There is no easy way to write about this episode. In any given week, I dissect the strategies and outcomes of a social game, evaluating the narratives and characters of an edited story. This week, none of that is appropriate.
I cannot treat this episode as a morsel of entertainment or pretend it’s just another instalment of the game, for that would cheapen something so real. Nor should I handle it too gently, as if it were a “Very Special Episode,” for that would rob it of its honest gravity. Nor am I, an Australian cis straight white male, in the best position to commentate the issues of LGBT rights raised at this week’s Tribal Council.
This was one of the rawest episodes of Survivor in the history of the show. It was gut-wrenching and horrific, and even though it managed to find a thread of hope, it was brutal. I sat shell-shocked as the credits rolled, lost for words. In the hours since its airing, the incident at Tribal Council has affected millions, sparked conversation and spurred commentary in the media from GLAAD to CNN and even to the news sites around the world. So much has already been said – what more can I say when I still feel speechless?
We often lose sight of the reality of Survivor. Between the storytelling and the colourful characters of its social experiment, it becomes a grand game of numbers. Its players become pawns on a gameboard or avatars through which we can vicariously live the adventure. When the show itself puts the word “Game” in the title of the season, it can be easy to forget that what happens on the Island is more than just a game to the castaways on the beach. To them, it is still real life. They are three-dimensional, real people with real strengths and real shortcomings, facing real decisions and real tribulations.
This episode, the artifice of the game – the challenges, Tribal Council, even the strategic manoeuvring – was stripped back to the barest bones. Instead, for one hour, Survivor turned its attention to the people on the beach. Whether it was the Mana tribe bonding over the shared experience of the toll that playing Survivor takes or the Nuku tribe’s intense Tribal Council, Survivor let these people be truly authentic, in all their imperfect ugliness and simple beauty.
It let them be human.
The arena of Tribal Council was designed as a forum where the castaways were held accountable for their actions. Rarely has that been more apparent than the unvarnished intensity of the aftermath following one cold statement: “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”
When Jeff Varner turned to Zeke Smith and launched that charged missile, the fallout was a comprehensive display of unfiltered emotion. Rage, disgust and pain. Desperation, disbelief and regret. Grace, understanding and empathy. Amongst it all, an unabashed portrayal of a colossal error, absolute dignity and inspiring support.
THE COLOSSAL ERROR
What Varner did was inexcusable.
His exploitation of someone’s private life as fodder for strategic gain was not only an incomprehensible social decision but a painful display of selfish ignorance. Zeke’s gender history was personal information that was his to do with as he pleased. No person should be subject to the theft of their personal agency and for Varner to assume he was entitled to use it as ammunition – and conflate Zeke’s decision to not disclose it as an example of deception in the “game” – was unambiguously wrong. I know I was not the only person watching who was filled with shock, anger and confusion that somebody could have done something so heinous to another person.
However, it is not my place to crucify a man for making a bad decision – particularly a repentant man. As the consequences of his ill-conceived words became apparent, Varner was flooded with remorse. It was tough to watch the realisation creep into his demeanour and see him walk out on an informal vote, head hung in shame. As Varner grappled with the gravity of his irreversible actions, his anguish was palpable. Such raw regret is rarely seen on Survivor, but it is a normal human experience. Who among us has not said something only to instantly regret ever uttering a word?
In Survivor history, the perpetrator of vicious acts is generally painted as a complete villain. It could have been easy for CBS to paint Varner as an unlikable enemy in his run on Game Changers. But they didn’t – they showed him cracking jokes and being the engaging narrator that earned him a place on this cast. In doing so, Survivor took Varner’s actions at tonight’s Tribal Council and allowed them to show the imperfection of ourselves. Even good people can make bad choices; even good people can do something to harm another; even good people are capable of vile and despicable acts.
It’s ugly, and it’s human.
THE ABSOLUTE DIGNITY
At the other end of the spectrum, in the face of his non-consensual outing, Zeke showed an almost unfathomable level of maturity. Hurt by someone he’d considered a friend he had every right to respond in anger. If he had gotten down in the mud, it would be hard even to condemn such a reaction. But rather, Zeke fought Varner’s accusation with dignity.
It takes a lot of courage to absorb an attack and not respond in kind. It takes something else entirely to transform that pain into positivity. Zeke’s ability to look for “the greater good,” hoping that his brutal personal experience could encourage others, set an empowering example. There is light even in the darkest of places.
It is difficult to sum up Zeke’s response any better than in his own words. His eloquence, particularly in the aftershock, was admirable, as was his willingness to transcend the vicious nature of the situation. As he pointed out himself, Zeke did not want one aspect of himself – his gender history as a trans man – to overshadow the rest of his identity. Similarly, he did not permit a singularly awful experience to define his story.
He had wanted to be Zeke the Survivor Player, not Zeke the Trans Person, and he wasn’t going to let himself become Zeke the Victim. In his own words, “I don’t even need a cheerleader because I know I can do whatever I want.” He’d shown who he was over the course of two seasons of Survivor, and nothing was going to take that away from him.
Zeke endured this traumatic personal attack with confidence that few could muster. Contrasting Varner’s behaviours that showed the darker sides of human nature, Zeke demonstrated a human capacity for understanding and strength. Zeke is a flawed human being like the rest of us, but just as people can be capable of cruelty, so they can also be capable of grace.
THE INSPIRING SUPPORT
The examination of real human emotion did not stop with the dichotomy between Varner and Zeke. For many, the most empowering aspect of this emotional episode was the reactions of the remainder of the Nuku tribe in the wake of Varner’s comments. Bad behaviour on Survivor has often gone unpunished by the players who become bystanders unwilling to speak up for somebody else. It was downright inspiring to see Andrea, Debbie, Ozzy, Sarah and Tai all jump to voice their support for Zeke.
The initial reaction of shock and anger came from all sides. Ozzy condemned Varner’s weaponisation of private information, “You’re playing with people’s lives at this point.” Andrea, Debbie and Tai all passionately defended Zeke’s right to disclose his personal life at his own discretion. The point is especially impactful for Tai: “I have a particularly strong stance. Whenever you want to come out as a gay person, as transgender – it’s your choice. Nobody should out anybody.” Sarah, meanwhile, refused to allow Varner to backpedal on his reasoning that even if he’d assumed Zeke was out and proud in his personal life, Varner had still violated Zeke’s privacy by outing him to the tribe. It was a unanimous vote of support for a man unjustly attacked out of the blue, and it was encouraging to see every single member of the tribe respond in kind, and in their own personal way.
Sarah’s epiphany was a compelling moment. As a conservative with little exposure in her daily life to the LGBT community, she recognised that her worldview was being reshaped without her even realising it. She had formed an honest friendship with someone who happened to be trans – and that revelation had not changed her opinion of him. It was an honest reaction that demonstrated that compassion knows no bounds.
Nuku’s emotional response to a betrayal of a friend and fellow human being was visceral, but it was also encouraging to see Andrea and Tai empathise with Varner as he apologised for the unintended cruelty of his actions. Although they maintained that he had stepped way over the line and didn’t let him off the hook for what he’d done, they didn’t allow it to lead to the vilification of someone who had recognised their error.
The Nuku tribe’s response was an overwhelming, beautiful mosaic of human empathy. Perhaps the most important response from the tribe was their assurance to Zeke that learning of his trans identity did not colour their perception of who he was to them. He was still Zeke – no more, no less. In a world so divided by hatred and anger, how encouraging it was to see a vibrant example of love victorious.
Survivor is not a show that tends to preach morality, but the events of this emotionally-charged episode cannot help but speak volumes. The episode is a significant touchstone in the current cultural climate and has sparked both awareness and support for trans rights. I commend Survivor production – and Jeff Probst – for handling this topic with such care and respect and for enabling positive change to arise from something so awful.
But this hour of Survivor also digs into a universal experience, challenging us to face the truths of our own reality: the ease with which we can hurt each other; how dignity can inspire strength; the power of empathy and support for our fellow people.
These truths are for all of us. All genders, all races, all sexualities, all ages, all peoples.
In the end, we’re all human.