My Favorite Pastime, Reality TV, Has Become a Little Too Real
More reality shows are exploring how race impacts their contestants, and my escape route is disappearing
On the 9th episode of the 42nd season of Survivor, I began to see double. To be fair, my viewing conditions were shabby to begin with, (my finger-smudged 13-inch Chromebook), but it was during the tail end of that show when my perception split, producing two vantage points of the same episode. I was comfortable and happy, wooly socks on my feet, durag on my head, Thai takeout in my mouth. And then, suddenly, something that had always been a pure escape mirrored my reality a little too closely, catapulting me back to the present.
The format of a Survivor episode typically remains the same. First, in the Reward Challenge, the tribe competes for a “luxury” item or experience that will build mental or physical stamina—such as a hearty feast, a night at a luxury hotel away from their desolate camps, or a video message from a loved one back home. Next, the Immunity Challenge, where survivors compete individually for protection from elimination, occurs during the final segment, Tribal Council. At Tribal Council, the members of the tribe democratically vote to cast out one member to advance their own individual game and eventually win the $1,000,000 prize. However, this time was different. During this episode, the tribe had been split. This meant two separate Tribal Councils, enabling the second pack of survivors the chance to see who was voted out from the previous group before voting out one of their own.
Two of my favorite contestants found themselves in the second group: Drea and Maryanne—both Black women. I’m always “rooting for everybody Black,” but I was also drawn to their incredibly different approaches to the game. Drea was an extremely strategic player, known for her calm, collected presence and thoughtful approach to navigating multiple alliances. It is because of this that she became an early fan-favorite—Survivor-stans love a behind-the-scenes puppet master. Maryanne, a fellow Canadian who grew up in a town that neighbors my hometown, was quite different from Drea but I adored watching her nonetheless. Maryanne entered Survivor at the age of 24, 11 years younger than Drea, and quickly made herself noticeable for her unflappable enthusiasm and never-ending spirited commentary. Some found her eagerness irritating; most found it endearing. Due to their different approaches, Drea and Maryanne found themselves at opposite ends of the tribe, in different alliances. In fact, prior to heading into Tribal Council, Maryanne intended to vote out Drea that evening, believing Drea a threat to her individual game. All of this changed when Drea and Maryanne, along with the rest of the second group, walked into Tribal Council and saw who was sitting on the jury bench, a throne reserved for those who have been voted out but are required to silently watch the remaining Tribal Councils.
My favorite part of any Survivor episode is the Tribal Council. This is where you witness gameplay at its best: the political wordplay of the survivors as they answer questions from the host, Jeff Probst, the inconspicuous whispering between alliances as they attempt to shift votes, the lies, the backstabbing, the last minute deals! It’s also when you see the tribe’s reaction to those on the jury bench. Typically, I gush at this part because of the juxtaposition between an ousted jury member’s glow up (they get sent to sequester where they have access to real food and hygiene, read: they typically get hotter) with the feeble, decimated remaining members who are ravaged from the elements of Survivor. The drama! The heightened stakes! However, in this episode, my vision split as I saw Drea and Maryanne walk into the tribal council and witness who was on the bench. It appeared theirs did, too.
Drea, Maryanne and I noticed an all too familiar trend: Black contestants voted out one-by-one as soon as the game switched from being team based to individual. As a Black audience member, I instantly picked up on what Drea and Maryanne were feeling when they observed that the first two members of the jury were Black.
At this moment, I oscillated between ‘Brendon the Survivor Fan’ and ‘Brendon the Black Survivor Fan.’ My perspective split, shifting how I absorbed the show. I felt conflicted, wanting Maryanne to make the big move of voting Drea out. At the same time, I did not want to see a third Black survivor voted out, especially one whose gameplay I admired. The feelings I harbored were complicated but ultimately my urge for both Maryanne and Drea to remain in the game subsumed my desire to see strategic gameplay. I wanted them both to stay, even if it would make my beloved Tribal Council less entertaining.
I read the concern in their eyes: Maryanne was uncharacteristically quiet; Drea’s expression was stoic and wooden as a calculation raged on in her mind. And then, what happened next was what ‘Brendon the Black Survivor Fan’ anxiously anticipated. Out of instinct and obligation, Drea and Maryanne simultaneously played their own immunity idols to guarantee their safety at tribal council. Neither of them had planned to do so, but seeing the Black eliminated members split their gameplay in two. They were no longer playing the individual games of Drea the Survivor Player or Maryanne the Survivor Player. They were also playing as Black Survivor Players, engaging their own double vision. The disheartening truth, race related or not, was that Drea likely would have been voted out if she had not seen the pattern and had not played her idol. Although Maryanne technically was never a target, she felt pressure to play her idol out of fear of being seen as using her race as a clutch to get farther. Through her emotive response, coaxed out of her by Probst, Maryanne explained the “double consciousness” she plays the game with, competing not only through her own reality as a Black woman but also from the white audience’s perception of her. It’s in vignettes like this where Survivor mimics reality so closely, exposing the burden that Black folks face when advancing ourselves. We must be cognizant of how our actions reflect upon our community.
