Survivor: Island of the Idols, week eight

Wow. Wild ride. This week was a double episode, and for once I don’t want to give a play-by-play. Instead I’m going to summarize the actual gameplay and then move onto a big post about The Dan Situation.

In the first half of the two-part episode Kellee finds an idol on her beach, then finds a SECOND idol on her new beach after the tribes merge. So she’s on Survivor with two idols. She says she doesn’t want to be the person who walks away from Survivor with two idols. Then some… stuff happens and she and her two idols get voted out.

In the second half of the two-part episode Jamal goes to the Island of the Idols, where he immediately loses his vote. (He picked up a note dangling from a tree, Boston Rob told him “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” and in this case it was.) He was given a blank piece of paper to write a fake game advantage on, which he gave to Dean. Then some… more stuff happens and he gets voted off.

Kellee and Jamal were two of my favorite players this season and I think a lot of people are going to be upset at how they were ejected. I only dipped my toes into the Survivor social media universe for a couple minutes this afternoon, and the fireworks are really going off.

The real story across this big double episode is The Dan Situation.

I am a person who detests being touched. If I want you to touch me, I will initiate the contact, and you have my solemn assurance that will not happen until we know each other very well. Three words I abhor hearing are, “I’m a hugger!” There are people on this Earth I consider great friends — some perhaps who are reading this blog post — who have never had more than a handshake from me.

When I was a kid, the problem was my hair. I had long blonde hair that girls always, always, always wanted to touch. (If you’re watching this season, it was kind of similar to Jack’s hair.) I have had some very awkward conversations with women throughout my teens and early twenties about how I didn’t want them touching my hair, and I know along the road I hurt some feelings. I also learned the importance of not overreacting when someone touches me in certain situations. Like if I meet your Great Aunt Bertha for the first time and she wants to wrap me up in a big ol’ bear hug, that isn’t the time for me to address the problem, no matter how much Aunt Bertha needs to learn a lesson about personal space.

I am also hyper-aware that right now some people can be reading this and rolling their eyes, because I’m not a woman and because (to my knowledge) none of these unwanted touches over the years have been overtly sexual. All I know for sure is I hate it when people touch me, that’s my life experience. I’ve always considered it to be a personal problem because most people don’t seem to mind. Even my own wife and mother know to take a “hands off” approach with me; that’s not normal. I realize I’m not normal.

When I say I empathized with Kellee about Touchy Uncle Dan, that’s the context. Part of me understood where she was coming from, and another part of me understood that it’s more socially acceptable to just tough it out and not make it a big deal. And there’s a layer of “the editors are showing the story they want to tell” on top of all that. Part of that story, this episode, was some of the female players discussing how creepy Dan’s touches are, but also saying it’s totally okay when Aaron does it. (Aaron, for contrast, is a hot young dude.)

Let’s pass judgment on Dan first, using the incomplete and imperfect information we have to hand, plus some side speculation which may or may not be accurate. (Sorry, but that’s the best I’ve got.) I don’t think Dan is a sexual predator. I think Janet was spot-on with her assessment: he’s a man from an older generation where it was more socially acceptable to touch people. I think he has rationalized the social shift away from that behavior with something like, “This is serious, but it’s okay when I do it because I’m not a sexual predator.” I also think a lot of what he said at this week’s soon-to-be-legendary Tribal Council is accurate: this is a game where people are shoved into close quarters, where you have to move and slide and crawl all around each other, where sometimes your only source of warmth at night are the people sleeping next to you.

I also think that if Dan were actually guilty of molesting young women, we would not be seeing this season of Survivor. Speculation: there is some sort of filtering process that Survivor applicants have to go through. If Dan had a history of shitty behavior I don’t think he would have been picked. There are also rules about what players can and cannot do on the show, and one of those rules is you have to follow US law, no matter where shooting is taking place. Somewhere in a CBS vault there is ten thousand hours of footage showing what actually happened in Fiji this season. And we know CBS is willing to play up the woke-ness for positive public perception. If, at any point, Dan had ever done something truly inappropriate he would be pulled from the show.

For all these reasons, I think Dan is innocent of the things he’s accused of. But for all the reasons I outlined previously, I also think Kellee is innocent of falsly accusing him. It’s basically a nightmare situation: both people are right, and both points of view are equally valid. Dan shouldn’t be touching people, but then nobody wants to actually ask him to stop. The girls are justified in not wanting Dan to touch them, but then they’re fine with Aaron doing it. Kellee should speak up if she doesn’t want to be touched, but then that’s a hard thing for a woman to do, especially in a game where perception is everything. Kellee is maybe overreacting (like I do) but then her feelings aren’t any less important than Dan’s, or anyone else’s.

So I was mulling all this over and thinking there is a legitimate problem that 1) isn’t cut-and-dry enough to be cleanly resolved and 2) is 100% going to be manipulated by other players in this game.

