Why Shade Matters on Survivor

Joe Shaw discusses why “throwing shade” is so important to the success of a Survivor season.

It was night one on Kucha beach, everyone was trying to sleep, but Kimmi Kappenberg was too excited to sleep. She decided instead of rest she’d rather grace her fellow contestants with stories of her sexual exploits. We then cut to a confessional from Jeff Varner, an “Internet Projects Manager” from Greensboro, North Carolina, who perfectly summed up the situation. “Kimmi will not shut up. You know, I’m tired at night. I want to go to sleep, and they’re constantly talking. And with the headache that I have, it just reverberates. Kimmi cannot say a single thing without screaming it. All of a sudden, out of the blue, with that accent that just talks and talks and talks and talks… I just want to grab her by the neck and shake the s**t out of her, you know?”

America laughed, and suddenly, Jeff Varner became the snarky side of the audience’s perspective for the season. Every season, people try to capture that “shade” perspective, sometimes with success, but most of the time failing. Part of it has to do with the fact that each person wants to be the most memorable “character” of the season. The trouble is, most of the time contestants resort to bullying in an attempt to capture some of that shade.

The question you should be asking yourself is, why does shade matter? I completely understand your point. It rarely determines a winner; it’s not as important as challenges, hidden immunity idols, or even rewards. But, it is crucial to the success of a season, for a very specific reason – it affords contestants the opportunity to call out players (or even the game of Survivor itself) for taking themselves too seriously. The most successful “Shade-Throwers” over the years have been the contestants who can perfectly capture what the audience is feeling at home, put it in a sarcastic package, and deliver it within a handful of seconds.

Survivor has seen its fair share of successful shade-throwers over the years (including my fellow SurvivorShade contingent: Brice Izyah Johnston, Coby Archa, and alum John Carroll). But for today, I’m going to focus on who the Survivor community arguably accept as the “gold standard” of shade: Sandra Diaz-Twine, and Courtney Yates.

Sandra Diaz-Twine on Survivor: Pearl Islands.

Survivor: Pearl Islands succeeds as a season on many levels. You had the “all-American hero” Rupert versus the “love-to-hate villain” Jonny Fairplay. You also had the underdog Morgan tribe, and the “true marooning” to start the game. Also, the whole pirate theme was pop-culturally on point with all of America swept up in “Jack Sparrow fever” in 2003. However, imagine for a moment this season without the sarcastic point of view from eventual winner Sandra. You wouldn’t have had anyone telling Fairplay they could “get loud too what the f—!?” You also wouldn’t have had anyone throwing perfectly good fish away and then causing such a ruckus that no one ever suspects them of doing the deed. Sure, you still would have had Fairplay and his “dead grandma”, but you wouldn’t have had Sandra calling him on his bull even when everybody else believed his lie. The reason Sandra is part of the “gold standard” of shade-throwing is that she elevates everybody else. Rupert was not allowed to take himself too seriously and came across as a rootable character. Fairplay kept trying to think of new ways to outsmart (and outsnark) Sandra because he knew she was the real competition.

Courtney Yates on Survivor: China.
Courtney Yates on Survivor: China.

Conversely, nobody expected Courtney Yates to go far on Survivor: China. She was perceived as one of the weakest members of her tribe and didn’t have much “visible” challenge strength. But luckily for her, a winning tribe kept her from making the trip to Tribal Council for just long enough that she was able to work her way into a solid alliance. Now, I have no doubt that if Courtney had been absent from this season, we still would’ve gotten some solid confessionals from eventual winner Todd Herzog, and everything would have probably progressed about the same as it did. However, without Courtney, the season is inherently less fun. Don’t get me wrong; there was still a load of shady moments, but a good shade thrower (like Courtney) can take themselves out of the game long enough to laugh at themselves, others, and the entire situation as a whole. They, in effect, are our voices when we watch the show. Can’t believe so-and-so doesn’t realize how obnoxious they’re being!? Neither can Courtney, and she’ll give them a solid “label” that will have you in stitches!

The reasons above are indicative of why it was solid gold casting to put Sandra and Courtney together on the Villains tribe during Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains. Their shade helped elevate the shade of the other contestants. The Villains tribe looked like they were positively having a ball when the season started. Conversely, the Heroes tribe took themselves WAY too seriously and ended up coming off as irritating, grating, and downright unlikable.

If you don’t have a Sandra, a Courtney, a Brice, or a Coby on your tribe, you run the real risk of taking yourself (and the game) WAY too seriously. You run the risk of devolving into a bullying mindset, and you end up not having any fun whatsoever. I can tell you the best shade-throwers almost always look like they’re having fun (it is a game after all). But these shade-throwers don’t just make it more fun for the players; they also make it fun for the viewers. Part of the reason certain seasons are as unpopular as they are is usually down to one of two reasons:

1. The shade-thrower got voted out way too early (Survivor: Guatemala & Brian Corridan)
2. There was no definitive shade-thrower for the season (Survivor: Thailand)

Please note being shady (or snarky) is not the same as being mean, it’s a subtle difference but an important one. All one needs to do is think of the confessionals Cydney Gillon had this last season versus the confessionals Colton Cumbie had in both of his seasons to understand the difference of throwing shade as opposed to being mean.

Ultimately, Survivor is its most fun when you have multiple shade-throwers on any given season. They cause the players and the audience not to take the game too seriously, make sure everybody is having fun, and “put on a good show”.

I’m suspicious of this upcoming season’s theme of Millennials vs. Gen X; I feel it presents more of an opportunity for contestants to be mean to each other (since people are coming into this season with preconceived notions about the other ‘age group’). But I’m hopeful that we’ll have enough shade-throwers this season to offset any “Debbie Downers”. By the way, Sandra is coming back in Season 34, and I can’t WAIT to see what she’ll have in store for us.

Until next time, if you can’t stand the heat… get out of the shade!


Written by

Joe Shaw

Joe, born and raised in Texas, runs the snarky blog SurvivorShade. He has been a fan of Survivor ever since 2001 when Jeff Varner was throwing shade in the Outback.

14 responses to “Why Shade Matters on Survivor”

  1. Does this writer actually understand the concept of shade? None of the examples listed here are “shady,” and they continually misrepresent criticism and/or “snark” as shade, when there’s actually a significant difference. What an embarrassing appropriation of a subcultural norm.

    Shade here, then, would be me asking you if the library is open, for example, because there’s clearly been no relevant ~reading~ on the subject at hand.

  2. Can’t believe you never mentioned the master shade thrower…ladies and gentlemen, from Survivor Amazon, season 6…ROB CESTERNINO!!!

    He had all sorts of hilarious confessionals about Roger Sexton, Alex, Heidi, everybody!

  3. Never thought about it this way, but it seems pretty accurate. But if you think about it like ice cream and toppings, a snarky player is like a topping, that makes the ice cream taste better.

  4. Courtney Yates is the Queen of Shade. she’s like the Survivor version of Britney Haynes (big brother), and Christopher Palu (project runway)

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