Friday, September 1, 2000

Reality, Television and Reality Television (or What I Learned from "Survivor")

A couple weeks ago I drove down to Los Angeles with five of my friends to demonstrate outside the Democratic National Convention. We went to about four marches a day: against oil drilling on native land, for education, not incarceration of youth, demanding better bus service, queer liberation, welfare not warfare. We stayed in a little motel in Hollywood, right across the street from CBS Studios, and every day we walked and drove past a huge billboard advertising "Survivor," the summer's hit "reality" show.

Though my friends are, as a whole, a die-hard television watching crowd, I was the only one who had actually stooped to watch Survivor. I tried to explain to them what was interesting about it: it was just like a soap opera (which they all watch, though I don't), but less predictable; it was interesting to watch the social dynamics and try to figure out what was really going on and what the producers had concocted with skillful editing.

Wednesday I attended a march against police brutality, which ended with a police riot outside the Staples Center. Though I was there during most of the chaos, I had to watch the news to find out what had happened. The version I saw on TV looked a lot more exciting, scary and unified than what I had seen first-hand, and I had to wonder which story I would tell when I got back to the Bay Area. CBS turned out to be the best news station to watch because one of their cameramen had been bashed by the police during the scuffle. And naturally, they had a post-mortem on that night's "Survivor." I had to run out of the room to avoid spoiling it for myself, having set my VCR before I left home.

Now as I muse over the final episode's showdown between Kelly and Richard, it helps to keep in mind that all television is real and not real. Even the most far-fetched show has many real stories behind it, as the recent death of a crew member on the set of "The X Files" tragically illustrates. "Survivor" may, as (possibly jealous) radio broadcasters have alleged, been more staged and scripted than the producers said it was. It really doesn't matter. The final vote tells us a lot about some social realities that "legitimate" reality broadcasting (i.e., news programming) pretends do not exist in the 21st century.

Richard, the 39-year-old white gay corporate trainer, won with the support of three white men and a middle-aged white woman. Kelly, a 23-year-old white outdoorswoman, got the votes of the one African American, a straight man, and the two young white women. Sean, the 30-year-old doctor, said, before casting his vote for the openly Machiavellian Richard, that this was not about voting for the best competitor, but the least objectionable. In fact, it seemed to be about voting for the person one found it least objectionable to be defeated by. Jenna's final question to the two contestants, "If you couldn't be sitting here, who would you put here in your place?" was ridiculed by numerous male columnists as trite Miss America stuff. But she put her finger on the crux of the matter.

Richard named two white men, Kelly two white women. Richard chose men he saw as tough and outdoorsy; the two women Kelly picked were universally loved. Presumably, with the roles reversed, the jury members asked themselves the same question: if not me, who is the best substitute for me? And as I would have predicted, straight white men put a gay white man in that role over a woman. More significantly, perhaps, both of Richard's picks were on the jury, while neither of Kelly's were. Was she an idiot, he a shrewd campaigner? Was she honest, and he calculating? Or was she making a play for the people on the jury who admired those two women more than her?

Part of what people seemed to hold against Kelly was her ambivalence about how she had played the game. Unlike Rich, who steadfastly said that he wouldn't change anything he had done, Kelly publicly agonized about her role in the unholy alliance, saying, "I had some not proud moments" (okay, no one said she should win a prize for grammar). She didn't like having people be mad at her, and this read as weakness to competitors and viewers. Tim Goodman, writing in the San Francisco Examiner, said she "took the vomitorious Miss America approach and answered questions so transparently that you began rooting for the impossible – vicious Rich to be the winner."

Gervase, Jenna and Colleen seemed to see the decision as a moral one. So did Rudy, in a fashion, though his had been made on Day One when he gave Rich his word – he is a man who doesn't break his word. For Sue it was all about revenge for Kelly's betrayal, ironic since Sue was the person who most frequently said into the camera that she had told someone one thing but planned on doing another.

Sean and Greg, the younger white men, rigorously avoided making anything akin to a moral judgment. Sean's alphabetical voting system during the earlier elimination rounds pissed people off – especially the women, who felt he was shirking his responsibility. So in the final moment, he simply said, "Richard's a scoundrel, but I like him." Greg, the 22-year-old Brown graduate, picked up the torch of seeming neutrality, asking each of the finalists to pick a number and claiming that was the basis of his decision.

This made me think of the problems many white men have with affirmative action. They like to believe that because race, gender and class, like the first letter of one's name, are accidents, there is a way to make them not matter. Randomness, to them, makes everyone equal and absolves them of the need to stand up for something they value, like diversity, integrity, or friendship. But somehow, when "neutral" criteria are used, white men always seem to win. Did Greg really play by the numbers, or was he simply saying, like so many other Ivy League men before him, "I don't have to tell you why I picked who I did"? Only Colleen seemed to consider relative economic need relevant.

If this isn't enough reality for you, then there was the commercial. The two-hour finale was sponsored by the United States Army (or "ARMY" as it lingered on the screen in four-inch capitals). I had to face the fact that the show I enjoyed so much was basically a thirteen-week ad for the U.S. military, whose recruitment numbers have plunged due to the increasing availability of low-paying service industry jobs for young adults. Million-dollar Richard is a West Point grad, Rudy an ex-Navy SEAL. The much-adored Gretchen, one of Kelly's would-be role models, taught survival in the Air Force. Join the Army, have adventures, learn what it takes to win a million bucks.

Rudy reminded everyone what that means, when he explained to a town meeting that he consistently used the word "queer" to describe his friend Rich so his military buddies back home would know he hadn't gone soft. For all the claims that "Survivor" wasn't "real," clearly, and sadly, it was.