When I first heard Survivor was doing men vs. women this season, I must admit I rolled my eyes. Thanks in part to the nature of the game and influenced by Jeff Probst’s alpha male sensibilities, Survivor has always been a gender-charged show, often in an obnoxious way. Making this inherent imbalance the center point of the show seems like a way to easily exploit stereotypes for story instead of simply casting interesting people and seeing how they interact.
After seeing how this first episode played out, however, I think I’ve changed my mind. I’m still rolling my eyes, except this time, there’s an undercurrent of glee to the sentiment. The gender imbalance is as front-and-center as I expected, but instead of simply being obnoxious (which it still definitely is) it also has an interesting element of sociological experiment to it that you don’t get to see in many other arenas. The novelty of it all works precisely because of the inherent issues with gender mentioned above; there’s definitely a “type” of person cast on Survivor, and this type easily falls into traditional gender roles and expectations, allowing the audience to simply sit back and cringe as that person stumbles his or her way into every stereotypical situation possible.
And stumble they do, mostly because of the ingenious idea to place both gender separated tribes on the same beach so the contestants can interact freely. This highlights the “separate but equal” feeling of the whole endeavor, while also giving each tribe an opportunity to use each other while simultaneously judging each other for the using. By intertwining the teams at base camp, the enemy isn’t just some abstract thing the tribe can wonder about; the enemy is right there, shirtless, and probably acting like an asshole. The tension between the two tribes comes to a head when the women catch two chickens on the beach but, instead of handing one over like a very short-sighted agreement implied, want to barter for it instead. The men take offense, leading eventually to a near mutiny when the men start a fire and won’t trade it to the women for anything they are offering. (Well, they do seem to be willing to give the ladies fire if they get naked and do a striptease for them, so I’d say the gender relations are going very well so far.)
While the men are arrogant and patronizing, the ladies do themselves no favors by literally begging the men for fire. Christina and Monica get sneaky and steal some fire while the men are sleeping but can’t even manage to keep the stolen fire going for more than a night. Desperation leads Christina to go rogue and make a deal for the women to weave palm fronds in return for fire, which isn’t appreciated by the outspoken Alicia. What’s interesting about the separated tribes is how they show that, on Survivor, early leaders are very important for tribe unity. Over on the male side, Matt quickly steamrolls himself into a leadership position, and the men seem to be sitting pretty. The females lack one perspective, leading them to dissension and disagreement. I don’t know if this perfectly illustrates gender differences simply because it’s likely due more to the particular women cast on the show, but it does illustrate something about how Survivor works. It will be interesting to see if the ladies’ lack of a cohesive voice continues to hurt them.
The first immunity challenge—a large, hulking, multi-step obstacle course—seemed destined to be the first true test of what this season would be like, physically. Instead, however, a poorly designed and dangerous course caused Kourtney to break her wrist in the first segment and the challenge to be halted. Curiously, instead of adjusting the challenge to allow the teams to continue with one less player each, the show decides to ramp up the drama and award a win for the men, unless the men decide they’d rather play it out instead to determine a true winner. This is absolute and total bullshit, but it does create a bit of drama when the men (correctly) decide to take the win and send the women to Tribal. The outrage the women feel at not being allowed to fight for the win is sort of ridiculous, especially when they try to make the argument that they wouldn’t have made the same choice. Yes you would have, ladies. It’s embarrassing to try to deny it. At Tribal, Kourtney is revealed as being removed from the game for injury, and no one else goes home.
Even with that anticlimactic end, this was a really promising start for what might be the most annoying and yet compelling season the show has had in quite a while. The personalities haven’t had a true chance to shine yet, but the cohabitation of the two separate tribes on one beach is smart, fun, and bound to lead to much more drama than usually occurs in the early going of the season. I might be rolling my eyes at the stupidity the gender separation brings, but at least this stupidity appears to be ripe for plenty of entertainment.
- There is already a five-person female alliance, a four-person male alliance, and an intertribal alliance between Sabrina and Colton. Does making such deals before you even know anyone usually work out?
- I made a vow to be more open-minded toward alpha males this season, but Matt just might be the most insufferable person in the entire world. Can I take it back?
- Apparently, Survivor has done men vs. women before, in Amazon and Vanuatu. I missed Vanuatu (it’s in what I consider the lost “middle seasons” where I got bored), but I devotedly watched Amazon and did not recall this twist.
- Jeff Probst periodically likes to hang out of helicopters (with no hands!) just to prove he is a badass. We get it, Probst, you’re a daredevil. Now buy a new shirt.
- Speaking of Probst, he seemed to imply the ladies were at Tribal because they lacked unity. No, Jeff, they were actually there because Kourtney broke her wrist and instead of adjusting the challenge, you simply awarded it to the men. But thanks.
- My favorite reality television sociological experiment: Paradise Hotel, which was as good of a portrayal of cliques, outcasts, and mob mentality as you will ever see.
- “One guy’s called Tarzan, and I’m like, ‘He can’t be Tarzan. I’m Troyzan; this is my island, baby.’”
- “You’re going to have to do a pole dance for us. Then maybe we’ll think about it.”