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Survivor #1: Cao Bois, but no Indians

Posted by Asmaa / September 17, 2006

caoboi.jpg So, the new season of Survivor: Cook Islands began last Thursday. And even if you've been hiding in a cave for the last few months, you most likely know about the show's newest controversial twist.

The 20 survivors, jumping off a ship that looked like a leftover set-piece from Pirates of the Caribbean II, were divided into four tribes: Asian-American, Caucasian, Latino and African-American (and of course had those silly Ewok-sounding tribal names). The producers and host Jeff Probst call this a social experiment. Many people think this is a calamity. They think this season of Survivor is blatantly racist and endorsing poor values. Others think this will make for really exciting television to deconstruct and debate.

This divide has even hit the Malik-Majeed family and now, Midnight Poutine has stepped in as our marriage counsellor and invited us to air our dirty laundry in public. Watch this space for weekly updates.

But before we get to our tête à tête, I'd like for all of us to ponder the question posed by Caucasian hippie-chick Parvati: "Different ethnic groups ... I mean, is that kosher?"

Omar: Well, I'll start with a bold assertation - I thought that they lived up to their promise of the 'sociological experiment' or whatever the fuck they called it. Survivor is truly the most meta of all the reality shows and it shows when characters comment knowlingly on the ploys that the producers pull. So it was less about watching a show about races competing and more about a show in which characters contemplate being divided by race.

Asmaa: That's true. Perhaps the most interesting parts of the first episode were when the characters commented on their own ethnicity and talked to their teammates about where they all came from. The Asians had the hardest time coming together as a group because they were, as predicted, such a disparate lot. They were all Americans, as the show emphasizes in its opening credits, but their ancestors hailed from the Philippines, Vietnam, China and Korea. ... There are no Indians. But oddly enough, one of the Caucasians is named Parvati. Hippies.

Omar: Yes. I liked that all the contestants talked about resisting stereotypes and then proceeded to act in stereotypical ways – the lazy black guy, the Caucasian alterna-chick, the hard-working Latino guy. And then, there was the crazy old Asian guy who blew all stereotypes out of the water - he was like a mix of all races. He is easily my favourite character so far.

Asmaa: He's Vietnamese, sixtyish, heavily tattooed and wears a Star of David. His team hates him. And his name is Cao Boi. Get it?

Omar: So it sounds like you have been converted. Did I win the debate early? Does Survivor the sociolgical experiment rawk?

Asmaa: Uh, no ... Look, I'm all for open discussions of race. It's something that doesn't happen often enough in Canada, where we think we solved that problem once we "invented" the multicultural mosaic. And I always find it refreshing to be back in the States, where people talk more freely about race. But, I don't think unstructured conversation about what divides us is really all that constructive. The people on Survivor, while they seem open to talking about their issues within their groups, will have a hard time after the inevitable merge, when they have to go from their ethnic enclaves to the two big teams. When the only thing on their minds for weeks will have been race, they're going to be gunning for each other by the end of it. It could get ugly.

Omar: Yes, and I think that is the point. Survivor is at once the most moral and immoral of the reality shows. Moral because it attempts to bring some nuance and character and style into a format that is largely sensational without any substance. But immoral because it endorses a game that is the perfect metaphor for everything that is problematic in our society. Namely, that we attempt to live together in our world only as a means to eventually fuck the other guy in our scramble to the top. That paradigm can be applied to so many aspects of life. It was used well on the show when it came to dividing the sexes and now it is being used to shatter our assumptions about race.

Asmaa: Wait a second ... I don't think it's going to "shatter our assumptions." I'm pretty sure that any assumptions I have will not be too badly shaken. As for host Jeff Probst, who I believe is a surrogate for the American viewer, it might be a different story. At the CBS press conference to announce the show, Probst kept saying "I'm just a white guy from Topeka, Kansas" and proceeded to tell an increasingly uncomfortable reporters, that before this season's Survivor, he didn't realize there were so many kinds of Asians. Since then, he said, he has learned to ask his Asian dentist if he is from Korea or China. And he claims his dentist appreciates the query. If it's going to take a fucking TV show to teach Americans about race, there's a problem.

Omar: Yes, there is a problem - that's the point. Americans could use a good reflection of who they really are. I mean, what will dissect race better? This season of Survivor, which features real people playing an abstract version of their real lives, or the shitty Hollywood idea of dealing with race, like Crash? ... As for Probst's comment, I'm sure the real-life Jeff Probst is a tool. But his onscreen persona, a god-like figure and the moral tone of the show, always works as a good mediator. That Probst is an aw-shucks kind of guy, who runs the game is another fitting metaphor - don't we have an aw-shucks kind of guy running the biggest game of all? You know who I'm talking about.

Asmaa: It's true ... and I love Jeff Probst, even if he thinks I'm Korean.

If you'd like to watch last week's episode, go here.



Sara / September 19, 2006 at 11:26 am
as IF this is the way you guys argue. isn't someone going to throw a chair? also, you love jeff probst? isn't his onscreen presence like many spiky icepicks in your brain?
asmaa / September 19, 2006 at 01:33 pm
hey, we're just warming up ... <a href="";>this</a> is a preview of what things will be like by Episode 3 ... as for probst, i think i've developed kind of a stockholm syndrome-y thing about jeff. he is my tv captor, so i must love him.
Sara / September 19, 2006 at 01:47 pm
you had me at "i'm pregnant by a transexual."
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