After the episode, I closed my laptop, an opaque wave of emotion blanketing me. I wrestled, trying to reckon with my two halves and make sense of how best to engage with my favorite show. I had finally gotten the representation that I craved since watching the first season of Survivor as a child in 2000. Now that I had it, why wasn’t I satisfied?
Growing up in the suburbs of Ontario, reality television often felt like a vacation. Or, at least, a more entrancing issue of National Geographic. I glimpsed a life that was out of reach, yet incredibly fascinating. The prevailing reality programs of the aughts presented an idealized vision of western life, an immaculately produced fantasy. In MTV’s Laguna Beach, the fantasy of an alternate adolescence absorbed me, one where privileged teenagers fell in love around bonfired beaches only to break hearts on tabletops in Cabo. The shameless commitment to the performance of “spoiled heir” in The Simple Life amused me, shaping my understanding of “the socialite” today. Finally, the stakes and talent presented in American Idol swindled millions into believing that a popularity contest equaled meritocracy. We searched, week after week, for evidence of the American Dream within the glow of our TV screens.
Today’s reality programs offer less faraway fantasy vision, presenting more of a looking glass focused on the audience’s surrounding reality. As “wokeness,” political literacy and leftist ideology become increasingly marketable, reality television series have swiftly broken the fourth wall to mirror today’s news cycle and the most current political sentiments. Gone are the days where reality television equaled escape. Instead, a good reality series attempts to reflect society, some more accurately than others, and pull focus to urgent issues in an effort to remain relevant during a politically turbulent time. Cultural bombshells such as the 2016 Trump election, the 2017 #MeToo movement and the 2020 George Floyd murder have pushed society’s most established institutions towards rexamination. Producers of popular, long-running programs have altered its successful framework to appease audiences and respond to the pressures of today’s climate.
The fracturing of entertainment to acknowledge audiences’ amplified cultural and political consciousness— across a variety of popular programs—is layered. RuPaul’s Drag Race, notably the competition reality series with the most Emmy wins, attempted to edit out a competitor from all fourteen of its episodes during its twelfth season due to sexual assualt allegations that came to light after filming. Although that queen was still seen in group scenes and the main challenges, the praise she received from the judges and their time in the confessionals was substantially limited in comparison to her competitors. This complicated the viewing experience. The queen was clearly succeeding in the competition, and viewers were only getting half the story. Viewers of the show watched as a disclaimer appeared with the opening credits explaining the contestant’s disqualification and subsequently filled in the blanks as the erased competitor continued to succeed, mostly untelevised. It is easy to imagine that a decade earlier, when television programs operated under a different set of expectations, a program like Drag Race would have continued to feature the disgraced competitor as their strong performance would have made for a better viewing experience. The current cultural context finds its way into the editing room, and influences how and what we, the viewers, consume.
It’s ironic that Survivor, a show that takes place in environments often marketed as untouched by Western civilization such as Micronesia, Fiji and Kenya, displays narratives covered in the fingerprints of Western society. And it’s exactly this that has been the strength and strain of present day Survivor. Singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey once sang “It turns out everywhere you go, you take yourself.” Recent seasons of the much loved franchise have proven that truth, as the identity of the cast members become increasingly politicized within the game.
In Survivor: Game Changers (Season 34th, 2017), millions witnessed a revolting tribal council when one competitor, Jeff Varner, outed another, Zeke Smith, as a transgender man. A nationwide conversation ensued on the nuances of disclosure. Varner’s rationale for outing Smith is neither relevant nor coherent, but the decision for CBS to air the confrontation platformed transgender issues to a large American audience. The result was a sweepingly positive sentiment for Smith and transgender rights. After this, Survivor began to morph from not only being a reality show about people on an island but a vehicle to platform underrepresented voices. Being one of the most watched programs on primetime, witnessed weekly by upwards of five million people, it’s as though its producers (host Jeff Probst also serves as an executive producer) have suddenly realized that the show might possess some molecule of social responsibility.
Since 2020, Survivor’s cast has become increasingly racially diverse, in a way that is exhilarating, with a record number of Black participants competing. This was not only in response to the requests for greater diversity on the cherished show, but also out of recognition that out of 40 seasons, only four of the winners were Black. People of color (along with elders) are often the first to be voted out. With the recent uptick in representation, Black contestants have now felt comfortable enough to vocalize the burden of not only competing as individuals, but also acting as representatives of the Black community. In Season 41, viewers witnessed the first ever all-Black alliance where the Black competitors banded together to look out for each other, even if that meant weakening their individual standings. They valued the collective over the individual.
One could be grateful that CBS, with its influx of contestants of color, is committed to responsibly allowing them to tell their stories. In doing so, Survivor can further humanize minority players and pull focus to underrepresented issues that are emblematic of the systemic challenges beyond the screen. But who does this serve? Which viewers?
