I haven’t found much time to blog in season 39. Through seven episodes, it was shaping up to be a season I really loved, and I wanted to write about all the things there were to like. But this week, that abruptly came to an end — and with it, a feeling that I couldn’t let the week pass by without writing something about it.
It’s dangerous to write a perspective of the story of "How Survivor Handled Dan" when that story isn’t over yet, one way or another. We’ve only seen part of the actions of those in the game so far. As further episodes are shown, we may end up seeing things in a different light.
So this column isn’t about assigning blame (although in a couple of cases blame must be assigned). Rather, it’s my own thoughts on how the players and the show found themselves in these circumstances, how each of them have handled it (so far), and how it speaks to real life circumstances — particularly for women who find themselves the victim of men (be it through sexual harassment or any other inappropriate exercise of power).
And, beyond all of that, it’s my thoughts on why the episode presented demonstrates a need for an immediate overhaul of the way in which Survivor handles sexual harassment, and any other kind of behaviour that leaves players in the game feeling that their own well-being isn’t safe.
I’ll address various people and issues in turn.
Kellee, as a person, has been presented to us as extremely rational. In her game decisions throughout, she has thought things through logically and carefully, coming to a considered decision. This is also clearly how she presented to others.
It’s no surprise, then, that when confronted directly by producers with the opportunity to deal with Dan through ‘official channels,’ she not only opted not to, but also didn’t initially intend to vote Dan at all. Voting Dan out was not immediately most helpful for her game — the rational decision was to keep him in, despite the discomfort Kellee felt around him.
I’ve seen some people suggest that this means that Kellee was ‘playing the game’ in her own discussions with Missy about Dan’s behaviour. This suggestion is exceedingly unfair.
We got to see Kellee bond with Missy about their shared experiences of Dan’s handsiness. There was nothing in that conversation that tipped Missy off to the possibility of it being fake — because nothing about it was fake. Kellee and Missy acknowledged to each other than making a scene about Dan could be detrimental to their own games. It’s entirely possible for Kellee to sit down and make that bond with Missy but also to keep her head in the game and not make a vote based on those experiences. There was nothing about that conversation that suggested that Kellee started talking to Missy about her experiences with Dan for strategic reasons — in fact, all evidence points to the contrary, that the conversation was really important for her on a human level to feel validated about her own experiences. That Kelly can recognise afterwards that it’s not her best move to vote with her heart even though she wants to, only speaks to how rational Kelly is.
The other thing Kellee really didn’t do wrong was to not play her idol. In most circumstances, if you have two idols at the merge and you don’t know how the merge tribe will shake out yet, of course it’s the right move to play it. In this particular circumstance, though, by the time it got to tribal council Kellee had the word of people like Missy and Elizabeth that Dan was going home because of his behaviour. It was for this reason that Janet built a vote against him, and so this was the reason that Kellee could believe the vote was what she was told it was. The logic went beyond the game – it went into human bonds that had her voting against her best interests for the good of all of the women. It’s not a surprise that she would think all of the women would see it the same way. There’s little doubt in my mind that she plays an idol if that isn’t what was going on.
Missy and Elizabeth
Missy and Elizabeth have taken a lot of heat on social media in the last few days, most of it far outweighing their actual conduct on the screen.
Without a doubt, Missy and Elizabeth made some massive errors of judgment. I’ll get to those in a minute. But first, some things we need to remember.
Missy and Elizabeth are victims of Dan too. You can’t predict or judge how people will react to being victimised. They also came into the merge apparently down in the numbers. As original Lairo, they only knew they could depend on four people for sure.
Missy and Elizabeth’s first conversation after Missy spoke to Kellee seemed incredibly callous, as Missy talked about Elizabeth’s need to ‘play it up’ as their ‘only move’. However, this conversation doesn’t make sense in the context of an 8-5 blindside of Kellee. That move hadn’t come together yet anyway, and there are plenty of available moves that could have made that happen.
Rather, the conversation seems almost certainly to have happened in the immediate excitement of seeing their small minority survive the merge vote. In Dan, they had a viable candidate that ensured the target wouldn’t be on themselves. By affirming their own victimhood, they’d be able to ensure a Vokai went home first.
