‘Survivor’ Apology and New Rules for Sexual Harassment are Good — But Way Overdue (Column)

Months after it finished filming, and weeks after public backlash demanded a more substantial response, “Survivor” finally figured out what it’s needed to do all along: ensure more thoughtful safety practices moving forward, and apologize for not doing better in the first place. 

When it comes to sexual harassment, it should never be much more complicated than that. And yet, it was a genuine surprise when Wednesday’s reunion special saw Jeff Probst give an unequivocal apology to Kellee Kim, the contestant who first raised concerns about fellow castaway Dan Spilo touching her and other women inappropriately. Up to this point, Probst, “Survivor,” and CBS alike appeared to be caught totally off guard by how strongly the fans reacted to how the season dealt with Spilo once the season aired. Kim had said something to Spilo in the season’s very first episode about being uncomfortable with how he interacted with her, and yet it took until she hit a breaking point eight episodes in for production to do anything about it. Their “solution” was to have a group meeting with the cast about the importance of personal boundaries — which was so general, Probst straight up admitted in the reunion, that it was unclear why it was even happening except to those with firsthand experience. This is a key point that even Probst’s carefully vetted apology missed when he solely attributed this experience to Kim, who in turn emphasized what footage and interviews had confirmed all season. “It wasn’t just me,” she said. “It was all these other people who were speaking up in different ways…someone might not be ready to speak up in the way I spoke up…[and] it was still incredibly difficult.”

While “Survivor” eventually kicked Spilo off (four episodes after Kim spoke up and was subsequently voted out), it clearly didn’t understand the ramifications of its general inaction until the general public pushed back too hard for CBS to ignore. Lo and behold, hours before the reunion was set to tape, the network sent a memo detailing all the new things “Survivor” will be doing going forward — and to its credit, they’re substantial. Orientation for upcoming seasons will now include anti-harassment and sensitivity training; a “professional” separate from the usual production team will be on site for players to confide in outside of gameplay; a concrete new rule states that “unwelcome physical contact, sexual harassment and impermissible biases cannot be brought into the competition and will not be permitted.”

This is all well and good. But looking back at this list of changes, it’s staggering to realize that “Survivor” has made forty (40!) seasons of television without policies like these already in place. How on earth have twenty (20!) years gone by without a procedure in place for contestants to express concerns about their peers without having to break down on camera? How does the show justify not training its cast and crew in some ground rules of basic decency before throwing them all together on an island? Most bafflingly, why hasn’t “unwelcome physical contact” always been grounds for dismissal? I struggle to believe that this situation was, in fact, as “unprecedented” as Probst and CBS claim. (Talk to any diehard “Survivor” fan and inevitably, the show’s first winner Richard Hatch and his strategy of walking around naked, and even rubbing against another player to the point where she quit the season, will come up.) 

They’re not wrong that the overall reaction is undoubtedly stronger in 2019, when sexual harassment and institutions’ failure to call it out is far more top of mind that it has maybe ever been. However: to say that this is the first season that necessitated barring inappropriate physical content is frankly ridiculous, and even more discouraging proof of what Hollywood has deemed acceptable for decades on end. TV sets, whether for reality shows or otherwise, are highly stressful environments in which productivity is king and personal comfort and safety tend to be far lower priorities than the final cut. “Survivor” is far from alone in that mindset. For all its talk of ensuring that players are always safe on a show that often features very real life-threatening circumstances, though, it always should have known better than to believe that having a first aid kit on hand would cover their bases. These new policies are good and useful ones, but they’re also astonishingly overdue. So as Kim said during the reunion: “I hope this season of Survivor isn’t just defined by inappropriate touching or sexual harassment. I hope it’s defined by change.” Otherwise, there’s no reason to believe that any progress is actually being made.

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