THE SETUP: Much maligned but hugely popular “reality-based” Survivor (Wednesdays, 8 p.m.) has garnered CBS some of its highest ratings in recent memory. On the show, groups of people, or “tribes,” are stranded on a remote tropical island and compete in various races and contests for food and other prizes. Each week, the losing tribe must vote one of its members off the island, and at the end of the season, the one person who has survived the entire season will win one million dollars. Last week’s episode, the seventh in a series of thirteen, saw two cast members, Sean and Jenna, meeting alone on a sandy beach as representatives of their respective “Tagi” and “Pagong” tribes to discuss merging the remaining survivors into one group.
THE PLAYERS: Laurie Stone is a novelist and critic. She is the author of Close to the Bone: Memoirs of Hurt, Rage and Desire. Deb Margolin is a professor of theater studies at Yale University and a founding member of the Split Britches Theater Company.
LAURIE STONE: I’m wallowing in Survivor. At first it seemed like an over-the-top peep show, a form of surveillance porn. Who’s going to sleep with whom? What degradation will people stoop to for media attention? Now I’m into the characters, the sexual-politics hell, the Machiavellian court strategies. It’s twisted, surprising even poignant at times!
DEB MARGOLIN: As a performance artist, I’m moved by the solo performance aspect, the moments where people confide in someone the viewer never sees. These monologues are compelling, because a “confidential” statement which will be seen and heard by eight million people is automatically theatrical.
LS: I’m struck by the Shakespearean asides, too. One thing I found fascinating was when Joel (the twenty-eight-year-old salesman), who was contemptuous of the women and confident he would prevail in the Pagong tribe, was shocked when the women voted him out. They told the camera he was going down for his condescension. They felt more compelled to purge him than keep a strong man in their ranks.
DM: Joel spoke to the women as if they were mentally ill or six years old, yet he was sort of good-looking, despite his smirk. Radical feminist terrorist that I am, I thought: Why vote him out? Why not take a judo approach to his misogyny, and use his weight against him? Bat your eyes, shake your boobs and get him to prove his meat by passing his muster, by which I mean: use his chauvinism to get him to do all the work.
LS: Nice idea, but Joel was more absorbed with himself than proving his masculine virtues. The “castaways,” as the contestants are called, sometimes take a strategic view about winning the million-dollar prize but more often they’re swayed by the pressures of communal life, and their feelings take over. They sometimes get rid of someone they can’t take anymore, and there’s an element of surprise in this for them. There’s a similar element of surprise for the audience. They may have tuned in to see bikini-clad bods, but they get hooked by the personality clashes and the lab experiment aspect of the show. (“Today you will eat worms. Tomorrow you will drink wine.”) There is something so staged about the show by the editors and even by the castaways, who are “performing” versions of themselves and yet so unpredictably raw about what’s unfolding.
DM: These people are walking around in bathing suits, eating non-Kosher marine oddities, talking to cameras and trying to win a prize. It has so many layers of marketing and editing to penetrate that whatever is real must be wicked real, like the look on Gretchen’s face when she was voted off. For me watching her contrive that smile for the cameras to deal with the shock of losing was the realest moment because the mechanics of contrivance were, for once, not hidden, and she said, “It’s me, it’s me,” dazed and in a state of wonderment.
LS: The players are nervous about being boring. You see it in the searching, lost, zoo-animal look in their eyes, somewhere between Am I doing okay? and What am I doing here? They squirm about simultaneously feeling competitive with and attracted to each other. There was a little nookie between Greg (the twenty-four-year-old journeyman) and Colleen (the twenty-three-year-old college student) a while back. She told the camera they were having a passionate affair. He brushed it off as a tiny flirtation. But the fact that two people from the group were separating themselves made the others on their team twitchy. They felt left out of the fun. The show is a set-up for sexual fantasy, with its time-out-of-time quality and hot flesh on a deserted island atmosphere. Yet at the same time the show makes the contestants wary of sex, for fear of triggering jealousy and being voted down as a couple .
But it’s tricky: sex might be used to broker power. In the coming attractions for the next episode, it was hinted that Greg might make a pass at Richard, who is thirty-nine and openly gay but more significant a big power player among the castaways. The suggestion was that Greg might use his sexuality to secure a better footing, now that the tribes have merged and it’s each person for him or herself. Some of the erotic energy gets expressed in the players’ exhibitionism before each other and the camera the flirting looks and poses and some gets expressed as aggression when tribemates are voted off. The scenes are tense in an uncomfortable way, partly because the contestants are forced to be brutal and partly because they’re sometimes into it.
