This week, Survivor lost Jeff Varner before the jury for the third time, and on his way to being snuffed, he outed Zeke Smith as transgender, in a head-scratchingly misguided attempt to undermine Zeke's credibility. It was an ugly incident, painful for Zeke to go through in person (and months later on national TV), and it was difficult for the audience to watch. But in airing this attack and its aftermath, Survivor also gained, by taking the time to tell Zeke's story with depth and empathy, and perhaps raise awareness about the difficulties transgender people face in their everyday lives. And in choosing to not reveal Zeke's secret until this point, one-and-a-half seasons into Zeke's Survivor career, Survivor gave its fans, like Zeke's castmates, the opportunity to get to know Zeke the Survivor player. As Zeke had originally intended.
One of Survivor's main strengths is taking people from different backgrounds, bringing them together, and forcing them to interact. In the process, they learn things from each other that they might never have in their daily lives. The world over, prejudice and bigotry largely comes from fear of the unknown. It's a lot easier to hate someone you've never met. It's a lot easier to believe terrible stories about a group of people if you have no real-life examples to contradict those stories. America is an increasingly diverse country of over 300 million people, but we tend to live near and interact with people the most like us. City people rarely converse with rural folks, a Southern Baptist might never meet a Muslim or a Jew, a first-generation Asian immigrant living in San Francisco is unlikely to hang out with a Utah-based Mormon.
Survivor has the ability to confront that head-on, simply by thrusting people from these disparate groups together, where "they'll have to work together, or they'll be voted out of the tribe." Most of the time, the contestants succeed at doing this. Sometimes however, as we saw this week, friction remains, due to assumption of stereotypes. Or, as we also saw this week, the cast members are sufficiently connected with each other to transcend and reject those stereotypes. Overall, this show has a tremendous record of building bridges across the cultural divides between its contestants. Furthermore, by showing this process, viewers at home also gain insights into both our country's various cultural differences, and also our shared humanity. That's the value of Survivor.
Going all the way back to Borneo, the first and perhaps most iconic example of this was when cantankerous old Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch, respecting Richard Hatch's in-game work ethic, came to trust and respect Hatch, before learning that Hatch is gay. After Hatch's homosexuality became known, Rudy decided that Hatch was still a pretty good guy, despite being "a queer." At that time, in the summer of 2000, many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people were still closeted. This was less than two years after Matthew Shepard had been beaten and left for dead in Wyoming simply for being gay. "Don't ask, don't tell" was still the rule in the military. Same-sex marriage was a new concept, just starting to gain acceptance. Many people in more socially conservative areas of the country quite possibly had never met an openly gay man. And yet, every Wednesday at 8 p.m. on their TV screens, here was Richard Hatch, an ebullient, intelligent, scheming rogue, bringing together a motley alliance, driving the strategy, and winning the million-dollar prize on the biggest hit of the summer of 2000. Even though he voted them out, the Wisconsin truck driver and the retired Navy SEAL both voted for Hatch to win, and 51.7 million people saw them do so. This is what Survivor does best.
Seventeen years later, gays and lesbians have made tremendous strides in achieving social acceptance. Yet perhaps in part to their smaller overall numbers, transgender people are only beginning to have their stories told, be it through TV shows like Transparent, or the public cases of celebrities like Chaz Bono or Caitlyn Jenner. Zeke is Survivor's first transgender contestant, but he wasn't openly trasngender until this episode. But that loss -- Zeke being outed, the conflict between Varner and Zeke -- wasn't the whole story. The show gained something back in the defiant, inclusive, empathetic reactions of Zeke's tribemates. Tai and Andrea immediately responded, tearfully, that Varner had crossed a line. Ozzy told Varner he should be ashamed of himself. But perhaps most impressive was Sarah's emotional and personal response.
Sarah gave another demonstration that Survivor is still enabling its contestants, and by proxy, its audience, to grow through exposure to people they would otherwise never meet. As a Midwestern cop from a conservative background, Sarah probably doesn't encounter a lot of trans people in her line of work. But she had been with Zeke since Day 1 of Game Changers, and respected and cherished him for who he is. She vehemently rejects Varner's attempt to use Zeke's transgender status to characterize Zeke as "deceptive." This, the same Sarah who earlier that same day had been "irate" that Zeke had warned Varner that Sarah and Andrea were planning to be nice to Varner just to keep him from scrambling. Sarah says she's "thankful I got to know Zeke for who Zeke is," and that "he's super kick-ass," and not just, as Zeke feared he would be viewed, "the trans person." As rough as Tribal Council was for all involved, Sarah's response was reassuring that, despite Varner's poor decision to cross the line he did, Survivor is still doing something right.
