In a Moment of Self-Awareness, 'Survivor' Set a New Standard for Reality TV

Justin Kirkland
Photo credit: CBS

From Esquire

Photo credit: CBS

On the fortieth season finale of Survivor, a jury of past players awarded the prize of two million dollars to veteran contestant Tony Vlachos, a frenetic and mostly likable cop from New Jersey. But it wasn't Tony's coronation that proved to be the episode's crowning achievement. Instead, it was a conversation that came at the top of the three-hour finale. In a rare moment of reflection, the long-running series discussed how the game has been riddled with gender bias. Finalist Sarah Lacina—herself a police officer, but from Iowa—addressed the dynamics of the series, how they highlight the biases held against dominant women. And it cracked open a conversation that resonates far beyond the series.

Survivor pioneered America's obsession with reality television. While the shows that followed it rarely delved into actual reality, Survivor has, in recent years at least, held itself up for scrutiny, comparing the behavior of its contestants with progress made in the real world, including sexual assault and the treatment of LGBTQ people. These moments are important because it involves real people—albeit in an extraordinary situation, marooned on a deserted island with a bunch of strangers competing for a cash prize—having straight-forward discussions about thorny issues. It likely changes more opinions than we realize.

At Wednesday's Tribal Council—where the players vote each other off and the winner is ultimately determined—Lacina said:

"If a woman in this game lies or cheats or steals, then she’s fake and phony and a bitch. If a guy does it, it’s good gameplay. If a guy does it, they're a stud. What it is, is it's a gender bias. And it holds me back. It holds other women back from playing the game the way we should be allowed to play the game, and it made me realize that for two years, I've been so hard on myself from Game Changers [the season Lacina won]. I felt like I was such a bad person, and I'm not."

Lacina's comments aren't unfounded. In past seasons, strong female players have met untimely ends, being dubbed difficult or malicious by fellow contestants. If they made it to the final vote—in which three or, in earlier seasons, two people plead their case in front of a jury of eliminated contestants—the numbers lean heavily in favor of men, no matter how you slice it.

Of all votes cast for a winner throughout the series, 62 percent have been cast for men. Thirty-eight percent were cast for women.

If the final three line up was man versus man versus woman, a man won 80 percent of the time.

If the final three line up was man versus woman versus woman, a man won 57 percent of the time.

The only time a woman was statistically favored to win was when three women appeared in the finale, which has only happened twice in the show's history.

Photo credit: CBS

Survivor touts itself as a microcosm of the real world. Certainly, on the topic of gender bias, this is correct. Lacina put that into sharp relief with her honest and accessible breakdown. And it's why a show like Survivor, as silly as it might seem to some, remains important and relevant. Academic language about "intersectionality" and "implied bias" can fail to resonate with everyday people. But a Midwestern woman speaking plainly about gender bias can make can impact.

As the world slowly evolves and men ask, "what can I do?" the series gives an answer to that in host Jeff Probst: recognize the issue and facilitate a conversation. As Lacina wrapped up her comments, Probst weighed in. "Men have never had to deal with a lot of the labels that come with playing aggressively," he said. "Let me own my part. I'm certain that if I were to look back on all the comments I have made over 20 years, I would find the exact same bias in me... I'll definitely own that I didn't see it when Survivor started, and I don't think I even knew I was supposed to look for it."

While thought leaders and experts are important in identifying problems and shaping policy to address them, it's the straight-forward conversations in a series like Survivor that stand to change the most minds. The series is beamed into homes as people finish up their dinners. And it's multigenerational; parents and children watch the show together. What they're shown is a conversation among people who are somewhat removed from politics and entirely removed from cable news talking heads and Twitter vitriol. The conversations might not sound revolutionary, but they do sound like life, and if those moments help shift perspectives on how women are treated, then bravo to Survivor.

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