Sunday, September 17, 2006
The editorial below appeared in The Chicago Sun-Times. A MultiCultClassics rebuttal immediately follows…
Latest ‘Survivor’ has potential to cook up friction
In addressing the controversy over “Survivor: Cook Islands,” which in the name of diversity initially segregates whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics in separate “tribes,” host Jeff Probst effectively framed this TV moment: “People are very touchy about even saying the word race or even bringing up the notion of different ethnic groups working together or maybe not working so well together. What if they don’t get along? What if it’s a disaster? What if we set back the whole notion of integration?”
Well, as popular as “Survivor” has been – “Cook Islands,” launched Thursday, is its 13th installment -- Probst may have overestimated its cultural reach. He definitely overestimated the number of viewers who take it seriously. But at a time when Americans are deeply divided over racial profiling and immigration politics, African Americans feel disenfranchised by the electoral process, relations between Jews and blacks have bogged down and white supremacy cults still occasionally rear their ugly heads, it’s possible that in playing up ethnic differences, “Cook Islands” will strike some nerves.
As innocent and affirmative as rooting along racial lines may be in the beginning, how will viewers feel if all the whites or blacks get voted off the show? What if ethnic stereotypes like Asians being smart but physically overmatched and blacks not being great swimmers are played up? As unlikely as it is on a show this carefully stage-managed -- the opening episode couldn’t have been more innocuous in giving participants a chance to say things they’re expected to say -- what if “Survivor” creator Mark Burnett’s specious claim that “we’re smart enough to have gotten rid of every racist person in casting” blows up in his face?
But if “Cook Islands” has the potential to create friction by dividing audience members as well as contestants along ethnic lines, it also has the potential to impart positive values in giving tribe members the opportunity to quash stereotypes, bond across ethnic lines (even as they scheme to betray each other in pursuit of the $1 million prize) and stand on common ground. Television shows that consciously try to be uplifting usually drown in their own sensitive juices, but maybe this one is different enough to transcend formula. But probably not.
The producers insist they came up with this hot button idea not merely to bounce back from their worst-rated entry, “Survivor: Panama-Exile Island,” but to appease critics who said the show has been too white. In the past, 80 percent of those who applied to get on it were white. This time, ethnically diverse men and women were aggressively recruited. Judging by an African-American tribesman’s declaration that “Black people don’t like to be told what to do” and a hippie-inspired Vietnamese American’s lament that he’s an outcast in his own group, “Cook Islands” will have no shortage of minority spokesmen creating their own stereotypes and caricatures. Whether or not the show promotes a dialog on race or bogs down in “Survival” tactics as usual remains to be seen. But the last thing anyone should expect from the entertainment division of CBS is “a social experiment like you’ve never seen before.”
The latest installment of “Survivor” only continues to demonstrate “reality TV” is an oxymoron.
And host Jeff Probst is just a moron.
For starters, Probst is not qualified to oversee this “social experiment,” as he dubbed it. He has exhibited stereotypical, ignorant White Man behavior, as revealed in the following excerpts from The Washington Post:
“Until ‘Survivor’ host Jeff Probst sat in on casting sessions for the CBS reality series’s new edition, in which competitors were picked and put into ‘tribes’ based on their ethnic background, he had not realized that ‘Asian’ includes Japanese, Koreans and Chinese and that they do not necessarily like each other as a matter of ethnic solidarity.
Whites, on the other hand, are ‘mutts’ and ‘don’t have any ethnicity to hang on to,’ he told reporters on a phone conference call…
‘When you start talking to a person from Asia, you realize — Wow! They have all different backgrounds!’ gushed Probst, who described himself repeatedly as a 44-year-old white guy from Wichita…”
Probst wondered, “What if we set back the whole notion of integration?” It’s more likely he’ll set back the whole notion of civilization.
Producer Mark Burnett claimed, “[We’re] smart enough to have gotten rid of every racist person in casting.” Why? The truth is, the format would probably benefit from having a few bona fide bigots on the islands. At least the White Supremacists suddenly interested in the program would have relatable characters to support and cheer.
The creators insist that the big idea was hatched in response to the show’s traditional lack of color. This may be true, but the ultimate solution’s shock value seems pretty calculated and cynical.
If avoiding Whiteness was a goal, why not fully mix the teams to watch diversity in action? Or better yet, why not eliminate all Caucasians from the equation? The term “Survivor” is more relevant and applicable to non-Whites anyway.
There’s a disturbing parallel to draw between “Survivor” and the exclusivity in the advertising industry. Simply flooding minorities into the system is not a viable answer unless everyone knows how to properly integrate the cultures.
This attempt to invent a multicultural reality show sharply contrasts reality. Minorities may team up to compete in the real world, but the playing field is never level. Plus, they’re usually outnumbered at least 10 to 1. In short, it’s no day at the beach.
The only “real” thing here is that the entire affair has been orchestrated by White Men.