If there's a consistent theme to the pre-merge of Survivor: Fiji, it's people treating each other like garbage. Production decided it would be hilarious to see what would happen if they tried to starve/dehydrate half the cast. Rocky felt free to be an asshole to Anthony, and spent most of six episodes doing so. Before the swap, Lisi and Stacy felt entitled to pretend Dreamz and Cassandra weren't even human beings at Moto.
It's a real downer of an experience, especially when you pause after Anthony's boot in Episode 6, as we are doing here. Maybe it just seems more unbearable in 2020, when it's so similar to the national political landscape. Rocky spends the entire Tribal Council just belittling Anthony. When Anthony tries to defend himself, Rocky continues talking over him, then after Anthony waits to speak, Rocky mocks him for backing down. There's no strategy, no gameplay. Just one guy being a huge jerk. Then the other members of new Ravu cave to Rocky's wishes, and vote Anthony out. You're just left thinking, "Christ, what an asshole!"
Why is Rocky allowed to do this for so long? Because nobody ever tells him not to, except Anthony, briefly. As far as we can tell from the show, nobody else ever does.
Nobody takes Rocky aside and says, gently, "Look James, I have my doubts about Anthony too, but you're being a total dick. Just chill out, man." Not his closest buddy Mookie. Not his new friends Alex and Edgardo, who acknowledge to Anthony that Rocky's volatility is worrisome. Not Rocky's frenemy/ new tribemate Dreamz. Not consummate good guy Earl. Not any of the original Ravus. Not even Jeff Probst, who instead of trying to at least lob a self-defense softball question to Anthony at Tribal, instead seems content to lean back and egg Rocky on, and grill Anthony on why he's not a real man.
It's just unpleasant to watch. Anthony graduated from Yale. He seems comfortable with his life, and his identity of being a nerd, a dweeb, etc. Why the hell is it the business of a clearly misogynist, likely homophobic bartender/ wannabe actor who's somehow still living in the late '50s/ early '60s in 2006 to be giving him "advice" on the appropriate level of toxic masculinity? What is wrong with all these people that they allowed this to go on for so long? Where is the Mike Holloway in this scenario who can stand up to Rocky and tell him to just shut up?
Not in this cast, apparently.
Gender disparity in Survivor Fiji
While the show is busy giving us lessons in how to be the worst man possible, it's simultaneously taking a huge step backwards in another representational area, one that's the show's frequent Achilles heel: Showing women playing the game. It's as if the show said "Look, we have extensive ethnic and racial diversity this time! Now we're free to be shitty in other areas! Hooray!"
To measure the suppression of women, we need look no further than how often they're allowed to speak (stats tabulated by the user "buff" at SurvivorSucks). Liliana had zero confessionals until her boot in Episode 4, where she talked just twice. Rita had no confessionals at all in her boot episode, and tallied just five overall in her five episodes. Cassandra has had six in six episodes, Michelle five. Stacy? She's at a measly three through six episodes. The one huge exception is Sylvia, and despite giving a lot of confessionals herself, these were balanced by confessionals from other women (and men) about how much they disliked her.
Confessional quality matters, too. Most of the women's confessionals have been simple narration — talking about building the first camp, talking about the deprivation at Ravu, or the excessive luxury at Moto. Meanwhile, the likes of Earl, Yau-Man, Alex, and Rocky are averaging four or more confessionals per episode. Earl is up to 22 confessionals by Ep6, Alex is at 20. They're talking about who's getting booted, talking about divisions within the tribe and how to navigate them, talking about idols, and challenges, and so on. Where are the women?
After Liliana left in Episode 4, there were 9 men and 5 women left in the game, just under a 2-to-1 ratio. Yet in Episodes 5-6, men gave 46 confessionals, while women made just 4 (an 11.5-to-1 ratio). That's spectacularly imbalanced, even by Survivor standards. But hey, at least we got Rocky and Mookie crowing in pride after the swap about how they had voted out only women in their time at pre-swap Ravu.
For an alternate measure, look at the episode titles (all amusing quotes, often with extraneous ellipses): Episode 1's "Something cruel is about to happen ... real soon" is from Alex. Episode 2's, "Snakes are misunderstood ... now we have an understanding" was of course Earl. Episode 3 gave us "This isn't [even] survival ... it's thrival" from Boo. (Ah yes, that major pre-merge character, Boo.) Episode 4's "Let's just call Jeff on the Jeff phone" is a mid-tirade Rocky. And Yau-Man snags both Episode 5 ("Love many, trust few, do wrong to none") and Episode 6 ("I've strength now to carry the flag"). Not even a nod to Sylvia here, who actually was a relatively important character in her three-episode run.
To be fair, this was a cast made up almost entirely of recruits. Maybe some of them were only thinking about boring, day-to-day camp operations, and that's why we don't hear from them very often. "I fetched a load of wood today!" isn't exactly must-see TV ... although "I found a lemon tree!" clearly is, even if it's only heard, and not seen. Or maybe their confessionals were upsetting endorsements of deeply objectionable Survivor play, like Stacy and Lisi in Episode 5, proudly explaining their ostracism of Dreamz and Cassandra. But still, *all* the women were terrible at confessionals? That seems unlikely. Rita's were fine, what little we saw of them. Sylvia's were solid, and game-oriented, even.
It's possible that the lack of any real need for strategy at Moto played a part. Yet we get parallel, note-for-note remakes of the same topics by Alex and Edgardo, while only Dreamz was given the chance to react to Lisi and Stacy's reign of terror. Cassandra's perspective had to wait until the post-swap tribes reunited her with Earl and Yau-Man, although it was still great to hear it from her then. So if both Dreamz and Cassandra were saying the same thing — that they plan to flip at the merge and pay back those jerks — maybe it made sense to split those up across two episodes. But the overall impression is that the editors (who are almost exclusively men) just didn't give a fuck about the women on this season.
