Trigger Warning: This article touches on subjects that may be difficult to read for people who have experienced any form of unwanted physical contact or harassment. If this applies to you, I understand if you do not wish to read or at the very least only do so in a calming setting.
Disclaimer: I am writing from the perspective of someone with a background in Communication Studies and as a male identifying person who has not been the target of unwanted physical contact. I cannot speak for anyone nor do I try not, and I am not speaking from any point of authority on this subject matter. I only offer my interpretation of these events as I’ve seen them on TV in the spirit of advocacy and using my voice and platform to aid in providing visibility for survivors of these incidents.
The last few episodes of the 39th season of Survivor, Survivor: Island of the Idols, have touched on social issues such as microaggressions (focusing on race) and assumptions about gender norms and roles. Both discussions included some powerful moments and resolutions achieved at the end of the episode. However, last night’s two episodes as part of a 2-hour block of Survivor programming had no such luxury as the social situation took a dark turn.
It all starts with Dan Spilo, and it started well before this episode. From the get go, Dan had trouble with personal boundaries. He would constantly touch many of the women on his tribe and make them uncomfortable. This issue was addressed in the premiere by Kellee Kim, Molly Byman, Lauren Beck, and Janet Carbin. Ultimately Kellee pulled him aside to tell him about his actions. Kellee was initially hesitant to do so because of a fear of repercussions, which is an unfortunate reality in our society. Dan appeared to understand and backed off, for now. Throughout the following six episodes Dan would continue to appear in minor segments either touching people or belongings and being unaware of him being perceived as an annoying, untrustworthy individual. He managed to survive two eliminations but in both instances other players opted to take out better players in Molly and Jason Linden.
During this week’s two one-hour episodes (aired back to back, with a brief parental guidance suggested warning), Kellee, Janet, and Tommy Sheehan have a conversation that sets off the domino effect that causes strategy to mix with real life. For now, it’s just strategy: trying to figure out which alliance to go with. Ultimately Tommy feels like his ideas aren’t being heard, which is the first sign of division between himself and Kellee all game. Though Kellee is still uncomfortable around Dan (having spent the previous three episodes away from him after the tribe swap), she is willing to put strategy first and vote out Missy Byrd, one of the stronger players from the opposite tribe.
Missy and Kellee would eventually bond over their similar experiences with Dan, which reassured Kellee that Dan was still problematic. In confessional, a distraught Kellee is seriously upset about the situation. At that point, nothing else mattered than voting out Dan at the next opportunity. Missy was completely on board, and with the alliances both women had made at that point in the game, they should have had no problem voting out Dan.
That is, until Lauren intervened. She revealed to Missy that Kellee was initially planning to target her. Missy, understandably, felt betrayed by Kellee. All bets were off. Kellee would become the target by both Missy and Lauren’s allies, and despite Kellee’s best efforts to vote out Dan and possession of a hidden immunity idol (which she unfortunately did not use to save herself, thinking she was safe), Kellee would be voted out 8–5 that Tribal Council.
It is worth noting a few major points in Kellee’s distraught confessional where she talks about Dan’s repetitive inappropriate behavior. First of which is the main message: that women constantly face these issues in workplace settings, school, and other parts of society and that they feel powerless because of the social ramifications that could come from speaking up. Even if several women feel the same way, they are often silenced, ignored, or otherwise not taking seriously. That is an awful position to be in. Part of me being a male identifying individual is that I have that privilege, that extra benefit of the doubt, that for years I was completely unaware of. This is a product of societal stigma that women who display emotion are seen as less credible than men who may lodge a similar complaint. These subtle traits may not seem like a big deal but there are several double standards of gender that persist in the fabric of our communication. I believe that these double standards, which oftentimes silence women, contribute to trends such as women being underpaid or underrepresented in many work industries and companies.
The second important moment here is that, for the first time in the show’s history, a producer is heard speaking to Kellee telling her that if Dan’s behavior persists, she can talk to him and further disciplinary action can take place. While these seemed like a good gesture at the time, and it was followed by the contestants being warned about boundaries and respecting each other, it did not appear to have its intended effect. While Dan received a warning, he seemed defensive and oblivious about his actions and intentions whenever they were brought up. This tells me that production needed to be more blunt and stern particularly with Dan. In general, companies, universities, and other similar organizations need to go beyond the “Human Resources” canned approach to addressing harassment. The aim should not be doing the right thing to save face, but actually going above and beyond to protect people who are targeted by these heinous behaviors.
The worst part of the Kellee vote was that Missy and Elizabeth played up their discomfort to Dan to deceive Kellee, Janet, and the rest of their allies into thinking Dan would be voted out. I believe they crossed a big line in doing so. The biggest argument critics of the #MeToo movement use are that survivors of sexual assault exaggerate claims to get ahead or some sort of advantage in the world. Missy and Elizabeth essentially did that and gained the advantage in Survivor. Something that was so genuine and personal to Kellee became weaponized and was the reason she was voted out. Oh, and Dan’s comment as Kellee’s torch was snuffed “Yeah, put that torch down” was ugly. To me that showed no remorse for Dan’s actions. While what others did to use his reputation to further add to their facade to pull off a game move was wrong, Dan is not without fault.