What happened after that conversation complicated matters immensely. When Lauren told Missy that Kellee was targeting her, Missy’s immediate — and completely understandable — reaction was likely to be that Kellee was using Dan’s harassment as a game move to pull the wool over Missy’s eyes. At that point, the entire tenor of the conversation changed.
Missy and Elizabeth were playing a paranoid game for $1,000,000. Inside that context, and with the belief that they were being played by Kellee, it’s not hard to see how they felt enabled to also use Dan’s harassment as a strategy to blindside Kellee. From my own experience of hundreds of games of mafia — when people start perceiving a line might have been crossed, all bets are off. If one person can play underhandedly, everyone else is enabled to do the same. It’s only fair — they can’t be hampered by playing ‘by the rules’ when the opponent isn’t.
The problem was, their original assumption was wrong. Kellee never meant to use it that way, and Missy and Elizabeth, as a result of taking Lauren and Tommy at their word, absolutely assumed it to be true.
Missy and Elizabeth did a lot wrong from here. They made no effort to double-check whether Kellee was using the allegations as a game move. They went several steps beyond using it as a game move, trying to make absolutely sure that Kellee and Janet believed their votes would be on Dan. And they worked themselves into a spot where they were forced to make a stark choice — lie to Dan’s face about what they were saying about him, or tank their own games.
It’s really hard to choose to tank a game for $1 million, even when confronted with doing the right thing. It’s much easier to lie to Dan and deal with it later. It’s clear that, because they felt enabled, neither Missy nor Elizabeth considered that they were both revictimising Kellee and enabling Dan to justify his own behaviour.
It’s really ugly — but I’m sure that heading into the game, both Missy and Elizabeth would have said that they’d always stand beside and believe women. It’s sometimes said that Survivor forces people to present their true selves. That’s really not the truth. It forces people to do things they wouldn’t do in real life.
And beyond that, Elizabeth and Missy are now forced to continue to live with Dan — who does creep them out and touch them inappropriately, but who they’ve now told isn’t doing anything they are uncomfortable with, pushing themselves into a situation where continued inappropriate contact seems likely. In the circumstances, they may well have revictimised themselves as well.
Missy and Elizabeth made choices that many women make when confronted with needing to stay friends with a man who has harassed them. They downplayed the truth of how they felt to his face. It’s not a new thing, and in fact it’s quite a tragic thing. And no doubt, watching the truth of those decisions has been deeply troubling for both of them. They will feel they have let themselves down.
It’s not fair to give them hate for their choices. They made mistakes, but keep those mistakes in context. They’re not the villains here. They handled things far worse than Kellee did, but they are still also victims. Their victimhood should not be forgotten.
The Survivor editors
The editors have taken a fair bit of flack this week for presenting an episode in which women recanted their own experiences of sexual harassment, to the extent that news outlets were able to run with that as the story.
While that’s an unfortunate side effect, I don’t think that it was a problem with the editing at all. In fact, I commend the editing.
First of all, from episode one through to the most recent episode, the editors have provided a picture that Kellee and Janet are absolutely victims. Dan’s behaviour has been presented as undeniably wrong (something that Survivor hasn’t always gotten right).
In addition, the show enabled us to see for ourselves that Missy and Elizabeth were experiencing genuine sexual harassment. Given they later downplayed it, it was a very important thing for us to see that they experienced it. It meant that we understood that they were downplaying it, rather than believing that Kellee was ‘playing it up’.
The end result is that what we saw on the screen was a harrowing but extremely true story about why victims of sexual harassment and other domineering behaviour don’t speak out. Both Kellee and Janet ended up going through harrowing experiences that saw one of them voted out and the other nearly quit, in large part because they were speaking up.
This, plus Kellee’s choice not to push things because Janet was there to keep her safe, is exactly what happens in real life. People choose not to make complaints and to live with the injustice of suffering through sexual harassment and bullying because the cost of standing up can be huge — their mental health, their job, their own family or extended friend group. Everywhere, people suffer through this in their jobs and their homes on a daily basis. That this episode presented a perspective on this that so inarguably painted Kellee and Janet (and Jamal) as the heroes and much of the rest of the cast is ‘in the wrong’ forces people to confront the reality of this situation, whether they like it or not.
