Seventeen years ago, a show unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the United States aired, and set an unprecedented standard for reality TV and game shows to follow. That show was Survivor. It put a bunch of real people, who didn’t know each other going in, on an island with nothing but their clothes on their back to fend for food, shelter, and a prize of one million dollars. Throw in a couple challenges (physical, mental, and ones of the critter-eating kind), and a tribal council where cast members vote each other off the island, and people couldn’t get enough. It was like one big social experiment that the public got to watch unfold. And if you were crazy enough to try out, you, too, could be a part of the experiment.
So, 17 years and 34 season later, the show still has a total cult following. I mean, I watched the first few season with my dad when I was a kid but eventually fell off. My dad still watches it to this day. But like any show that has had such a long run, they struggle to remain relevant. They’ve tried to combat this issue in a lot of different ways; bringing back people you love and people you love to hate, introducing hidden advantages to the game, the #blindside hashtag, and even bringing millennials in to the mix in a season called “Millennials vs. Gen X.” I’ll admit, that season did intrigue me. And it was on before new episodes of Criminal Minds, so I’m not ashamed to say I watched most of that season and got caught up in the hype all over again. It was nostalgic for me (and also kind of crazy that people still get so into the game). But, let’s be real — no one is spending the next day at work talking about what crazy thing happened on Survivor that night. They just aren’t anymore.
Until this week’s episode.
I only caught the last 15 minutes, and that’s literally all anyone needed to see of the whole episode. When Jeff Probst basically tells some one, “just bring me your torch,” without needing to vote… you know something just went horribly wrong for that person.
So a bit of background for those of you who stopped watching this show ten years ago… this is Zeke:
He was a contestant on last season’s Millennials vs. Gen X, and was brought back the very next season for Survivor: Game Changers. I liked him in the previous season. He was competitive but not a dick, built some good relationships but still screwed a few people over, and he added a lot of value to the show as one of the ‘nerds.’ One of my favorite parts about that season, was that Zeke even helped this 42-year-old cop from New York come out as gay on the show. I mean, he was a pretty cool guy. It’s no wonder they brought him back the next season.
Fast forward to Wednesday night’s tribal council, and this other guy, Jeff Varner (who I honestly knew nothing about going into this), in a last ditch effort to show others’ deceit within the tribe (and in hopes it would convince people that he wasn’t that bad), outed Zeke as transgender.
This wasn’t something that was scripted. This wasn’t planned. You could tell from how awkward the moment was on screen, that no one saw this coming. This was something that a desperate (probably very hungry) man let fall out of his mouth without even considering the ramifications. Without considering that the people in Zeke’s own life may not know. This was something he said because he didn’t want to be the one voted out and lose his chance at the million dollar prize (for the third time, might I add). This was word vomit in its most malicious form. This was a big eff-up.
The way Jeff Probst handled it was impressive. The way the other contestants handled it was commendable as well. But the person who mattered most in this situation was Zeke. Zeke was speechless at first (understandably so), and this gave the other contestants time to sound off and vehemently denounce everything Varner had just said. It simply was not Varner’s secret to tell, and the cast members made that known. Probst didn’t let him off the hook either, even when Varner immediately tried to back track his comments. It was heart-warming, really, to see Zeke’s teammates come together and support him. It was reassuring that, through this literally life-shattering moment, Zeke did not lash out in anger. Instead, he was calm and composed. It was a moment that was so much bigger than the show, and the symbolic gesture of not even having a vote was exactly what needed to happen.
You have to also consider, the episode was filmed 10 months ago, so CBS, Probst, and Zeke all had time to prepare and make sure they got this right. With as tough a situation as it was, I truly think they did.
No one deserves to be outed like that, but the courage Zeke exemplified by his reaction and by his willingness to start the conversation… it was, and is, inspirational. We need to have more talks like this.
When Bruce Jenner ceased to exist and Caitlyn Jenner rose from the ashes, my father was stunned. Confused, even. He had never even considered that as an option in someone’s life because he had never experienced something like that with anyone–celebrity or not. But he watched an entire season of Survivor with a trans person mixed in the group and didn’t even notice. He didn’t think it was weird, because he simply didn’t know. I’m interested to hear if his view of Zeke has or will change in the future, and this is the dialog that should be started by this. That is the root of the issue when someone makes a decision not to disclose their gender history: we, as humans, need to closely examine how we consciously and subconsciously react to finding out someone is trans. We need to figure out why someone’s personal struggle with gender identity makes us uncomfortable, and how we can make a shift from uncomfortable to understanding.
“On the whole, the world doesn’t treat trans people with much kindness. Even those who aren’t outwardly hateful crinkle their noses at you. When enough people crinkle their noses at you, you begin to think you stink.” –Read the exclusive tell-all, written by Zeke himself.
Above all, major kudos to Zeke, for having a positive response to such an epic fuck up on someone else’s part. You, sir, are a true role model.