Pass the Gravol

Last week, when I made a few notes for a post about the new season of Survivor, the document was saved as “Same Old Thing, Yet Highly Entertaining.”  For those of you who aren't interested in reality TV, stick around, because it will evolve into something entirely different. This season does look like it's going to be a treat - the tribes are divided into Younger Than 30 and Older Than 40 and both tribes have their share of nutbars. The older tribe also has somebody who actually has practiced lighting fire without flint. Hallelujah! I always wonder why the contestants don't relentlessly practice this the minute they submit their application. It's starting to bug me so much that even though I'm just a viewer, I'm thinking of learning how, just so I can feel even more superior.

Another thing that makes me - and likely every other fan out there - feel superior is the idiotic tendency in the last several seasons for contestants to start playing an individual game on Day 1. This means that they start voting off people who might be a threat later in the game and it makes me shake my head, because these "threats" are exactly the people you want around when it's tribe against tribe, because without them, your tribe starts losing and the goal is go into the merge with your numbers up. Don't these people watch the show? Do they not think of strategy at all? And then there is the eye rolling ridiculousness of some time in the first or second episode, some young stud will opine what one of the young studs did in last week's episode: "I don't want a girl to win." What's next? A treehouse with a sign that says "no girls allowed"?

However, even though it's taken me two paragraphs to get here, there comes a point of today's post, which is not about reality TV, but about how it brings out ugly stereotypes. Kelly B., one of the contestants on the younger tribe uses a prosthetic leg (due to a birth defect and she's used a prosthetic leg all her life). And this is what the rest of the tribe has said about her...

In the first episode, where they've just landed on the beach a day or two ago, the rest of the tribe called her a "rock star" to her face when she told them about the leg because apparently the mere fact that she's not huddled inside, bemoaning her lot is impressive. Context, people! This is all she's ever known! What's the big deal? The automatic worshiping that able-bodied people do to people with disabilities if they live a fairly normal life drives me crazy. However, behind her back, they immediately started talking about voting her out, because she'd be too much of a threat down the line due to the "sympathy vote".

WTF??? So they're assuming that no matter what Kelly does for the next 40 days, you can only imagine that the jury would vote based on her having a disability? It is not even considered that she might get a vote because she deserved being at the end or that she wouldn't get any votes because she'd backstabbed and manipulated her way there. Then yesterday (episode 2, where they've now been marooned for about five days), one of the contestants called her a "charity case," because people with disabilities don't get to where they're going on merit, do they? Noooo, we only go to school/get a job/become a contestant on Survivor because people feel sorry for us. This paragon of human virtue and intelligence than proceeded to sit out a challenge so she could see whether Kelly would be using her lack of a limb as an excuse for not doing well in the competition and it was entirely satisfying to see that Kelly smoked ‘em all.

And it's starting to make me nauseous. Is it because she's a girl? Survivor's cast an amputee in the past - remember Chad? – and I don't remember there being quite so much derision thrown his way. Is it because they're young and therefore apparently stupid that the stereotypes are popping up this ugly? Or is it that Survivor, as is often the case, distills and magnifies opinions and stereotypes that are normally hidden under the cover of social noise. And it is because I suspect the latter - with some influence of  both sexism and youth - that I'm queasy, because this is something we all fight. The assumptions that we can't, the lack of inclusion in any form of Yes, We Can! slogan, the inability to see past the label and through to the person, which brings us right back to the assumptions that we can't.

I know is about exposure and I know that by Kelly being on Survivor, some of these numbskulls will begin to see her as a person, maybe even as a woman and that some of the viewers will change their minds and see the disability less. And if she turns out not to be a saint, maybe it will even be all right to hate her (wouldn't that be revolutionary?). But that doesn't change the fact that I have this awful taste in my mouth and that my heart is heavy. It's not often you see the stereotype this clearly and it's not a pretty thing.


Jocelyn said…
Definitely not pretty.  It's interesting to read this, as Survivor came up in my Language and Gender class the other day.  I don't watch it, but several students commented that one of the first people voted off was a mouthy woman, and they all wondered whether the producers deliberately choose people whom they know will be voted off because they meet stereotypes of "people it's OK for us to hate" (read: mouthy women).  So sad on so many levels...
Trevor said…
So you're the one who's keeping Survivor on the air!

The funny thing is I was going to share this with you, and wouldn't you know, you post this entry, and it seems even more appropriate.

On this week's season premiere of Modern Family, one of the storylines is about how dangerously inept one of the characters is at doing home repairs.  His husband says,

"If an accident does happen, I hope he kills me, because I don't think I would be a very inspiring disabled person."

I thought it was funny.

But your article also reminds me of the fuss made by Sarah Palin when Family Guy featured a character with Down Syndrome.  I'm not going to go into detail, suffice to say that, to my mind, they did not mock or ridicule the character.  Yet, to some people like Sarah Palin, merely featuring the character on a comedy was somehow instantly equal to mocking her.  So, apparently, having a character with Down Syndrome is a bad thing.  Hope that the casting people at Survivor keep this in mind for future seasons.
Kitten said…
Keep in mind, though, that they intentionally pick "characters".  It's boring if everyone is genuinely caring and interested in others.  They go out of their way to pick people who will up the drama quotient.  That means putting the tough disabled chick in with a bunch of nardos.
AlisonH said…
Wow. And well said.