Survivor Brings Out the Worst in All of Us.
I watched the first Survivor Cook Islands last night and my worst fears were confirmed. When the groups were initially split into four ethnic tribes I was suspect based on the premise alone. The four groups are Caucasian, African American, Asian American, and Latino. At the start of the show the groups were all surprised by the distinction and not sure quite what to think. After watching the show I know exactly what to think: Survivor, in a brilliant marketing ploy, has appealed to the worst in all of us, the side that wants to confirm easy and absurd stereotypes.
Warning: This will be a bit rambling, but in no particular order here are my qualms with the show in theory and execution, and what this says about our culture as a whole:
Problem One: The premise means that ethnic groups are fundamentally different. Why else does one break up groups into categories? The idea's foundation is the question, "Will the Asians respond differently than the Latinos?" Once you go down that route you've lost the idea of these people as individuals whose strengths and weaknesses are based on almost everything but ethnicity.
Problem Two: You've already got people saying, "We need to represent our race!" How the hell can one person speak for a group of millions through a reality show? If all of the African Americans lose immediately what does that mean? Absolutely nothing, that's what, except then the question would be out there, "Hmm, are these guys just not as good as that other ethnic group?"
Problem Three: Stereotypes WILL be played to. I don't even think Survivor will have to do it, the groups themselves already are. Little jokes about how Asians are better at math or how the Latinos will do better in an island situation are patently offensive. If you emphasize the differences in humanity you'll appeal to the lowest common denominator. I'm not saying there aren't cultural differences, clearly there are, but a Latino from the Bronx is not the same as a Latino from elsewhere. In fact, seeing a Survivor based on religion or region would make much more sense as these are things people choose (in the case of religion) or are actually measurable (in the case of location). How do you measure how "Asian" or "Caucasian" someone is? If you can tell me how all African Americans are the same and thus should compete together I'd love to hear it.
Problem Four: The concept, even if not racist, isn't even accurate. Take the Asian American group. You've got one person of Korean descent, two of Filipino, and one hard-core Vietnamese. These cultures are as different as can be, and yet they represent Asia? Huh? This would be like saying that Sweden and America both represent "white" culture and thus should be lumped together. It simply makes no sense. Recognizing individual cultures can be a positive thing, but Survivor botches this too. I'd also wonder what Survivor would do with a Latino who was born and raised in Japan. Is he Latino? Is he Japanese? Once you start pulling at the logical strings of this fiasco you realize what a faulty premise the whole thing is.
Conclusion: Racism has always traded on the differences between people, and Survivor fits that bill to a tee. It gives people a chance to dismiss an entire race based on five people. It gives credence to the idea that appearance dictates who you are. Kudos guys, you're not only programming great reality viewing, you're also setting the tone that the guy next to me is different because he looks different. Well done there, here I was starting to think we might have something in common as Americans.