It's thankfully rare that Survivor has to deal with significant personal attacks such as this (recently: "rice wars" in Redemption Island, or Will Sims verbally assaulting Shirin in Worlds Apart), but when it does, it usually attempts to rise above simple, exploitative airing of the ugly footage it's left with, and instead create an empathetic, empowering narrative. Here, Zeke's surprisingly poised perspective at Tribal Council was the guide for that: He hopes that there's a young Survivor fan out there somewhere who finds strength and hope from "seeing me being out on Survivor," and that "maybe this will lead to a greater good."
Maybe. Let's hope.
As encouraging as the support Zeke's tribemates showed for him at Tribal, it's equally encouraging that CBS and Probst himself remained in contact with Zeke throughout the long wait before this episode aired (including the airing of the entire Millennials vs. Gen X season), and allowed Zeke himself to guide the manner in which this topic was approached. By saving this particularly uncomfortable reveal for this episode, the Survivor audience first got to know Zeke simply as a Hawaiian-shirted superfan, who happens to also be a pretty good Survivor player.
If that leads the audience to a deeper understanding of the difficulties and social barriers that trans people face every day, maybe that's a slight gain? Again, let's hope.
Losses and gains: Ozzy/Nuku vs. Brad/Mana
While Tribal Council rightfully took up a significant chunk of the episode, the opening act contained an interesting contrast in game philosophies that's worth noting. After the reward, we were shown Nuku celebrating their pizza reward win, while back at Mana camp, much of the tribe wept about the toll the game was taking. Speaking for Nuku, Ozzy (the epitome of the physical player) says this refueling from the reward was key to replenishing tribe morale. In fact "that extra boost is the most important thing right now."
Meanwhile, back at Mana camp, Aubry and Sierra question why they even came back out to play Survivor again, causing Cirie to shed a few tears. Then Brad weeps about how hard the game is, and how much harder Monica had it by lasting until the end in Blood vs. Water, and how he finally understands. This soliloquy allows Brad to immediately bond with Aubry and Cirie, who praise him (both privately and directly) for being authentic and opening up. Aubry says, "Brad is to me the most genuine person that I've met out here."
Where Ozzy was entirely focused on the physical game, Mana has strengthened their respective social games (particularly Brad). Considering Nuku promptly goes out and loses the next immunity challenge, then has to endure an excruciating Tribal Council, which perspective do we think the show itself sees as correct?
Losses and gains likely in the merge ahead
As the preview at the end of the show revealed, the merge is upon us. With 13 people remaining, there are potentially a lot of ways the various subgroups, split by two swaps, might coalesce and regroup after the merge. But with an eye to who's been featured the most in the pre-merge, it seems that as in All-Stars, the few remaining big names are not long for this game, and the lesser-known players are poised to take control. Starting with the people most likely to emerge on top, here are the various groups we think we see:
All in all, Brad appears to have the most solid group, and has 6 people in a merge tribe of 13. While Culpepper math might suggest that's enough, it's actually not, but it's really close. If he's approached by an Ozzy looking for meat shields, or a Sarah looking to make a big move, he could have his seventh, and would be set for now. If we were betting, Sarah seems the most likely to be successful, and Ozzy's attempt to extend his record of days playing Survivor is in jeopardy if he doesn't win immunity.
Even if we're misreading things, and Tai sticks with Zeke's group, Brad could still pull in someone else... maybe Hali? She and Sierra do have matching tattoos, even though they "hardly know each other at all." All in all, it seems like the genuine, interior-decorating, WWMD? guy's game to win. Or at least run for a good while. Yay?
A back-and-forth battle for supremacy, replete with and complicated by voting blocs and/or trust clusters would be much more interesting to watch, but nothing about this season suggests anything more complicated than a simple Pagonging is likely. At least for a while. So maybe it's a good thing Survivor is burning through two episodes next week? We shall see.
Other Game Changers Episode 7 recaps and analysis
Special coverage: Zeke Smith
Episode 7 exit interviews: Jeff Varner
Episode 7 podcasts