I have nothing but praise for the editors. The reality is that it would have been easy to put together these episodes in a way that made Dan look justified, that excused behaviours that aren’t ok, and that minimised the victimhood of the victims. I think it did about as good a job as it could possibly have done in presenting the story in a way that can enlighten others about the reality of the impact of sexual harrassment. In that sense, I feel as though Survivor did a really good job here.
Us, the fans
Because the episode was so confronting in this way, I’ve seen a lot of mixed reaction to it.
One of the more challenging takes I’ve seen is people, particularly men, suggesting that the episode not be watched by others at all, or that people stop watching the season from here.
I can understand why some people, particularly women for whom the episode might have been triggering or reminded them of past trauma, would simply be unable or unwilling to continue with the season. Everyone has to do what is right for them.
But it’s completely the wrong move to suggest to others that they don’t watch — and it’s the wrong move to stop watching the season unless you really can’t do it. Why? Because for real life victims of sexual harassment, this reflects exactly what happens to them in real life. We are uncomfortable being confronted with a situation like this. But what victims really need us to do in circumstances like this is not to be a silent partner, and not to be a person who runs from the feelings the situation creates in us. Victims need our active participation. In the case of Survivor, that’s to continue watching and to continue supporting the victims — but it’s also to call for change.
There’s another thing fans have been doing for years that really needs to change. Every season, before the game begins, Survivor contestants are asked what they’d do to win, whether there are any lines they wouldn’t cross. Those who have said they will do whatever it takes have routinely been praised. Those who indicate there are moral lines in Survivor, things they wouldn’t do or say, are routinely criticised.
It’s understandable that people don’t enjoy watching those who are unwilling to ever stab an ally in the back or lie — that’s because the game can’t realistically be won without doing it and so those players inevitably either get cut or end up hypocritically talking a loyal game but not ultimately playing one. The concept of ‘mateship’, coined in Australian Survivor, is derided for a reason — it’s not compelling gameplay.
But there are plenty of lines in Survivor that should not be crossed. There is such a thing as Survivor integrity. I remember Dr. Mike Zahalsky, in HvHvH, describing it as ‘justifiable ethics’.
In talking to Josh Wigler before that season, Dr. Mike said:
“You have to be able to justify what you do, and know that there are some lines you can never cross. Like, people who are bullies, or people who are just mean for the sake of being mean. Those people, no matter whose alliance they're in, have to be eliminated immediately. At the end of the day, Survivor is a microcosm of civilization, and in civilization, behavior like that can't be tolerated, even if it's the democratic favor, so to speak. Just because more people vote the wrong thing, doesn't mean you do it when it's the wrong thing."
That philosophy, espoused by Dr. Mike, should be the philosophy we all have as fans. There shouldn’t be tolerance for stepping over boundaries that fall outside the lines of the game.
A lot has been made this week of Ted & Ghandia (Thailand) and Richard Hatch & Sue (All Stars) — and rightfully so, because they are examples of Survivor handling sexually charged incidents poorly. But sexual harassment is not the only line Survivor has been perfectly happy letting it’s contestants cross in the past that fall outside the bounds of ‘justifiable ethics’.
Survivor has a problem with justifiable ethics
In Samoa, Russell Hantz was, by Jeff’s own admission, a breath of fresh air for the series. He brought in new viewers and people loved him. But they loved him for all the wrong reasons. Russell Hantz was a chauvinistic bully. He belittled women, he destroyed people’s property in a game of psychological warfare. He did it all in the name of good TV.
Even at the time, Samoa was a season I found very hard to watch. In Heroes vs Villains it was much easier to watch Russell, if only because the show was making it far more clear that he wasn’t going to win in the end (and because Sandra was more than a match for him). But, for a very long time, the production view of Russell was that his brand of playing the game was good television. In my opinion, he was just crossing lines that fall outside of the scope of gameplay and made being around him unpleasant.
Later, in Kaoh Rong, Kyle Jason and Scot Pollard spent a lot of the game being bullies. The most egregious example was their treatment of Alecia Holden. At the time of Kaoh Rong, they had more than their fair share of supporters – and although the tide was changing on this kind of behaviour, it was at the very least controversial to say that you didn’t think the show should condone that kind of behaviour.
Since Kaoh Rong, my perception has been that the show has deliberately shied away from the casting of outright villains. Those types of people make their reputation by seeing no line that cannot be crossed. But even with a real effort to cast away from type, situations like the one encountered this season are still going to arise from time to time, and Survivor has never set itself up to deal with it.
