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Social Studies

Skin Game

By Vincent Williams | Posted 9/27/2006

My problem with Survivor actually started almost 20 years ago with the 1987 release of a film called Running Man. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Running Man depicted a surprisingly prescient "day after tomorrow" future where society was kept distracted from real-world problems by a series of reality shows. A chilling example of the old axiom of "bread and circuses," the most popular of these shows was The Running Man, wherein criminals would run through a gauntlet and attempt to escape from various traps and opponents. If they won, they went free, and if they lost, well, they died. Schwarzenegger was, of course, a wrongly convicted contestant, and the bulk of the movie consisted of him attempting to beat the game and get away from a variety of foes, including Jesse "The Body, Not the Governor" Ventura and Jim Brown as "Fireball," a character whose shtick was shooting a flamethrower at people. OK, now I want you to stop and go back and read the last part of that sentence; this tour de force of a film had Jim Brown dressed up in a leotard and running around with a fucking flamethrower.

Until I actually saw it, I didn't know that my entire teenage life was building toward seeing Jim Brown with a flamethrower. And through tears of joy, I thought to myself, Boy, I sure wish there was really a show where real people really competed against each other. So imagine my disappointment when Survivor premiered, and instead of some kind of "10 men enter, one man leaves" type contest, it ended up being some foolishness about rowboats and obstacle courses. I'm not saying that I'm looking for blood sports or anything, but Survivor has always been a little less exciting than promised. And this year's racial "controversy" is no different.

I'm sure you've heard the brouhaha. As in seasons past, the contestants have been split into teams, but instead of being divided up arbitrarily or by gender or age this year, the teams are split racially: an Asian team, a black team, a Hispanic team, and a white team. This decision has caused a firestorm of criticism, with the usual suspects showing up to say, well, the usual stuff. Social-activist opinion has run the gambit from outrage to guarded vigilance, and the racist commentary has been pretty much what you'd expect, with Rush Limbaugh leading the way thanks to his comment that the Hispanic team should do well since Latinos "have shown a remarkable ability to cross borders." It's this kind of response that makes the whole exercise, ultimately, such a waste of time. Instead of prompting the dialogue that CBS's various mouthpieces say the network hoped for, this inflammatory throwback to segregation just gives people an excuse to repeat the same sentiments they've been muttering all along.

All Jim Brown/flamethrower jokes aside, the thing that is particularly galling about this season of Survivor specifically and reality TV in general is that it offers unique opportunity for social commentary. In fact, it has done so before. In the third season of The Real World, the granddaddy of American reality TV, cast member Pedro Zamora took what had already begun to become a showcase for insipid, narcissistic wannabe actors and transformed it into a platform for social change. See, Zamora was HIV+, and in 1994, only a few years after Magic Johnson revealed his similar health condition, HIV/AIDS still held a social stigma akin to the Black Plague. As silly as it sounds in retrospect, Zamora was the first person with AIDS, as well as the first openly homosexual man, who many Americans "knew." Millions watched him struggle with the disease, fight against ignorance, and fall in love. Zamora helped change the way many people thought. And he used the unique form of reality TV to effect that change.

Fast-forward 10 years and I think we're in a position to see a lot of examples of Pedro Zamora. Whereas he showed his primary bravery in being so open with the issue of AIDS, he also had to get past the natural aversion to being watched. Well, now we have an entire generation of young people who have been videotaped, security-filmed, and video-blogged their whole life. If the aim, as Survivor maintains, is to make a social statement, there are certainly many folks who could say something more insightful than, "Black guys over here, white guys over there." And if they wanted to just make something entertaining, well . . . I know where they need to be taking tips from.

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