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In this image released by CBS, contestants, from left, Jeff Varner, Sarah Lacina, Zeke Smith and Debbie Wanner appear at the Tribal Council portion of the competition series Survivor: Game Changers. (Jeffrey Neira/AP)
In this image released by CBS, contestants, from left, Jeff Varner, Sarah Lacina, Zeke Smith and Debbie Wanner appear at the Tribal Council portion of the competition series Survivor: Game Changers. (Jeffrey Neira/AP)

Doyle: With transgender outing on Survivor, a political lesson from reality TV Add to ...

Reality TV isn’t real, and then it is. We should know that by now. A former reality-TV star is President of the United States.

Mind you, it’s not that Donald Trump was created by the reality-TV genre. It simply found in him the perfect, already-intact personality for stardom in the category – bombastic, egotistical, accusatory and ruthlessly simpleminded. The rest, as people say ruefully now, is history.

The dynamics of reality TV have been part of the political arena for ages now. Attention-seekers running for office embrace and copy the bluntness of competitors on those popular shows by using crude generalizations and insults to attack opponents. It works for the winners on reality TV. It’s a tactic considered authentic and honest, while opponents can then be fingered as phony and dishonest. Listen people, there is evidence that it works.

What are we to make, then, of the reverberations from the sensationally crude outing of Zeke Smith on last week’s Survivor?

What happened is that contestant Jeff Varner, knowing he was in a weak position and might be voted off the island, used a card he instinctively felt would make an opponent look bad. Really bad. Varner told the “tribunal” of fake castaways on the island: “There is deception on levels here that these guys don’t understand.” Then, turning to Smith, he asked: “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?” Smith was clearly stunned. The thing is, everyone except Varner was stunned. Other contestants were outraged, came to the defence of Smith and yelled abuse at Varner, who got voted off anyway.

What’s fascinating is that everyone involved with the show, from host Jeff Probst to the producers and the CBS network, decided immediately that they had on their hands that ancient motif of old-fashioned TV – a teachable moment. Even on reality TV, where the boundaries for decent behaviour are blurred, you can’t do that. You just can’t.

What Probst told Entertainment Weekly magazine is this: “In 34 seasons of Survivor, I have rarely, if ever, personally commented on what is said or done in the game. But this is a unique situation that falls outside the normal boundaries. I cannot imagine anyone thinking what was done to Smith was okay on any level, under any circumstances, and certainly not simply because there was a million dollars [in prize money] on the line. I think the response from the tribe, as it so often does, mirrors what the vast majority of society will feel.”

It has now emerged that CBS has spent the months since the episode was filmed working with Smith and the GLAAD organization to prepare a well-organized campaign emphasizing that outing transgender people is an assault and always wrong. Smith wrote a personal essay for The Hollywood Reporter to coincide with the episode airing and Varner had a prepared apology ready for distribution.

Now, figuring out the cultural meaning of the emphasis on a “teachable moment” is a tricky business.

CBS and Survivor have benefited greatly from the publicity surrounding the episode. That helps a reality franchise that remains popular but is a bit old-school and overly familiar at this point. There’s that.

There is also the possibility that even CBS realizes there is an audience fatigue with the boundary-free crudeness of reality TV. Finger-pointing at a transgender person and accusing them of deception is just not palatable these days.

Part of the appeal of reality TV – and this is linked to the dynamics of the genre entering the political arena during this Trump era – is that it’s a place where normally private prejudices and resentments can be aired publicly and can lead to victory over others too timid to air those prejudices. Remember, every time Trump seemed to go too far on the campaign trail, issuing insults and revelling in crudeness, it only seemed to make him more popular.

It would be too grand a suggestion to assert that one episode of Survivor represents the possibility that reality TV is no longer as crude and cruel as it once was and that on the horizon there exists a new reality-TV style that celebrates inclusiveness and excoriates prejudice.

The dynamics of reality TV aren’t dead yet. Daily, they are on view in the machinations that unfold in the White House and in the bombastic, ruthlessly simpleminded views that emanate from its occupants. The impact of reality TV remains very, very real.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle


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