Survivor producers call it a “social experiment.” Rights groups and cultural commentators say it fuels racial conflict. While the Organization of Chinese Americans decries the new season of Survivor for “pitting one race against another,” the National Council of La Raza worries that Cook Islands will “nurture stereotypes,” and NYC councilman John Liu wants to pull Survivor off the air. One thing is clear: because Cook Islands divides its contestants by race, the 13th season of Survivor has turned the subject of race from a subtext into a supertext that dominates the action both on and around the show.
The OCA asserts that instead of watching Survivor, “We should join hands in the name of diversity.” However, Survivor‘s social landscape is notoriously dynamic, typically fostering unlikely cooperations between contestants who begin as opponents. Each season, the tribes splinter into sub-alliances that leave individual “castaways” unallied. After a merger or a reshuffle, these isolated players can become swing votes when opposing alliances confront each other. Cook Islands thus sets up inevitable alliances across races.
For now, though, the races are spectacularly divided. As last week’s first episode opened, all four tribes were on a ship conveying them to the Cook Islands. The ship was filled with supplies, including a handful of chickens, one of which the Asian tribe had secured. But in the ensuing free-for-all for fishing equipment, machetes, and other items, white team member Jonathan managed to come away with the Asian tribe’s chicken. “I did grab a chicken,” he said in a confessional. “The chicken was belonging to the green [Asian] team. I didn’t even know. I saw the chicken, I grabbed the chicken because the chicken was free.”
Later at the immunity challenge, host Jeff Probst prompted the Asian tribe to identify Jonathan as the one who took their chicken. “Did I?” he asked disingenuously. “I had a chicken, but honestly, it was so hectic that I just grabbed the chicken. Sorry, dude.” When the black team was instructed to send one person from any tribe to Exile Island, a small area with even barer necessities than their home camps, black team member Nate nodded: “That’s what I’m talking about!” They sent Jonathan.
Throughout this saga, the subtext was obvious: the white man took another group’s possession even though he knew it was theirs. The black tribe lashed out against the white oppressor. Alone on Exile Island, Jonathan pondered his situation. “I think it was because I took the Asian guy’s chicken that the African-American guys chose me. That’s all they said. I was so shocked by what happened, I didn’t even have a comeback.”
Race dominated his interpretation, but the event can also be read as an example of mundane reality television avarice. Past seasons of Survivor have featured similar thefts, as when Rupert from Pearl Islands gleefully plundered unguarded goods that belonged to the opposing tribe. But he was no uncouth brigand; Survivor fans later voted overwhelmingly to award Rupert a compensatory $1 million prize for being the most popular competitor in the show’s history. Unlike Rupert, Jonathan pilfered without apparent premeditation, but race reframed the act and the punishment. Both sides of the Chicken War read race into the controversy.
In fact, race all but blotted out the episode’s gender struggle. When Jonathan was sent to Exile Island, the two male members of the black tribe were the unilateral decision-makers, while the three women merely watched them whisper conspiratorially. This passivity struck Probst as odd and he noted it when the decision was made, but neither he nor the black tribe mentioned it again when they all reconvened at Tribal Council.
Negative reactions to the show demonstrate the reflexive mania that afflicts Americans when they confront race. A reality television program draws attention to race, and the intent as well as the result must be heinous and venal. The commentators have positioned themselves righteously against Survivor: Cook Islands, whether to score easy political points or call attention to their organizations. Unfortunately, these commentators traffic in a perilously simplistic discourse that elides the hard work required for genuine social harmony.