Anyone who hasn't watched Survivor since the first few seasons might not realize that the show as it exists now is very different from the show that first aired nearly 20 years ago.
Perhaps the most meta-reality show on television, modern Survivor doesn't even pretend to be about outdoor survival anymore. Rather, it's all about the social gameplay, kind of like a massive, high-level game of Werewolf. Everyone on the show is a superfan, well-versed in the strategic intricacies of past seasons, and while some might still try to pitch Survivor as a "social experiment," the vast majority of viewers and players realize that everything is part of the game...at least until it's not.
A few times in the show's history, incidents have occurred that crossed the line of making everything in Survivor a part of the game. The most recent situation took place during Season 34 when Jeff Varner, a middle-aged contestant trying to avoid elimination, outed another player, Zeke Smith, as transgender during Tribal Council. The backlash was instantaneous, with players holding a public, unanimous vote (normally votes are held in secret) to kick Varner out of the game. Afterwards, Zeke insisted on airing everything on TV and worked alongside CBS and GLAAD to transform the experience into a teaching moment.
Now, during Season 39, we're once again witnessing an incident that transcends the gameplay of Survivor––except this time, the takeaway is much less positive. In fact, Survivor's foray into #MeToo territory is so uncomfortable and so disappointing that it might warrant giving up on the entire season.
In short, one of this season's players is a middle-aged man named Dan Spilo who, even in the most lenient terms, embodies that patently male boomer mentality of completely disregarding the wants and needs of women around him. As such, he touches women without permission in a way that some of them deem creepy. One of the female contestants on the show, Kellee, felt particularly uncomfortable around Dan, and she confronted him after he played with her hair. Afterwards, Dan took a step back from Kellee but continued touching other women around camp.
Kellee and Dan were put into separate camps earlier this season, but during this past week's episodes, the two camps merged together, bringing Kellee and Dan back in contact. During this time, Kellee bonded with another female contestant, Missy, whom she hadn't interacted with before. Missy confided in Kellee that Dan's touching had made her and a number of other female players uncomfortable, too. Kellee also spoke to Janet, an older female contestant who had been allied with Dan in-game but who also viewed herself as a mama bear, of sorts. Janet was incredibly empathetic, and promised Kellee that if she saw Dan doing anything around camp, she would confront him.
Missy (left) and Kellee (right)CBS
Kellee went on to give an incredibly emotional one-on-one with the camera, addressing the real-world machinations that prevent women from speaking up:
"It's super upsetting, because it's like you can't do anything about it. There are always consequences for standing up. This happens in real life, in work settings, in school. You can't say anything because it's going to affect your upward trajectory. It's going to affect how people look at you.
"The fact that it makes me, Lauren, Elizabeth, Missy, Molly—it made all of us uncomfortable. This isn't just one person. It's 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.' He's literally done these things to five different women in this game. That sucks. That totally, totally sucks."
Even though player one-on-one's with the camera are always presented as the player monologuing, the show broke form and aired the producer's response. He asks Kellee if she wants him to get involved. She says that she thinks the tribe can handle it on their own, but the producer gets involved anyways, contacting CBS, which ultimately results in Dan receiving an official warning to stop touching women without permission.
Unfortunately, during this time, Missy and another female player, Elizabeth, met up together and conspired to play up their feelings about Dan for an in-game advantage. During this time, despite the fact that both of them had complained about Dan's touchiness in the past, they essentially admitted that neither of them really actually cared, but they could use Kellee's emotions for an in-game advantage.
The situation ultimately plays out with Missy and Elizabeth siding with Dan and rallying a majority of the tribe against Kellee to vote her out. Dan's former in-game ally, Janet, votes against Dan in solidarity with Kellee and against what might be in the best interest of her own meta-game. So the following week, the rest of the tribe treats her like a pariah, too. At the following tribal council, another male player, Aaron, accuses Janet of playing a victim and also discounts Kellee's experiences with Dan.
Then Dan gives an empty, half-assed apology ("If Kellee ever felt that in the freezing cold rain, or in tight shelters…or in all the ways we have to crawl around and through each other in this game—if I ever did anything that ever even remotely made her feel uncomfortable, it horrifies me, and I am terribly sorry...I couldn't be more confident in that I'm one of the kindest, gentlest people I know. I have a wife, I have been married for 21 years, I have two boys, I have a big business, I have lots of employees"), and Janet expresses a desire to leave the game due to everything that happened, which ruined her life-long dream of playing.
It's all, quite frankly, disgusting. The whole situation makes for an incredibly upsetting two hours of television. You can watch some of it play out in the following videos:
Survivor - DISGUSTING Tribal Council On #MeToo Discussion Part 1 www.youtube.com
Survivor - DISGUSTING Tribal Council On #MeToo Discussion Part 2 www.youtube.com
Janet is right, but this whole situation doesn't just damage Janet's dream of playing Survivor. It ruins season 39 of Survivor as a whole. In spite of Survivor's reputation for devious gameplay full of double-crosses and backstabbing, the players tend to become genuinely close throughout their experience and stand up for one another in situations that transcend the bounds of gameplay. The Varner/Zeke situation is a great example of this in practice.
Now, here's a situation where a woman came forward about sexual harassment, and she had that used against her by two other women on the tribe who lied to her about their own experiences and then rallied around the man who harassed her. Moreover, the other woman who stood alongside her ("strategy" be damned) and stuck with her morals became an in-game pariah.
At this point, it doesn't matter who wins or loses Season 39. A few genuinely rotten players, namely Dan, Missy, and Elizabeth, have spoiled the lot. The whole fun of Survivor is watching people strategize against one another through gameplay and social manipulation, but as soon as it crosses the line into both minimizing sexual harassment and using that trauma against an accuser, the veneer of strategic gameplay breaks down completely. Instead, it simply becomes an awful reflection of how women who come forward about sexual assault are treated in the real world.
Even worse, Missy's and Elizabeth's actions have real-world consequences, as they give credence to a position often taken by sexual abuse deniers who claim that women often lie about assault, even though statistics prove how rarely that actually occurs (only between 2-10% of claims are misleading). They even went so far as to attempt to gaslight Janet.
Currently, Missy, Elizabeth, and Aaron are taking an apology tour on Twitter (in fairness, Aaron's apology does seem very genuine, and I have a lot of respect for his ability and willingness to take responsibility for his actions), but it hardly matters at this point. For many, this season is ruined. For now, the magic of Survivor has been broken, and the fun is over.