Kim reported that the incidents occurred both while she was awake and while she slept. Producers reportedly issued Spilo warnings about his behavior and didn’t address Kim’s allegations until a member of the crew also reported experiencing a similar interaction, at which point Spilo was dismissed.
The manipulative behavior, meanwhile, worked as intended. After two other cast members, Missy Byrd and Elizabeth Beisel, formed a false alliance by fabricating their own complaints against Spilo, Kim was voted off during a tribal council ceremony. (Byrn and Beisel later apologized for weaponizing sexual assault in order to progress in what is, at the end of the day, a fucking game show.) After the incident involving a member of production, Spilo was also ejected from the island.
Reality TV producers are notorious for choosing not to intervene in situations where they should. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: producers think seeing the worst of people makes for the best TV, in part, because it’s provided as the only option. And throughout the 39 seasons of Survivor—a show in which contestants are prone to sacrificing castmates, their own personal wellbeing, and any semblance of truth and reality—there have been plenty of opportunities for intervention. (See: Season 7 contestant Jon Dalton, who lied about the death of his grandmother to move forward in the game. He ended up losing.) But the ethos of Survivor is that contestants should do anything to win, which often involves inappropriate behavior that’s accepted within the confines of the game and away from real-world ramifications. It’s what producers group under the umbrella of “good TV.”
It’s understood that the best competitors in the game will do whatever it takes to win, and so it was only a matter of time before they began to feel comfortable exercising power over their compatriots in more sinister ways. In Season 8, Survivor: All-Stars, Richard Hatch, the winner of Season 1, charged, naked, at fellow contestant Sue Hawk. Hatch had a proclivity for forgoing clothing, much to the displeasure of fellow cast members. He was voted out that same evening, for reasons unrelated to his behavior toward Hawk; and Hatch was never held accountable for the incident. The following day, Probst meekly attempted to address the issue, when he noted that Hatch had been “sorta inappropriate.”
“I was sexually violated,” Hawk said, in response to Probst’s dodge. “It wasn’t sorta, Jeff.” Probst, seemingly not taking Hawk at her word, asked the other tribe if they witnessed this behavior, although Hawk and Hatch were completely obstructed from their view. After fumbling for a few minutes, Probst ultimately did nothing except ask that a boat be brought quickly to escort her off the island since she’d chosen to remove herself from the game.
Physical harassment isn’t the only low contestants have stooped to in an attempt to win the game. In Season 34, Jeff Varner outed fellow competitor Zeke Smith as transgender—an attempt to paint Smith as a liar who could not be trusted. Varner cited Smith’s decision to not come out as trans on the show as the basis for his elimination; in a rare moment of human decency, his cohort responded by eliminating Varner instead. While it’s great to know that the contestants on that season still possessed the most base level of humanity necessary, it’s also demonstrative of the way producers ask contestants to play, setting up an environment where contestants not only consider outing someone as a viable tactic but an executable one.
During a challenge on Season 6, Probst threw a seemingly ad-libbed extra challenge into the mix, offering chocolate and peanut butter to anyone willing to get naked while standing on a post several feet above the water. Jenna Morasca and Heidi Strobel took him up on his offer. And while their choice was consensual, it pushed the contestants to a humiliating scene in the name of entertainment and certainly entered into a grey area that left viewers wondering what getting naked for food has to do with the game at large. It’s also worth noting that many of the “grey areas” in which Survivor has found itself have disproportionately disenfranchised women and people of color on the show. (The last time Survivor tried to address broad criticisms against it, it was specifically regarding the show’s lack of racial diversity; this created, without hyperbole, a “race wars” season in which tribes were divided to compete by race for several episodes.)
Of course, Survivor is not the only reality show that fails to live up to moral and legal standards that would encourage contestants not to engage in misconduct. But it is a show that appeared reluctant to adapt and address the issues that have become cornerstones of its production, until now. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Probst said Survivor is learning from this season’s incidents and plans to implement changes moving forward. “It’s an unprecedented and unfortunate situation that is still very raw for a lot of the players and fans. We are all trying to learn from it,” Probst said. The idea might be easier to swallow if the show weren’t rife with 38 previous seasons of deplorable conduct (the verbal abuse hurled at Shirin Oskooi on Season 30, the bullying Christina Cha experienced on Season 24). As it stands, it’s hard to believe Probst, regardless of what was said at this season’s reunion. When you’ve created a TV show about who can be the worst, the host shouldn’t be surprised when the cast shows its worst sides.
Survivor has been relatively hands-off when it comes to addressing their cast members’ bad behavior, whereas other TV shows, like MTV’s The Challenge, have taken a slightly more proactive approach when it comes to abuse documented on their programs. (For The Challenge, MTV ran a PSA about bullying during a 2018 broadcast, which admittedly hasn’t solved all of the shows problems.) Other shows have been more responsive. In 2014, RuPaul’s Drag Race vowed to suspend the You’ve Got Shemail segment after viewers complained about the transphobia inherent in the phrase. More recently, Bachelor in Paradise instituted new rules meant to safeguard contests against sexual assault after production was halted on Season 4 following a sexual misconduct accusation between two contestants.
There is no dearth of opportunity for Survivor to course-correct. However, it’s also worth considering whether or not a game designed to celebrate the shittiest amongst us is worth watching, regardless of how the rules change, considering it’s the same game being broadcast on 24-hour newscasts, seven days a week. If the let’s-devide-them-by-race-to-showcase-diversity solution is any indication of the kind of critical thinking going on behind the scenes at Survivor, it might be a wiser investment to rerun old episodes of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in the 8 p.m. time slot.