Traumatic stories of race and representation are becoming rote for Survivor—at least in the last two seasons. Big Brother recently featured an all-Black alliance (in Season 23, cleverly named ‘The Cookout’) where members also highlighted the strain of advancing their individual game alongside that of members of their race. It needs to be mentioned that Big Brother US has an extensively documented history of casting blatantly racist players. Its most recent season is under fire for the microaggressions faced by a Black houseguest. Similar to Survivor, the Cookout did not always want to work together, but did so to benefit the collective. In the end, the balance of the dual gameplay – playing as a representative for the Black community and playing as an individual – leaned in the direction of the group. The result? A Black winner. This achievement is synonymous to how the Black community bands together to create a space where one of their own can succeed and crystalizes that idea that reality television is not so much an escape, but more of a microcosm of our world.
How does one engage in escapism TV when it no longer feels like an escape? The editing of the Survivor and the line of questioning from the increasingly provocative Probst, both of which feel opportunistic at best and exploitative at worst, leaves me unsure if a reality television program can truly be both educational and entertaining. It is gratifying to see fragments of myself on my favorite television show, but it’s also grating to see my trauma consistently relayed back to me when I’m trying to unwind and escape. I feel conflicted knowing that my temporary discomfort serves as a moment to educate the white majority.
I have pondered if an all-Black Survivor is necessary: a season where Black contestants can finally compete as individuals and not have to worry about aligning with castmates who don’t serve their competitive interest. As exciting as this is to me, a lifelong viewer, I worry that the winner of the season will only have an ‘asterisk’ next to their name, that their win will be viewed as less of a win when compared to the other forty-and-change winners. As a Black consumer of stories, I have long dreamed of narratives untouched by the white gaze, whether it is through the fictionalized Wakanda in Black Panther or the distant memory of the Black-only social media platform Black Planet. These vacuums are effective when Black folks are involved at the inception. However, in the instance of Survivor, where the institutions are attempting to retroactively diversify and atone for past mistakes, with potentially little or no people of color in consultation, the intentions feel muddled, less precise. Was this the representation I wanted? Representation that feels like a reflex and a vehicle to educate the masses?
CBS is not the only network on board with this change. Bravo, at times, has also opted for education over entertainment. One of the Bravo network’s most popular shows is The Real Housewives franchise, with The Real Housewives of New York (RHONY) as an early fan-favorite. Despite an impressive tenure of thirteen seasons over thirteen years, RHONY failed to produce a single Black housewife in a city where the population is 24% Black until the murder of George Floyd spawned a global outcry for a substantive examination of systemic and institutional racism. In what appeared to be a reactionary tactic in response to complaints of lack of diversity, Bravo introduced Eboni K. Williams, the first Black housewife for the RHONY franchise. However, Williams’ narrative on the show was met with mixed reviews. Although many applauded the network for finally diversifying its cast, plenty of viewers noticed that Williams’ was primarily utilized as an object to educate her white cast members on her lived experience as a Black woman. Throughout the season, it appeared that Williams did not possess the same fluidity as her white castmates—the ability to move throughout the world as “just a housewife” and not be tokenized by her identity. If anything, Williams’ experience was realer and more familiar than anything that had been portrayed on The Real Housewives of New York: a Black woman in America justifying her existence to a class of white women.
Perhaps Alicia Calaway, known for her commanding presence on Survivor (2001, 2004) or Omarosa Newman, infamous for her villain persona on The Apprentice (2004, 2008), have always been discussing, pushing and explaining intersectionality to their cast members and it’s never made it to our screens. When Newman attempted to explain intersectionality on RHONY’s Bethenny Frankel’s talk show in 2013 – granted in her trademark jabby delivery – she was met with boos from the majority white woman audience. Warranted or not, arguably outspoken Black women like Newman and Calaway are routinely edited into the “angry black women” trope, often silencing them in the media while purporting to include them.
As reality television catches up to the cultural climate of today, I anticipate that I will become accustomed to the double vision I experience with Survivor, Big Brother and the Bravo franchises. This “twoness” is akin to what civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois termed “double consciousness,” an internal conflict that marginalized folks experience when they possess not only their own perspective but also the ability to peer through white gaze. In my case, I suspect that there will be moments when I watch these programs through my own eyes and then, as programming switches to the political, I will have to decide whether to turn my brain off, remaining suspended in the fantasy of reality TV, or commit to the labor of full engagement. In short, I will have to decide which Brendon to blind.
Whether it’s an escape or a dose of reality, these programs elicit an engrossing swell of entertainment and information, offering a window into a singular person’s perspective that can go on to represent a culture. It’s people on screen representing the people on the couch, with their wooly socks on, eating their Thai takeout. And, I suppose, that is why we have always watched, to see ourselves accurately or aspirationally, tuning in each night in hopes of seeing proof that our experiences are real.