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‘Survivor’ Mishandling Sexual Harassment Is Irresponsible and Infuriating (Column)

Watching the Nov. 20 episode of “Survivor,” you’d never know that the show’s currently muscling its way through one of the biggest, ugliest controversies of its 20-year run. There were no explicit mentions of the sexual harassment controversy that had swallowed the Nov. 13 merge episodes whole, giving the impression that the show would rather forget the disastrous events of the previous week and just move on. Watching “Survivor” gloss over one of its most badly handled moments to date, as if it should fade into the background like any other piece of juicy drama, isn’t just astonishing. It’s downright insulting, and a baffling display of the show’s inability to grasp the gravity of what happened on its watch.

Throughout this “Island of the Idols” season — the show’s 39th overall — several of the younger, female contestants have mentioned being uncomfortable around fellow castaway (and Hollywood talent manager) Dan Spilo, alleging that his physical contact with them is often careless and inappropriate. The very first week, in fact, Kellee Kim said as much to his face, directly asking him to better respect her space. That clearly didn’t sink in; almost every week thereafter, Spilo was shown touching Kim and other women in a way that assumed far more familiarity than they were comfortable with. Contestant Missy Byrd even admitted to Kim in last week’s episode that it would be “better for my mental health” if Spilo got voted out, because she could barely sleep without thinking about how his “hands were wandering…I lay awake, his arm smothers me.” Despite host Jeff Probt’s insistence otherwise, there can be no debate on this: Spilo’s inappropriate touching, and the women’s discomfort with it, has been caught on camera time and time again. That should have been more than enough to eject him from the competition.

On the one hand, “Survivor” is a high pressure game in which real world dynamics can unfurl in strange and fascinating ways; that’s why I and millions of others continue to watch it almost 40 seasons in. On the other hand, I and millions of others are still very much aware that “Survivor” involves actual people who should not have to worry about whether or not production will step in and do the right thing when it comes to their safety. All talking in circles and refusing to pick sides does is maintain the status quo of “Survivor” — which, it’s now abundantly clear, has been the show’s goal all along.

When Kim realizes in that Nov. 13 episode that she wasn’t the only one uncomfortable around Spilo, she cries in a confessional segment that hearing other similar accounts confirms that “this isn’t just one person; it’s a pattern.” This realization, combined with Kim bringing this same issue up on week one, the other accounts backing up her experience, and ample footage confirming it, should have been plenty of evidence for producers to make a call about putting a stop to it without making Kim decide if they should. Instead, we hear a producer tell Kim that if “there are issues to the point where something needs to happen, come to me and I will make sure that it stops” — a fine offer on the face of it, but one that ignores the fact that Kim was already doing as much in that very confessional. Kim, recognizing a potentially game-destroying prospect, composes herself and declines. As she says later in the same episode: voting Spilo out “is the fair thing to do — but this game is not fair.”

The show almost immediately confirms Kim’s suspicions with its fumbling response. Despite producers then meeting with contestants to be “cautioned about personal boundaries” and Spilo apparently getting an individual warning, as per Kim and another eliminated contestant, this meeting was so general in nature that it was unclear what production was talking about let alone that it was related to Spilo. As for Spilo himself, he was apparently so confused that he had to ask others what was going on, and later apologized if anyone misinterpreted his physical intimacy — which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that whatever “warning” he got was clear or strong enough to inform him what he had actually done wrong.

And if there was any remaining doubt that this apparently unprecedented producer action was insufficient, the ensuing domino effect among the contestants makes their collective confusion undeniable. Kim got voted out, relegating her to the jury without a voice in the game while Spilo got to defend himself at length. He called the allegations “the most absurd accusation in the history of mankind” and cites his job in the entertainment industry as a reason why he is particularly sensitive to anything that could fall under the #MeToo umbrella — a perhaps more revealing statement about his true concerns than he maybe realized. Another contestant, Janet Carbin, tried to get Spilo voted out in the absence of any significant production intervention, only to get shunned by Byrd and her ally Elizabeth Beisel, who see an opportunity to get ahead by assuring Spilo that he hadn’t done anything wrong. (Byrd and Beisel apologized for using the situation as gameplay shortly after the episode aired; Spilo has so far said nothing.) 

Throughout the thorny tribal council in which all of this comes crashing into the light, Probst assures Spilo and the audience alike that he would “never let [the allegations] go” — and yet, he keeps downplaying them. With Kim rendered speechless on the sidelines, Probst vaguely characterizes Kim sobbing to Carbin about feeling cornered by Spilo as her “shar[ing] a story.” He waxes poetic about how “Survivor” is a fascinating microcosm of the real world, which is “going through such a seismic cultural shift in how men and women relate to each other.” He talks Carbin out of walking off the show by insisting that “we’re talking about it, we’re addressing it — that’s the most important thing!” 

On “Survivor” and in the “real world” alike, talking about and addressing sexual harassment is vital, but it’s far from “the most important thing.” It’s the bare minimum, and it’s frankly ridiculous that Probst and the producers expect accolades for doing it. The most important thing would be acknowledging the truth of the situation, and better yet, actually doing something about it. Botching this so badly is a wildly disappointing black mark on a show that has made a lot of noise in recent years about being progressive, and no amount of ignoring it in the weeks to come will change that.

An earlier version of this article stated that the episode uncharacteristically lacked a “previously on” introduction; it has since been edited to reflect that this season has not used “previously on” as frequently as previous seasons.

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