With all its talk of getting down to the basics, it was only a matter of time until Survivor tried the boys-against-girls tactic. In recent years, the reality-show franchise has gone beyond its original premise and trotted out a whole new set of tricks to keep both viewers and contestants off-kilter. Instead of having two teams whittle themselves down to one skinny $1 million winner, Survivor creator Mark Burnett has tried tinkering with three teams, team swapping and other variations on his show's evil themes of backstabbing, celebrity whoring and really bad indigestion. But there is something diabolically simple -- and potentially very entertaining -- about this latest incarnation, Survivor: The Amazon.
Much of the entertainment factor is provided by the men's team. According to Entertainment Weekly's Dalton Ross, one of the menfolk, model-actor Ryan Aiken, waited exactly 8 seconds before breaking out the term "sausage party" to describe his group. Butch Lockley, a middle-school principal, unveiled his luxury item -- a giant banner reading "Believe in Yourself" -- that the men used to keep their firewood dry and their egos inflated. But after alternating between insulting the "camp of the vagina monologue," and consulting a Magic 8-Ball about which of the camp's bikini-clad ladies they would shag in the future, the men walked up to the immunity challenge all cocky and full of themselves -- and lost. They sent Mr. Sausage home.
This week the women looked nearly as bad as the men, though for different reasons. They still didn't have a shelter up, and sat around boiling their undies instead of making sure they wouldn't sleep in the rain. Christy Smith, a deaf children's adventure guide, grew more and more isolated because of her inability to lip-read at night. They didn't have a leader. They couldn't prioritize their tasks. Where was the famed self-sufficiency and ferocity of the Amazon women (supposedly the inspiration for the gender-separate teams)? Despite the women's total incompetence, they still managed to beat the men at a "reward challenge," winning a jar of fish bait.
The men sulked in their well-built shelter. Self-appointed bossypants Roger Sexton whined in the dark. "I'm not accustomed to losing to women," he said. "I don't care what it is, it's just not my deal." Pregnant silence. "Not that I'm a chauvinist." He underlined that assertion the next morning by getting into a scrap with a team member about gay people. "That is not natural," Roger pronounced. Clearly Roger is not thumbing his handbook of Survivor rules, which assert that only a grumpily endearing old coot like Rudy Boesch from Survivor's first season is allowed to say such things. Survivor rules also deem that someone must be depicted as the lazy man of color every year. Dan Lue, an Asian American tax accountant, got the prize role this season.
Meanwhile at the women's camp, another bit of Survivor history was playing out. After unpacking the belongings they had stored in a crate, the women saw a granola bar at the bottom of the box. Outside food is strictly verboten, and accusations were soon flying as to who brought the contraband food. It was a scene out of the second season of Survivor, when Army Capt. Kel Gleason was accused of gnawing on some beef jerky and promptly booted. Suspicion this year settled on sickly housewife Janet, who denied bringing the granola bar. No one confessed, though perhaps Burnett planted it to create a little controversy, some Survivor fans have speculated. But it didn't matter for Janet. The shadow of suspicion was enough. When the women lost the "immunity challenge," she was gone.
With its combination of familiarity (betrayal, accusations of bigotry, laziness) and novelty ("sausage party" versus "vagina monologues"), this year's Survivor promises to be the most satisfying season in a long time. The men have already had to step back from their swaggering, overcompensating badmouth sessions. The women continue to stagger along. What can be next? If the previews are to be trusted, a lot of topless bathing by the women, who want to see if they can use their charms to win the men's votes later on, and more macho posturing from the men.
The Survivor cast members seem to believe that they are enacting some extremely important battle of the sexes, an intergalactic Mars versus Venus war that even John Gray can't fix. "This is Billie Jean King against Bobby Riggs for the new millennium," said Rob, after the women first routed the men. But this is no elemental struggle for physical and mental survival, or even a true test of wits and mettle. This is 16 -- now 14 -- strangers sitting around in self-imposed suffering, picking bugs off themselves, occasionally acting sexy for the benefit of a subsequent Hollywood career. We're not going to learn much about gender relations from the artificially "primitive" conditions of this show. But we are going to have a good time watching the two teams deal with heightened sexual tension and rampant insecurity -- the women's insecurity stemming from being "weaker" and the men's from being terrified of losing to "a bunch of girls."
That's getting back to the basics, all right. Never mind the indigenous knickknacks and exotic locales Survivor usually employs to conjure the primordial. We have our modern-day version, and the show has done a fine, fine job of reproducing it: the first-grade playground, boys on one side, girls on another and a great cootie-filled divide in between.
Noy Thrupkaew writes about culture for the Prospect and TAP Online.