The survivors have spoken

Survivor’s recent controversy was not its first, inviting a look back at socially important occurrences throughout the history of the show

Editor’s note: This article contains possibly sensitive content. 

In the most recent season of Survivor, contestant Dan Spilo was removed from the show due to multiple reported instances of inappropriate touching. 

Spilo’s actions made national headlines, and the producers’ lack of action when contestant Kellee Kim spoke up twice about her discomfort with Spilo was a major source of contention amongst fans and players. 

The controversy over Spilo was not the show’s first. Throughout its 20 year history, Survivor has proven itself to be a reality show more reflective and commentative of reality than its superficial competitors. “Survivor put reality TV on the map,” said Hayden Moss, Big Brother 12 Winner, Survivor: Blood vs. Water contestant, and ASU alumnus. 

Survivor, unlike many other reality programs, has maintained its viewership with young people throughout its history. While the game has taken over as the main focus of the show, topics of social importance can be traced through the seasons. Sexual harassment has been focused on in the show a few times. 

In season 5, contestant Ghandia Johnson, who had previously experienced sexual assault in college, reported inappropriate behavior from her tribemate Ted Rogers Jr. In the episode, Johnson said, “Last night (Ted) threw his arm over me and really pulled me close in to him ... he started to really become very, kind of, sexual. I mean specifically, he was grinding against me … and he didn’t stop.” 

While Johnson’s frustrations were expressed as she yelled and punched a log, she was not depicted as sympathetically as Kim. The rest of Johnson’s tribe seemingly dismissed her in favor of Rogers’ denial, with some of Rogers’ friends describing Johnson as “bulls---” and a “crazy lady.” Fellow tribemate Clay Jordan described Johnson’s behavior as childish.

Shannon Guss, a podcaster with Rob Has A Podcast network who covers seasons of Survivor internationally, said in an interview with State Press Magazine, “(Ghandia) was laughed off. So at least we’ve come a lot further than that, where this kind of thing is taken seriously and hopefully things will continue to get better and better.”

Other moments have occurred in the show such as Susan "Sue" Hawk quitting the game in season 8 after being subjected to non-consensual touch from a nude contestant, or Courtney Yates in season 15, who spoke up about being followed around the shelter by tribe member Jean-Robert Bellande, so he could sleep next to her. 

In season 6, the tribes were divided by sex, and scenes in the men’s camp showed them talking about which women they wanted to be with.

Guss said, “It’s not just that people were speaking differently, which they were, but the show was also packaged and produced very differently, as a sign of the times. (Season 6) was ‘Battle of the Sexes,’ so it was hypersexualized.” 

Dated editing tricks like using thought bubbles to show the men daydreaming about the women are nowhere to be found on the show today. “Those things are cringeworthy, but it’s kind of nice to see how far we’ve come,” Guss said.

Guss also mentioned that more instances of sexual harassment may have occurred that didn’t make the edited show. “But it just takes one person like Kellee to speak up that changes it forever … and that’s how we progress as a society and in the show,” Guss said. 

She pointed out that the conversations that come from the controversies are a silver lining. “Is someone sitting at home saying, ‘Am I doing that?’ or ‘Am I dismissing someone doing that?’”

Recent seasons have focused on gender disparity surrounding aspects of the show, like finding immunity idols, which are hidden on the island and protect their user from being voted out.

In season 37, Angelina Cardona Keeley became one of the first people to speak openly about the idol disparity stemming from the gendered roles that the contestants found themselves falling into. 

Keeley said, “Women tend to not find hidden immunity idols as much ... I think I was reading online that 15% of all hidden immunity idols have been found by women, and we know that Survivor plays men and women equally, so we should be finding idols equally.”

Survivor Youtube essayist Billy Giese, known by the moniker Peridiam, in an interview with State Press Magazine said, “I really think it might’ve been Angelina … who made this observation, at least from a gender perspective, where it was really put on the Survivor map.” 

While this marks an important moment in the show, Giese points out that Keeley has become a beloved humorous character among the fans. Giese said, “She’s got a ton of the memes, but it kind of undermines the points she was trying to make.” He thinks that with more time away from her season, Keeley will be seen as a turning point in the history of Survivor. 

In following seasons, other women echoed Keeley's observations. Julie Rosenberg in season 38 talked about women and men falling into preconceived gender roles on the island, perhaps due to the primitive state in which the contestants live. 

In season 39, Janet Carbin was upset by the presumption of an all-women alliance and said, “To assume that women are going to bond based on gender is very negative. That’s putting women down.”

The show has also had controversies involving race and LGBTQ+ topics. In season 13, the producers controversially divided the tribes by race. Season 4 contestant Sean Rector has been vocal about racial biases in and out of the game, and in season 38 contestant Julia Carter’s tell-all, she talked about her experiences with racial slurs on the show. 

In season 34, Jeff Varner outed Zeke Smith as transgender. Fans were outraged and the story received national media attention. In season 4, Robert Mariano outed John Carroll as gay to leverage his position in the game. “It was essentially the same thing (as with Zeke),” Carroll said in an interview with State Press Magazine, “except we were in vastly different time frames … so the outrage (towards Varner) and the anguish (for Smith) was justified.”

Carroll said a lot of nasty comments were actually directed at him. “God forbid there had actually been social media.”

When asked about the future of the show, Giese said, “Some people are like, ‘Ah I wish Survivor would get away from all these issues,’ and I’m like no, that is Survivor … it’s just becoming more relevant and progressive, and people just haven’t caught up to it.”

Guss believes that the length of Survivor benefits its legacy. “I think that it’s a really good glimpse into this 20 year period of global history and thought processes at the time.” 


Reach the reporter at gmstanle@asu.edu or follow @garrettstnley on Twitter.

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