Sexual harassment should not be ok on Survivor. But neither should extreme bullying. Neither should burning other people’s socks. It’s time for Survivor to stand up for justifiable ethics.
The role of Survivor production
Undoubtedly, Survivor has had a view on pulling people from the game over the years. That view is that it messes with the integrity of the game, and should only be done if absolutely necessary. In addition, they’ve seen the game as a self-regulating system, where bad behaviour can be punished by the players inside the game. The problem is that Survivor is not a self-regulating system — the bad behaviour of others is an attractive reason not to vote them out, and Survivor hasn’t been drawing the line for removal in the right place.
As Nick Maiorano pointed out on twitter, the medical view on when pulling someone is physically necessary has always constituted a reason to pull someone from the game, even if it messes with the integrity of the game. But Nick pointed out that this rule should be extended:
A third-party with authority is crucial for a player's entire well-being.— Nick Maiorano (@nickmaiorano) November 15, 2019
Despite medevaced players telling producers they're fine, the doctor has authority on physical health.
The psychologist should have authority on mental health. If just, the cause would be removed. #Survivor
Our consideration for and respect for mental health as a society has long lagged beyond our consideration about physical health. It’s telling that Survivor also has a policy for physical violence, but not for other forms of abuse. It’s not just Survivor — this is the world we live in. A few years ago, I heard a (potentially apocryphal) story about how the prison system, in allowing children to visit their incarcerated parent, would stand by while the inmate verbally abused and derided their own child, but would step in if physical abuse became a risk. While I couldn’t be certain the story was true, it certainly rang true at the time. In the name of freedom of expression, we allow people to step to the very extremes of how they can treat others verbally, far beyond the bounds of what is appropriate for the mental health and safety of others.
Dan could easily have been warned within the first three day cycle of this game. He could have long been pulled for continuing to do things that he has already been asked not to do. It wouldn’t have been hard, and it certainly wouldn’t have needed to be controversial.
Instead, Survivor put the onus on whether Dan should be pulled into the hands of its players — players who, of course, prioritise the impact on their games over their own wellbeing, because that’s what they are conditioned to do. Do anything to win. Put up with anything to win.
Games must have an arbiter. Sports have officials with the power to eject players for playing outside of the rules. You don’t leave it to their own teammates to eject them — that would be daft.
Survivor must implement and enforce an extremely clear policy around non-violent abuse within the game. There are no more excuses. There are lines that can’t be crossed on Survivor, and it’s time for the show to be much more clear about this. Warnings are appropriate in some circumstances – as is giving the players themselves an early chance to self-regulate by voting the person out. But situations like this cannot be left to continue for long – Survivor must act with the best interests of the mental health of their contestants at heart.
In my experience, one of the very biggest mental health detriments today is that people are unwilling to hear others tell them ‘no’.
“No” should be a very powerful word. Instead it’s one that people feel uncomfortable saying — so they say it in many ways. They say it with polite requests, or with body language, or by trying to explain why a situation isn’t comfortable for them, or by trying to find an excuse to get themselves out of the situation.
The very concept of consent has, at its heart, an understanding that the human condition is to find it hard to say no. It recognizes that there are situations in life where society has to step in and create a starting standard of ‘no’ being the default.
When it comes to touching other people, consent is necessary. This is particularly true when men touch women, when older people touch younger people, and when you touch certain areas of the body — all lines which Dan crossed.
Although it’s easy to point the finger at Survivor production and assign some blame here, primary blame lies in one place. Dan was clearly told no in many ways — in fact, in ALL of the above ways. He disregarded entirely the concept of consent. His behavior was out of line on every level.
Everyone has a duty to hear when others say no and to respect it. When people are empowered to have their boundaries and enforce them, we’ll be in for a much more mentally healthy world.
As always, feedback is welcome. Please let me know if anything I’ve written concerns you in any way — and please keep watching the season. It might not be pleasant, but it’s a journey we should see out to the end. Let’s remember to be kind to the contestants, and I’ll see you all next time I write.
Thanks for reading!
By day, Ben Martell is a public commercial lawyer from New Zealand.
By night, he moonlights as a self-described Survivor 'expert'.
By day or night, find him on twitter at: @golden8284