The big story of the second hour centers around Janet in particular, having changed up her whole game plan to make a selfless move thinking she was doing all of the women a favor by voting out Dan, trying to figure out what went wrong. Elizabeth and Missy continued their lie in front of Janet, only to reassure Dan after Janet left. Elaine showed Dan support, and in the following Tribal Council, Aaron made an ignorant comment. When Janet explained her point of view regarding Dan’s actions toward Kellee and the other women, Aaron felt that wasn’t the case because “had it been true, he would have known.’’ Jamal, the only man this episode to understand Kellee and Janet’s perspective, would reply by correcting that fallacious thought process. Jamal correctly states that men are not entitled to know about instances of harassment just because they are men, and that thought process perpetuates the silencing of women. It was an intense Tribal Council, one where Janet almost quits because she feels so helpless, Kellee is forced to watch in silence (due to the game mechanics, preventing members of the jury from speaking at Tribal Council), Lauren defends her actions (and her silent but visible contributions to the alliance wrongfully benefiting from this fiasco), as gameplay, and Jamal being voted out simply for being on the side with fewer numbers.
I know I did not cover everything, but I think I covered enough of the gas-lighting, double standards, manipulation of information that crosses my and many others’ lines of what is acceptable gameplay, and production doing the bare minimum, if that, to “attempt” to resolve this situation to get my point across. I understand that in the context of the game none of these players had the luxury of knowing all of the information that we had viewing the show. However, in real life we don’t have all of the information either. It’s on us to still make every attempt possible to make decisions that are helpful to the most vulnerable, those who come forward with this information.
I’ve watched every episode of Survivor and many episodes were difficult to watch. From other instances of sexual abuse, racial abuse, verbal abuse, to an outing of a transgender person, there have been many times where I was appalled, disgusted, shocked, or simply speechless. However, these two hours of Survivor from Wednesday, November 13 might just have hit a new low for me personally. From the lack of self awareness to the gas-lighting to the victim blaming it was hard to handle, and I can only imagine how hard it was for Kellee and those who stood up for her to watch on TV. Not to mention how hard it must have been for any survivors of abuse. This is a real issue being broadcast to a global viewing audience, and I hope at the very least it has allowed us to evaluate how we would handle and approach such sensitive information and situations.
As with every situation I chose to reflect on it’s important I highlight the key takeaways.
- When faced with information regarding sexual harassment or assault, support the person reporting that information. At the very least give them the benefit of the doubt. The phrase “Innocent until proven guilty” can coexist with a mutual respect for the victim or accuser. Think about why they chose to come to you in the first place, in a world where people who speak up about instances of abuse are often shunned or retaliated against.
- As Jamal explained in this episode, we are NOT entitled to know about these situations as soon as they happen. Even if this person is your best friend or family member they may not choose to disclose that information right away, if ever. However, should they chose to disclose at a later time, that should not affect your perceived validity of their claim. Whatever you think a survivor of harassment or abuse could gain from this information cannot make up for the likely lifelong trauma they will have to endure.
- If your experiences with a person accused of harassment were different than that of the accuser, that does not invalidate their experience. As Dan demonstrated, he did not behave the same way toward every woman or person on the season. It was only a few people, but that is enough for that to be a serious problem.
- False accusations do not diminish the legitimacy of true accusations. Just like any other claim or statement, there will be a select few that lie about their intentions. However, letting one lie cause you to belief that all accusers are liars is extremely problematic and harmful. This is yet another reason why so many survivors of sexual assault do not report and that has to change…now.
- Consider what you can do to make your place of work, school, business, or community a safe and inclusive space for all. This includes training, monitoring your choice of words, and asking for permission if there’s ever a reason for you to have to touch someone.
- Call to Action: To Survivor and every other TV show and organization, train your employees, executives, and producers to be better allies and listeners whenever someone comes up to you with an incident of harassment. Take every step possible to protect that person and intervene at the earliest opportunity. This will always be more important than the end product. If you are not protecting others and being a legitimate resource, you are part of the problem. It is also problematic if you do not allow the accuser, Kellee in this case, any say in how the story is portrayed in the final product.
P.S. Make sure you are actively hiring a diverse group of people in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, ability, and perspectives whenever possible. This diversity of perspectives fosters growth and knowledge about situations that some people with certain privileges or backgrounds may not yet have. Learning is a part of allyship and changing our society and culture for the better.
These are lessons that should not be forgotten until the next instance of harassment becomes viral. For too long our society has perpetuated problematic beliefs and cultures that have made women in particular feel uncomfortable and silenced. As Kellee Kim said during one of her exit interviews, “There is no such thing as an innocent bystander.’’ That is why we all must take action and give the voiceless a voice.