The end of an error (almost ... but not almost enough)
With the swap in Episode 6, production finally relented a bit in their capricious punishment of Ravu. In addition to a "welcome to camp" feast of fruit, OJ & champagne, and cheese & crackers, the post-swap Ravus received fishing gear, with which the guys caught five surprisingly large fish. In addition to just being a generally decent gesture, this does seem fair, since Moto had won so much fishing gear already, and half of the new Ravus were the guys who won it. But they still don't have a well, meaning they have to keep boiling seawater for basic survival, which has to be pretty draining, especially since that feast lasted for just one meal.
Ravu will eventually manage their first challenge win in Episode 7, but it's also the only win they'll ever accomplish, albeit after a surprisingly high number of close calls. And the merge is *still* a whopping two episodes away, in Episode 9 (one full week of game time after the swap). Part of the problem here is Survivor is going through some format growing pains. They had only recently switched over to larger cast sizes (18 in All-Stars through Guatemala, back to 16 in Panama, up to 20 in Cook Islands, and an attempted 20/ actual 19 here), were still tinkering with final two/three mechanics, and had not yet allowed juries to be larger than seven people. So there were a lot of bodies to bury before the jury phase. In comparison, the modern swap in Ep4/5 and merge in Ep7/8 seems much less of a slog. Especially when the pre-merge has an objectionable twist and/or tribal dynamics, why keep letting that play out? Just end it and move on. After all, as everyone always says, the real game starts at the merge, so why waste two-thirds of the episodes on the stuff that's not "the real game"?
Lisi and Stacy's ostracism of Dreamz and Cassandra
Rocky's relentless bullying of Anthony is the louder, more visible pre-merge event that people probably remember from Fiji, but the majority Moto alliance — Stacy and Lisi in particular, Boo secondarily by appearing unwilling to do anything about it — treated Dreamz and Cassandra almost as atrociously.
In Episode 5, Dreamz doesn't know how to use the french press coffee maker the Motos had just won as a reward, and Stacy refuses to tell him. Why? (Stacy, notably, was the one Moto who failed to contribute to Moto's reward victory, losing her bout to Yau-Man.) She also chuckles in confessional about how Dreamz and Cassandra are going to get picked off, they know it, and they're paranoid, but there's nothing they can do about it. She justifies this with, "We're all adults here. This is Survivor!" No, that's not Survivor. That's Mean Girls. (On the plus side, in her exit interviews, Stacy swears she apologized to the two of them, and was friends with Cassandra later in the game.)
Lisi, meanwhile, is completing her heel turn that started back in Ep4, when she was feeling somewhere between disinterested and happy about Gary's medevac. Her comeuppance started coming up in Episode 5 as she made an edited-for-laughs faceplant during the sign-matching IC, then failed to vulture a point from poor, depleted Yau-Man because of rules, then lost that point to heroic Earl. She reaches full villain status in Episode 6, where she openly roots for being out of the game (after 15 days at the luxury Moto camp), and complains about being sent to Exile Island instead. On the one hand, it's satisfying to see people who do unpleasant things receiving their just desserts. On the other, this villain edit seems pretty half-hearted, since the best villains actively play the game in nefarious, underhanded ways. Lazy, entitled arrogance followed by near-quitting at the slightest setback in fortune doesn't quite clear the bar.
To their credit, Alex and Edgardo immediately point out the error of Lisi and Stacy's ways in near back-to-back confessionals, accurately stating that in Survivor, it's suicidal to intentionally treat your tribemates so poorly, because a swap can come along at any time and change the balance of power. Alex also correctly points out that it's just a horrible thing to do as a human being. It's amusing to watch Alex try to shift gears, and get the point across with a very logical, numbers-based argument that a 7-3 merge numbers advantage isn't going to be enough if two of those seven immediately flip to the three side, and still being unable to convince Lisi and Boo. Ironically, the "instant karma" Alex foresees doesn't happen anywhere near immediately in Episode 5, and if anything, the swap punishes him and Edgardo, but not Stacy or Boo. In the end, though, Dreamz and Cassandra do end up getting finalist money, while Stacy and Lisi don't, so maybe they were playing Survivor, after all. Stacy and Lisi were just playing to lose, for some reason.
- Cassandra the challenge beast: Perhaps this was highlighted for ironic contrast with the bullying, but Cassandra (who up to this point had been Moto's go-to sit-out candidate) shone as Moto's challenge MVP in both the Episode 5 reward and immunity challenges. In the RC, she knocked Rita off the platform not once, but twice. (Were they really the only pair to go twice, and not Rocky/Dreamz, who went first? This seems unlikely.) Then in the IC, Cassandra uncovers the first matching pair of tiles AND the winning pair. She's nobody's idea of a physical threat, but it's still fun to see someone who was otherwise overlooked having some success in key situations. Like your team's backup catcher hitting a game-winning homer in the World Series. What kind of dead-inside monster can't be happy for that?
- Earl the hill climber: After giving us hilltop Earl in both the premiere and second episode, you might have started to worry that Earl's string of literally coming out on top might be coming to an end. Fear not, though! In Episode 5, as he leads the Ravus away from camp to give Yau-Man time to dig up the idol, he again appears on top of a bluff, this time with Anthony. Phew!
- Brightness at the end of the tunnel: While the merge is still a ways off, at least the preview for Episode 7 reminds us that Yau-Man now has access to actual digging tools, and suspects the idol is in the same spot at both camps. Turtle excavation imminent!
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes