What I Learned from the Couch: Lessons of Blackness in Survivor

Gia Worthy looks at the treatment of Blackness in Survivor.

Photo: CBS

The executive producers of one of the most popular and influential reality television shows in history should commit to featuring Black, Indigenous, People of Color (“BIPOC”) in their full breadth and depth. SURVIVOR should reflect and honor the racial diversity of our society–both in front of and behind the camera.~Excerpt from “A Petition for Anti-Racism Action by Survivor Entertainment Group”

With the resurgence in calls for more effective diversity initiatives in all facets of business and media, competition reality shows are in the spotlight as alums and fans alike are calling for change both in front of and behind the camera. We’ve seen some successes already, with The Bachelor casting its first Black male lead, and Big Brother Canada promoting host Arisa Cox to executive producer. Change is coming, and those at the helm of these initiatives want to know that this change will be sustainable. 

In the case of Survivora petition created by Cagayan alum J’Tia Taylor calls for similar changes. This petition, along with recent panels and interviews held by the show’s Black alums, highlights some of the problematic practices production repeatedly indulges in with their Black contestants. By 1.) Casting minimal numbers of Black contestants; 2.) Producing final edits that do not grant Black contestants control of their story, and 3.) Minimizing racial markers of their Black success stories, Survivor creates a final edit that reinforces the societal myth that success is based solely on merit, which feeds into non-BIPOC contestants’ and viewers’ implicit biases.

As reality programs continue to operate without addressing issues of race outside of extreme cases of unavoidable conflict, they fail to recognize the complex nature of racial dynamics in and out of the show. This shapes a false narrative that leaves people of color the most vulnerable to potential consequences. This quiet acceptance to not discuss race results in the repetitive, implicitly biased outcomes that continue to go unchallenged. If a person of color does suggest that their race may affect their success in the game, they risk being met with animosity by their White peers, as past incidents have proven. 

I write this as a biracial woman who spent the majority of her graduate student career studying Blackness in popular culture; specifically, Blackness in Survivor’s culture. But this writing is deeper than a school assignment because no term paper can summarize the legacy that Survivor has left in my life. I grew up as the show did, and found comfort in watching the highs and lows of my favorite contestants. More than anything, I write this as a Survivor superfan that has grown up rooting for the Black contestants she saw on screen and was disappointed every time one of them was voted off for being “the easy vote” or “just not fitting in.” Every Black contestant brought something special to the Survivor canon, whether they were first off or the winner. 

I write this as someone that teared up every season with a Black winner. I remember them by name, season, and even by the jury vote. Much like real life, Survivor operates on the assumption that all contestants are starting the game on an equal playing field, and the winner will inevitably be the one who worked the hardest for it. The winner of each season is the one most successful in balancing their individual goal of winning with the show’s premise as a social experiment. By this logic, Vecepia Towery of Survivor: Marquesas; Earl Cole of Survivor: Fiji; Jeremy Collins in Survivor: Cambodia; and Wendell Holland in Survivor: Ghost Island, were the best in their respective seasons. However, rarely does the edit show the complexities of maneuvering the game as a person of color. If/when it does, the season or even the winner themselves are undermined by critics, and even by host and executive producer Jeff Probst. 

If Survivor is truly a microcosm of today’s society, then the way that the show consistently underplays the games and identities of their Black players is proof of necessary changes that need to be made. Even when a Black contestant wins, we rarely see a final edit that showcases these Black stories for what they are, explicitly Black excellence. 

Laurel and Wendell
Photo: CBS

The first and most obvious issue with Black representation on Survivor is how they continue to cast minimal numbers of Black contestants. This is an issue that also extends to other non-White racial identities. All but two seasons of US Survivor have a majority White cast. Every season besides Guatemala has at least one Black contestant, but the numbers aren’t great beyond that season either. 4 seasons have featured one Black player, 6 seasons have three, 3 seasons have four, and 24 seasons only have two Black players in their casts. Special attention has to be paid to Cook Islands and Fiji. The only two seasons with all non-White finalists also happen to be the only two seasons where the White contestants were in the minority and had 5 Black contestants each. Then, after the all-Black final three of Fiji, they never cast the same way again. 

Despite the show’s attempts to minimize winners’ racial identities, all four Black winners formed alliances with at least one other Black contestant. This could speak to the importance of a shared identity when forming the bonds necessary to succeed on the show. The alliances Vecepia, Earl, Jeremy, and Wendell made with their Black competitors progressed far into the game, and all three male winners had at least one other Black contestant with them in their respective finales. Their choices and alliances are what inevitably separated them from their competitors as the winner, the one most successful in balancing their individual strategies with the constantly shifting group dynamics. Their successes on the show highlight the importance of forming the right social bonds, and despite the edit’s best efforts to treat this “microcosm of society” as a postracial one, race is a social identity that continues to be a component in that bond.

Second, Survivor tends to produce final edits that do not grant Black contestants control of their storyline. Production’s goal with each season of Survivor is to create an appealing story. One crucial way in which players contribute to this story is by way of the confessionals. In a game that is about deceit, confessionals are one of the few spaces players can speak honestly without jeopardizing their game. The more confessionals a player has, the more control they have of their narrative. The fewer confessionals, the more their storyline is dictated by how other players view them. 

Jeremy, Tasha, Spencer
Photo: CBS

Winning the game does not guarantee that a player will have the most confessionals, especially when the winner is female and/or a person of color. Often, their storyline is secondary to one or more contestants, contestants that are usually White and male. Of the four Black winners, Earl is the only one to have the highest confessional count in his season, with 59 in total. In Marquesas, Vecepia only received 38 confessionals, the fewest of anyone in the final five. Almost half of them, 15, were in the final episode. Jeremy received 44 confessionals in Cambodia, the same as Kelley Wentworth, and second to finalist Spencer Bledsoe, who received 56. And despite Wendell and Domenick being presented as a duo in the game, Wendell received 39 confessionals, and Domenick received 67, meaning how viewers perceive them is overwhelmingly dictated by Domenick’s perspective. 

While it is understandable that producers would not want to make winners too obvious in every season, they’ve had no problem making the White male personalities of Survivor front and center on a regular basis, be it through confessionals, chances to return, or the moments they choose to show throughout the season. Even when Black players win, just how much of a winner’s edit are they really getting? 

Finally, the way that Survivor has minimized racial markers of their Black success stories is nothing short of problematic. Given that the Sole Survivor is considered to be the person most successful in maneuvering through the show’s social dynamics, it is equally true that the show teaches us how the failure to adhere to respectability politics negatively impacts non-White contestants trying to succeed in a predominantly White space. Survivor’s final edit follows this line of thinking by consistently underplaying their Black contestants’ racial identities, except in cases of unavoidable conflict. 

There’s the episode where Sean Rector was voted out in Marquesas, where attempts to have a dialogue on race fell to him and Vecepia. It was Sean that was negatively impacted by his White tribemates’ colorblind ideology. There’s the all-Black final three of Fiji, which, despite Earl Cole’s determination to get the Black players to the finale, we never actually see any of them claim a Black identity on screen. What’s more, the bitterness of the jury and Jeff Probst publicly claiming to dislike the season means that Fiji, and the memorable cast that came with it, is largely ignored and forgotten. 

Sean and Vecepia
Photo: CBS

Black winners and fan favorites tend to be given colorblind edits in the name of being palatable to White audiences. Moments that could be considered culturally significant are ignored. However, production does continue to include stereotypical storylines for Black contestants that do not win, including portraying contestants as lazy, difficult, angry, inept, or invisible. Every fight and failure are showcased and highlighted for the world to see, and rarely do they provide a counternarrative from the Black contestant’s perspective. 

Having season after season featuring an overwhelming majority of White contestants means that non-White contestants have to play an additional game within the game of Survivor. This was best explained by Sean Rector, who had this to say way back in Marquesas:

Sometimes the game isn’t necessarily fair, because me and her [Vecepia] are playing a whole other mental game that they don’t even know, that when you’re a person of color, and you’re the only one, you have to play. And that’s something they don’t even have to worry about. See, everybody can just be themselves. We have to be ourselves, but then hold back a little bit.”

On top of managing social relationships, Black contestants have to be conscious of how they are perceived by the White majority, who have cultural capitalprivilege, and decision-making power. Specifically, White players have the cultural capital of a shared identity with the majority of the cast, the privilege of never having to question if their race affects how they are perceived, and the decision-making power of the vote they cast against outlier contestants at every tribal council. These choices, and the reaction to these choices, reflect larger discourses about race within the United States. 

If the show is truly a microcosm of the world we live in, then the ways in which the show has historically underplayed Black identities and their stories serve as a reflection of our society’s repetitive transgressions against Blackness. The specifics of the petition make its’ sentiments clear: it is not enough for Survivor and other competition reality shows like it to be ‘not racist.’ It is not enough for them to ‘try their best’ to cast contestants that are ‘not racist.’ If Survivor truly wants to be leading the charge in appropriately responding to the mainstream cultural critiques, then it is pertinent that they are explicitly anti-racist.

The Survivor Diversity Campaign was not created because Black Survivor Alumni hate Survivor. I did not sign the petition or write this piece because I hate Survivor. The opposite is true. I love Survivor, and its legacy has helped shape me as an individual. I owe so much to this show that gave me Vecepia and Earl and Jeremy and Wendell and so many other individuals that unknowingly gave me strength when I had none. I love Survivor, and that is why I want to see it do better, to do right by BIPOC contestants and fans of the past, present, and future. Survivor has the potential to change the cultural landscape of reality TV and society’s perspective as a whole. I, and thousands like me, will be watching to see if they answer the call for change.

Written by

Gia Worthy

Gia Worthy is a Massachusetts native and a lifelong fan of Survivor. When she's not helping to run the Survivor Diversity Campaign Twitter page, you can find her on her own Twitter, letting everyone know that Survivor: Marquesas and Fiji are criminally underrated.

7 responses to “What I Learned from the Couch: Lessons of Blackness in Survivor”

  1. What is interesting is you reference “Black, Indigenous, People of Color (‘BIPOC’)” but what if there aren’t enough “BIPOC” applying? Are they then expected to recruit people & completely ignore the people that have (actually) legitimately applied (which I’m pretty sure is what they did with/for Cook Islands)? While you talk about casting not being fair to “BIPOC” recruiting isn’t fair to the people that (actually) apply.

    • @Andy

      Would you think that any discrepancy in applicants could be explained by the above? If BIPOC don’t feel represented or that their stories will be accurately portrayed, maybe they don’t feel welcome to apply.

      The onus here absolutely falls on the casting department and CBS.

      • So they are suppose to put people – specifically BIPOC – that DON’T EVEN APPLY onto the show & COMPLETELY SCREW OVER the people that ACTUALLY TAKE THE TIME to LEGITIMATELY apply? If they don’t apply, why should they even be on? Just to appease BIPOC completely ignore the rest of society? You can’t have it both ways – apply or shut up….

  2. I am a black person and I have often been one or maybe three black people in a workplace full of white people, why should Survivor be any different from the rest of the world if it is truly a microcosm of that world? I would never give reality show producers the responsibility of improving race relations in the world. I wouldn’t mind seeing a Survivor in which white contestants were outnumbered by non-white contestants. That would be interesting. But again, I don’t think Survivor should be a forum on making black people look good. White contestants can be edited to look pretty foolish on this show too and there are no complaints about it. And to ask producers to give you control over your image, that is ridiculous. These are not actors, lines are not written for them, why should producers of Survivor give black contestants control over how they are presented and not the white contestants. Doing that would take a lot away from Survivor. If you want a positive edit, don’t act a fool: Don’t grope your fellow contestant (Ted from Thailand}, don’t dump out your tribe’s food (J’Tia from Cagayan) and be present or least explain what you doing (Vecepia). There has to be some personal accountability here.

    • As has been said by others, why does Survivor have to be a microcosm of society? It’s a game-show, it can do whatever it wants, so why not make a utopia instead of lopsided society.

      • Survivor CONSTANTLY bills itself as a microcosm of society, but frequently fails to walk its talk. 12 of the last 15 Survivor champions have been men, and 62 of the last 68 votes in Final Tribal Councils have gone to men (91.17 % for men, 8.83% for women. Figure it out with the calculator). Not only are women not winning, they are getting almost no votes to win.
        An issue that the runaway majority of people are failing to see is not the issue of race, but gender. The Survivor Winner’s list has become almost exclusively a “Boys Club”, and it wasn’t always that way. Through the first 25 seasons, there were 13 male champions and 12 female champions.

  3. Spot on. Thank you for this and also the gender comment above. I just watched the Fiji finale and was disgusted and appalled at the jury’s highly charged hostility & vitriol toward the three black finalists for their “deceit” (/whichever other synonyms), often giving them no opportunity to respond. It was 13 years ago but I couldn’t believe my eyes & ears. In addition I have always recognized the gender problem and was shocked that Rocky was never called out for his blatant misogyny and homophobia. And yet in the reunion show he got cheers. I would hope if the show were filmed today those comments would be met with a different response.

    Very smart piece, thank you. ❤️

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