(WARNING: Contains spoilers.)
If you’ve read this blog for the last decade, I’ve often called out Survivor for their failure to deal with social issues such as racism. Wednesday night, the long-running reality show was forced to deal with another hot-button topic: transgenderism.
In one of the biggest blunders in the history of Survivor (funny this phrase is said every two years or so), Jeff Varner during tribal council told everyone present that fellow contestant Zeke Smith was transgender.
Problem is, no one – not his fellow tribemates or the millions watching at home on TV – knew.
Varner’s tribemates assailed him for his actions and rightfully so – the move to “out him” just to forward himself in the game backfired and cost Varner, as he was voted out of the game (rather quickly as I might add as he agreed to leave.) Varner unleashed a flurry of apologizes to Zeke and to everyone present, but it didn’t matter.
In the lyrics of Rihanna’s 2007 hit Take A Bow:
Don’t tell me you’re sorry ’cause you’re not
Baby when I know you’re only sorry you got caught
But you put on quite a show
Really had me going
But now it’s time to go
Curtain’s finally closing
That was quite a show
But it’s over now (but it’s over now)
Go on and take a bow
Well put and fits the situation perfectly.
The reason why Varner decided to “out” Smith because he believed there was “deception” in the game being played by his tribemates. He used Smith’s transgender status as an some kind of explanation. Smith didn’t want to be known as “Survivor’s transgender contestant”, he wanted to known as just Zeke. And Varner didn’t respect that and still doesn’t, no matter how many times he apologies.
Many people have criticized CBS for deciding to air the segment – yours truly thought it was the right call. The network stood by its decision.
There was really no way to avoid it; these segments are heavily edited anyway if anyone who watches reality TV knows. According to Reality Blurred, tribal councils take anywhere from 45 minutes to 90 minutes. And indeed, it was a teaching moment.
Transgender rights have been a hot topic in this country lately; in fact, Varner said he “fought for the rights of transgenders in his home state of North Carolina”; recently, the state legislature passed a “bathroom bill”, meaning you go to the facilities based on the gender on your birth certificate. The legislation cost North Carolina over $3 billion as businesses, the NCAA tournament, and the NBA All-Star game pulled out of the state.
Look, what happened on Survivor reflects what’s going on in the real world – even when the show is edited heavily to depict something else. It isn’t pretty – all you have to do is turn on Chicago’s local newscasts for the first ten minutes on any given day and see how many shootings and murders are mentioned – not to mention the despicable antics of President Trump. In an era where he and the GOP want to roll back rights against anyone who isn’t a straight white male, it’s important to address issues like this – even if it’s on a dufusy “reality” show.
Interesting to note critics complain about this, but not the racial stereotyping and violence on other “reality” shows – notably Bad Girls Club, Love and Hip-Hop and The Real Housewives of Atlanta. It is because Survivor airs on CBS? Or the latter two cable shows have predominately African-American casts, so no one cares? Good grief. Survivor fans can thank critics for taking a break from writing so much about “peak TV” long enough to acknowledge Survivor’s continued existence. Or not.
I’ve talked about how Hollywood and the local media business in general hasn’t done a good job in dealing with racism – using Survivor as a prime example. But the industry has made strides in recent years to address social issues if the “Oscars So White” Twitter hashtag is any indication. My criticism of Colton Cumbie stems from producers giving him so much air time spewing his racial crap with little repercussion.
But Survivor and CBS handled this well. It was a mistake Varner made and he paid for it. There was nothing exploitive about it.
The one thing I didn’t agree with was at the end, Probst – who talks too much for his own good – saying this tribal council was “a complicated, beautiful night that will never be forgotten.”
It wasn’t beautiful at all. It was ugly, and it was real. And it had to air.
The clip of the entire segment can be seen below.