DM: Did you ever play the game, “Who would you rather?” where you name two people, and the other person has to pick which one they’d fuck if they had to? Who would you rather: Kelly or Colleen?
LS: Kelly. I like a woman who knows how to steer a whitewater raft.
DB: Who would you rather: Sean or Richard?
LS: Sean. There’s something to be said for a neurologist with a nipple ring. But only if he didn’t talk before, during, or after sex. Who would you have sex with? If you say Rudy, you’ll merit the depravity I’ve long attributed to you.
DM: Well, you know . . . Rudy. I do merit the depravity! In this L.A. of an island, this quick TV fix of indolent youth on the make, this seventy-two-year-old curmudgeon becomes exotic! In the last episode, he kept talking about the young people’s post-prandial, fireside conversation being all about . . . eeps . . . sex! And how that’s fine for young people, but for him it’s a pain in the ass. He said the word ass again and again to the point where I became sort of aroused. When they kept giving him this solo camera time, and he stood there, retired Navy Seal, five o’clock shadow, shirtless, big teeth possibly false, angry, ill-at-ease, set up as the foil, saying pain in my ass, pain in my ass, pain in my ass. I felt: “Can I help you with that, honey? Can I make it all better?”
Everyone talked about how Rudy had kicked them in the head continually during the night, when everyone was forced to move to shelter during the rain, and I was sure he was going to get voted off. I quake at the tribal council where the vote-off takes place. It’s like Sophie’s Choice, and I saw too many Holocaust movies as a kid. But it’s just primal, just riveting, the public sadism, the fear I feel of how I would behave in a situation like that, where my competitiveness, a secret I protect zealously, had to be written on paper before millions and explained, the consequences dealt with.
LS: It’s amazing how Rudy’s managed to stick it out. He formed a cabal with three of his Tagi mates (they don’t vote each other off): Richard, young river rafter Kelly, and truck-driver Susan, who rants about hunting for tapioca root. I’m into the food torture the rats, the beetle larvae. (Speaking of torture, they got to exercise some when they slaughtered the three chickens they won in a competition, naming them Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner and picking them off one by one, they way they do each other in the tribal council.) It’s understandable they practically come when Richard catches something like a lobster. In the last episode, food was even used by the producers as a sexual incentive to get the tribal ambassadors they selected, cuties Sean and Jenna, to fuck. They happily consumed the lobster dinners and four bottles of wine that were provided at their meeting, but they refused to have sex, feeling manipulated or maybe too wasted.
DM: I was disappointed there was no “chemistry” when they negotiated the terms of the merger: the new location for the unified tribe, the flag, etc. I was really looking forward to this preordained evening, which was set up to be romantic, with candles and wine. There were those beds set up on casters on the sand as if the beach wasn’t enough of a bed: infinite, soft and perfect for any gyrations. It was the first time members of opposing tribes could get together, check each other out, and I think these two lookers were chosen with the hope they’d sizzle. And then . . . nothing. And the way the two tribes waited, like families, for the lovers to return: complaining, anxious, bitter. Could they have had sex? What with cameras, wires, boom mikes, scrims, lights, Best Boy grips, prop tables, ocean rigs, Red Cross trucks? Or was I just set up to want that? Who’s really being worked here? When that episode ended, I took a fucking shower.
LS: I think Sean and Jenna could have had sex despite the cameras or even because of them.
DM: I noticed at the end of the show they asked for people who wanted to be on the next Survivor series. You interested?
LS: I would not enjoy shitting in a hole, but I can see myself talking to the cameras all day. It’s like writing. The hardest thing would be putting on lipstick without a fine-haired Japanese brush. I would tease the show’s oily host. I hope the castaways are taunting him, in fact, and the producers are just not using the footage. I would forage for food and keep the beach tidy, and I would feel horribly rejected if I were voted off early. How do you see yourself on the island?
DM: I would be a big, swift reject. I am a domestic failure and can’t cook with even the widest choices at the fish market and the most elegant electrical appliances at my disposal. I’m terrified of bugs, crabs, and snakes and modest to the point of pathology when it comes to undressing in front of people. Who knows, though . . . maybe the sense that I was delivering a performance would kick in for me out there and I’d be able to show it all. In any case, I’ll tell you this: Someone there would have their way with me, because I am not a person who can go for three, four or five weeks without sexual contact. To sum it up, I think I’d last one episode and be kicked out unanimously. In fact, I’d want to leave as fast as possible, and if anyone wished me to stay, I’d pay them with sexual favors to vote me off.
To join a discussion about this show and other pop culture,
sign up for
NerveCenter, where you’ll find that and other intriguing debates. The
discussion for this product can be found in the
“Pop Sex” folder of message boards.