Survivor: When sexist behaviour is sold as entertainment

"Odd Woman Out" -  Jenn Brown and Shirin Oskooi during the sixth episode of this season's Survivor.

"Odd Woman Out" - Jenn Brown and Shirin Oskooi during the sixth episode of this season's Survivor. Photo: CBS Broadcasting

This is a confession that's bound to put a lot of people off, but I'm a chronic fan of the reality television show Survivor. I've been watching it for 15 years, ever since the first episode aired back in 2000. The show has morphed a lot since then, with different twists and tricks being incorporated to try to keep the whole thing fresh. Unfortunately, one thing that's never changed is the way gender politics play out within the tribe members.

But although rank sexism has always been part of the wallpaper of the show, the latest season has become widely recognised as boasting some of the most misogynistic contestants Survivor has ever seen. In fact, the behaviour has been so repulsive that it's had the unintended effect of shining a light on brutish male attitudes towards women, bullying and even domestic violence.

The biggest act of misogynist aggression so far this season came when contestant Will Sims II (previously famous for dancing on camera to Jon Bon Jovi at a service station) launched into a verbal assault on fellow contestant Shirin Oskooi around the campsite, telling her that everyone hated her, that no one was waiting for her back home and that there's not a single person in the world who loves her. Disturbingly, only one person intervened on Oskooi's behalf.

Survivor contestant Will Sims II

Survivor contestant Will Sims II

Compounding an already horrible situation were the revelations that Oskooi had experienced prolonged periods of domestic violence and verbal abuse in her childhood, and that no one had ever stepped in to protect her from what was going on. Even on hearing this, Sims II refused to back down, claiming that everything he'd said was true and that she was 'playing the victim' - an accusation not unfamiliar to survivors of DV and abuse. Since the episode aired, Oskooi has publicly declared that she will donate $100 to the National Network to End Domestic Violence for every act of misogyny this season.


At last count, her donation was hovering on $2000 - but there are still a few episodes left.

As incredible as the targeting of Shirin has been, it's also brought to the fore many of the issues with gender that have always been present on Survivor. The very nature of the game means that alpha males are prioritised and catered to right from the beginning; each tribe relies on physical strength to win challenges, meaning the bigger guys are almost guaranteed a pass straight through the first half of the game.

Survivor: Worlds Apart cast.

Survivor: Worlds Apart cast.

But there's an added element, and that is the general deference that's shown to a particular type of man in most of society. By and large, the world is still geared towards rewarding white, cisgendered, heterosexual men with all of its riches and respect. As John Scalzi famously argued in a much shared blog post, "In the role playing game known as The Real World, "Straight White Male" is the lowest difficulty setting there is." Add strength, rugged good looks and the kind of approach to leadership that is so often seen as assertive in men and aggressive in women, and you have the recipe for the kind of human male who just assumes power with very little opposition from the people around him.

So not only are alpha men retained by proxy in Survivor's tribes, they're also empowered by most of their tribe members to take the lead in a way that all of the outsiders (ie women and older players) just aren't. As a result, the first evicted tribe members tend to be people over the age of 50 and smaller women, an overt community reinforcement of the idea that these people are weak and therefore expendable to any group of people wanting to remain strong.

Rather than challenge this, the show's producers seem content to indulge it. During last season's Blood Vs Water, contestant John Rocker (a former baseball player well known for his homophobic, sexist and racist views - so, great casting choice there CBS) lost a challenge against his partner. Host Jeff Probst had no qualms asking, "How does it feel to lose to your girlfriend?" Rocker replied, "Scratch the friend part Jeff. How does it feel losing to a girl?" Whether this upset the women in the tribe or not was unclear, but no one - certainly not Probst - spoke up to challenge the idea that for a man to lose to a girl was something to be ashamed of.

All of these factors might account for the fact that three of this season's male contestants have felt completely entitled to demonstrate deplorable behaviour towards women. Survivor is a golden goose for CBS. As long as sexism makes money, people will ignore its damaging impact and downplay their own role in perpetuating it. But if the game of Survivor is a microcosm for the rest of the world, then perhaps it's well beyond time that the tribe acts collectively to vote misogyny off the island once and for all.