‘Survivor’s’ New Racial Divide

Linda Holmes, MSNBC August 23, 2006

Leave it to “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett to find the one thing you definitely didn’t think he would do. As announced on this morning’s “Early Show,” the cast of the 13th “Survivor,” set in the Cook Islands and scheduled to premiere Sept. 14, will initially square off in teams divided by race. That’s right: the season will begin with a bloated cast of 20, and they will be divided into four tribes, which the show is calling the White Tribe, the African-American Tribe, the Asian-American Tribe and the Hispanic Tribe. If your reaction is “oof,” you are not alone.

Given its long history, “Survivor” has been surprisingly resilient, but its greatest challenge has been avoiding staleness. Burnett and his team of strategic mad scientists have unveiled tribe shuffles, season themes like pirates and volcanoes, and most recently the division of teams, for a brief time, by gender and age—older men, older women, younger men, and younger women.

But nothing compares to this. It’s not even sporting to rattle off the reasons why it’s a terrible idea. Start with the fact that it smells like an attempt to “represent” everyone, and expecting five people to be representative of millions or billions is begging for trouble. Consider what happens if, for reasons unrelated to race, four of the first five people to leave are Asian? What if the final four are all black? Or all white? What do those headlines look like?

Host Jeff Probst, being interviewed about this stunt—which he unconvincingly denied was a stunt—said that the idea arose because the producers noticed that the applicants had so much “ethnic pride,” so it decided to divide them on that basis. But does “ethnic pride” really mean the same thing to all people, such that we assume a contestant whose family is Korean automatically feels some special pride on behalf of someone whose family is Japanese? That is not to even consider the enormously sticky issue of whether someone whose great-grandparents are Russian is supposed to have shared “ethnic pride” with someone whose great-grandparents are Irish. It’s a big jump to go from understanding that ethnic pride exists to believing it allows everyone to be divided into four teams.

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Battling stereotypes

In fact, racial politics are nothing new. As Probst acknowledged, there has always been frustration among fans and critics that there haven’t been more contestants of color, particularly ones who are strong competitors. Most stinging have been persistent accusations that the show embraces a stereotype of African-American men as lazy, a complaint that dates back to the show’s first season.

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In a sense, this hazardous high-wire act is Burnett’s genius in full flower—he knows that his American audience fears its inability to productively process and discuss race more than it fears disgusting food, isolation among strangers, or stinging jellyfish. But on the other hand, if something like this is to be a successful and meaningful social experiment, it has to be handled exactly right. Whether Burnett and “Survivor” are up to the challenge remains to be seen.

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Lemme get this straight.

Sen. George Allen’s use of the debatably racially insensitive (though definitely mean), obscure word “macaca,” in reference to an opponent’s aide makes him the “Un-American Senator” who “disgraced himself,” warranted wall-to-wall coverage in the Washington Post, and ominous references to “George Allen’s America.”

“Survivor’s” segregation of its competitive tribes into Black Tribe, White Tribe, Asian Tribe, Hispanic Tribe, on the other hand?

Another layer of the “social experiment,” a “twist,” “controversial,” “hot-button,” and a “race among the races” (oh, how cute! Racial word-play!).

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Probst said he and the “Survivor” producers wanted to bring more ethnic diversity to the competition.

“The truth is 80 percent of the people that apply are white,” he said. “And television, in general, is white. So all these criticisms were valid.”

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I look forward to hearing the TV critics on this. Segregation (bad) in the service of diversity (the ultimate good). Do the ends justify the means?

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