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Survivor: Brice & Wendell’s Season 41 Premiere Party Ushers In New Era

As soon as Jeff Probst started walking through the Fijian forest and explaining the new rules of an old game, a bar full of vaccinated patrons howled as if they were watching the Knicks a few blocks away at Madison Square Garden. Indeed, there was an NBA playoffs feel to Brice Izyah and Wendell Holland’s season 41 New York City premiere party; this cast was well worth celebrating, as were all the fans who have grown to love the show even more in its extended absence. It almost didn’t matter that the chatter was louder than the TV volume; Survivor fans have been looking for any excuse they can to rewatch episodes over the past 16 months. It couldn’t hurt to have one more.

Brice, a contestant on Survivor: Cagayan and Wendell, from Ghost Island and Winners at War, have been bold ambassadors of the series over the past five or so years, hosting raucous watch parties, building genuine relationships with fervent followers of the series and discussing inequality and underrepresentation in the franchise. Wednesday was a coronation of the work BIPOC and LGBTQIA alumni put in all offseason toward crafting a new chapter of Survivor in a way that more accurately reflects the world we inhabit.

Related: Survivor Fans React To Jeff Probst Changing ‘Come On In Guys’ Phrase

Nearly 500 days had elapsed between season 40 and 41, a lengthy span of time that mobilized Brice, Wendell and a host of other Survivors to chart a different path for the series they love. While Winners at War was a boon for a fan base that had been clamoring for for an All Winners season for years, some of its shortcomings — notably the deep, complex conversations about race that were scrapped for endless fire token quests — laid the groundwork for a summer of heightened awareness toward systemic inequity. 

The circumstances prompting a reckoning on Survivor were horrific — a mismanaged global pandemic that prevented international travel and the killing of George Floyd that sparked nationwide protests against police brutality — but the extra months off were necessary to plan how Survivor can be more inclusive and representative of a wider range of cultures, backgrounds, sexual orientations and gender identities.

While many companies didn’t actually follow through on diversity pledges and most platforms stopped posting about social justice before summer 2020 was over, outlets like Rob Has A Podcast and Entertainment Weekly ensured the conversations would continue until action was taken. Black and LGBTQIA alums sat on virtual panels, revealing their experiences of being edited to satisfy racist and homophobic tropes and being told, in so many words, that they were cast to fill a quota. Their stories were heartbreaking and enraging. Throughout the past 10 seasons of Survivor, much was made of the show’s evolution. But event after event — a public outing, reports of a contestant using racial slurs, sexual harassment — made it clear Survivor was evolving in all the wrong ways.

Related: Survivor: Jeff Probst Says Show Won’t Have Returning Players For A While

One of the reasons it’s so hard to be a Black player or an LGBT player,” two-time Survivor Zeke Smith told Screen Rant at the time, “is you might be the only one.” 

Missy Byrd Survivor Island of the Idols

The contestants who shared their stories with Screen Rant were exasperated yet determined, fed up yet hopeful. Island of the Idols‘ Missy Byrd said, “We’ve had 40 seasons for them to cast more than four Black people.” Wendell, who said he only saw one Black producer present across two seasons, said, “I think it’s very important for the people that have walked in our shoes to be able to tell our stories.”

On November 9, 2020, CBS announced that 50% of its casts on unscripted reality shows would be BIPOC and committed 25% of its unscripted development to BIPOC creatives.

The decision to fix the homogeneity behind the camera was critical. Months prior, David vs. Goliath‘s Lyrsa Torres, a lesbian and a native of Puerto Rico, told Screen Rant she felt used by production. An almost entirely white, male, unilingual crew wasn’t equipped to tell the complete story of a queer woman whose first language is Spanish, and a golden opportunity to showcase a dynamic personality from an underrepresented culture was missed.

“They weren’t really interested in what I had to say, Lyrsa said.

In its flawed portrayal of the narratives of non-heterosexual, non-white contestants, Survivor, over its first 40 seasons, missed out on catering to a foundational part of its audience. While white men have typically fared better than other groups on the show, there have been plenty of winners and almost-winners like Cirie Fields who have been an inspiration for fans and future Survivor contestants.

Related: Survivor 41: Why Viewers Shouldn’t Expect A Loved Ones Visit

At the time when Richard Hatch won Survivor, it was rare to see gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters on scripted TV and in movies edited in a positive light. Reality TV was a burgeoning genre at the turn of the millennium, and for viewers young and old, Survivor opened up the possibility of there being a gay hero or a Black hero or an Asian hero to the story. Island of the Idols‘ Vince Moua, who is gay and Hmong American, told Screen Rant that Survivor was “transformative” for him growing up.  He hoped to advance the dialogue when he competed on his season, but he quickly learned the producers were ill-prepared to help him do that.

Scripted content featuring BIPOC characters has only recently started to adapt to accurately reflect the lives of their Black viewers, aided in part by streaming services that don’t feel as constrained as network television to broach sensitive topics. In a piece earlier this month in The Atlantic, Hannah Giorgis explained the mindset of countless television executives: Black programs must not only be compelling creative productions—good TV shows—but also somehow manage to capture Black life in a way that white people deem ‘realistic.’”

J'Tia Survivor

Survivor fans must keep pushing back against this idea and remember that each time progress is made on equal rights, there is generally pushback from those with the most power (and from Facebook users and a small handful of disgruntled alums). The premiere was a promising start to answering the question of what happens when lack of representation across the board is addressed, but the conversation cannot stop simply because Survivor is now doing what it should have from the beginning. Jeff said in a recent interview with the New York Times that hearing all the Survivor alums speak out about these issues “opened the door to something we hadn’t seen. One of our own blind spots.” It would be naive to assume that the show’s executive producer will encounter no more major “blind spots” in the future. As Island of the Idols‘ Jamal Shipman explained in the summer of 2020, there is a “systemic momentum that must be interrupted” and that does not happen overnight nor will it occur in one year.

Related: Survivor 41: Why The Season 41 Game Will Be Shorter

Since season 40, there have been some measures taken to increase the diversity of the journalists and podcasters who write and talk about the show, including RHAP‘s Class of 2020, but the Survivor press is still mainly comprised of white, heterosexual men. While many of them are skilled at tackling issues of race and sexual orientation, inviting more diverse voices and outlets to the conversation would be a big step in the right direction.  J’Tia Hart told Screen Rant last year that it would help to have more BIPOC journalists interviewing contestants. “You have to have people who know how to tell those stories,” she said. Brice added, “It’s about who covers it and how they cover it and how they choose to cover it.” 

As the narratives continue to unfold throughout the course of the appropriately un-themed season 41, there will be reason to celebrate and criticize. Survivor won’t get everything right; it never does. And it’s important that, moving forward, the burden doesn’t fall mainly on the the cast members most affected to advocate for change. Fortunately, there is a community of supporting, diverse, passionate individuals who care deeply about the future of Survivor, including the cast of the current season. The past year and a half without Survivor has shown fans and former contestants the power they have to positively influence one of the greatest shows on television. They should never let that advantage go to waste.

Next: Survivor’s Rob Cesternino & Lauren Beck Break Down The Season 41 Cast

Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8pm EST on CBS.

Source: The Atlantic, The New York Times, Rob Has a Podcast, Entertainment Weekly

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