But then something happened that I have not seen in all my years watching this show. During Kellee’s confessional, where she is talking about how much she hates Dan’s unwanted touches, we hear a producer’s voice. The producer says, in no uncertain terms, if this is a real issue we are going to step in and stop it. Just say the word. Kellee immediately backs off from the accusation, but the producers step in anyway. A few text cards appear onscreen telling us-the-viewer that the producers met with everyone individually, and as a tribe, to emphasize the importance of personal boundaries. We’re also told that Dan was taken aside and given a warning.

This was a little like hitting a brick wall. It had such a powerful sense of finality to it: the Voice of God had descened and told this tribe, “This is how it be. Stop touching people and respect personal boundaries.” This was a terrible solution but it was probably the only possible solution. It also tells me that the issue was so enormous out there on the island that world-class editors with 19 years’ experience crafting Survivor stories couldn’t edit around it.

What happens next is pretty unfair to basically everyone involved, both on a gameplay level and on a social level. At Tribal Council Janet says that sexual abuse and false accusations can both ruins lives. She’s right. And I have the sinking feeling that some of these Survivor players are going to be crucified and ostracized by the fanbase for their behavior.

Kellee wants to send Dan home, for obvious reasons, and a few of the other girls tell her (read: lie to her) that they agree he’s inappropriate. TO BE PERFECTLY CLEAR ON THIS POINT: Kellee seems to be the only player with an earnest, personal objection to Dan. (And she’s allowed to be, for the same reason I would be, in her situation.) A few of the other women have noticed His Emminent Touchiness but only refer to it jokingly. And the other women — Missy, Elizabeth, and Elaine specifically — have no issue with Dan whatsoever. They don’t mind that he’s Old Uncle Touchy.

And here’s where the manipulation comes in. All the women approach Janet, who is something like the tribe’s den mother, and tell her “Hey, we need to get rid of Dan.” Kellee is doing this legitimately, because she thinks Janet will really listen to her. Which Janet does. And even though Janet loves Dan, and even though she isn’t bothered by Uncle Touchy, she shows sincere concern for Kellee and the other women on her tribe. They all decide to vote out Dan.

Of couse, most of these women are lying. And I want to stress 100% that it is exactly what they should do in the game of Survivor. That they were able to blindside Kellee and flush out two idols while making Janet take the fall is astonishing gameplay.

Janet falls all over herself explaining to her tribe, her alliance, Jeff Probst, and her confessionals that she stepped outside of the game to make a move she felt was morally right: she though the girls on her tribe had a problem, and she decided to help them solve it, even to her own detriment. As it turns out, most of the girls were just using her, and it was indeed to her own detriment. And so she’s understandably upset.

Dan is understandably upset too. It’s clear he feels these accusations are coming from nowhere, but he can’t discount them because he doesn’t think Janet would lie to him. The remaining women on the tribe all tell him, point blank, that they’re cool with him and that Janet’s a liar. What a completely sideways situation! Dan’s not lying, Janet’s not lying, the person with the most cause to remove Dan is now gone herself, and the women who are lying are justified in doing so because it’s Survivor! Zow!

During the second Tribal Council, Dan made a very hollow apology. He is being raked across the coals for this non-apology, but I think he was in an impossible situation. I don’t know what folks want from people in Dan’s situation, who haven’t actually done anything wrong but who have nonetheless caused someone else harm. If he says “I am a sexual deviant and I sexually assaulted Kellee” he’s admitting to something he didn’t do, and probably gets kicked off the show and faces criminal charges. If he says “It was never my intention to hurt anyone and I am torn up that I’ve apparently done that,” (which is closer to what he said) he loses points anyway because it’s a non-apology. There doesn’t seem to be a third option. Someone who is accused of sexual misconduct has already lost, whether they did it or not.

The apology he actually gave, however, was too self-aggrandizing. I checked out as soon as he said something about his profession being at the forefront of listening to women’s storis about harrassment and misconduct. Dan runs a talent agency. He is Hollywood. I mean, yeah, he’s right when he says his field is “leading the charge” in this movement, much in the same way that Osama bin Laden “led the charge” in getting airport security reforms passed. It was so incredibly tone deaf. From a gameplay perspective it wasn’t even helpful to his cause; his main enemy had already been voted out, and he’s already in the top alliance.

He kept saying to Probst, over and over, “I guess we’re not going to drop this.” To Probst’s credit, no, he said he never would. Good. As a host of a top-rated TV program with millions of viewers, Probst should be using his platform to spotlight difficult social movements. I think Dan doth protest too much. He acted too much like a man who was guilty of sexual misconduct, here.

So everyone in the Survivor fandom hates Dan. One commentor I saw said he should have his kids taken away. (I should have stopped checking out the Survivor social media there, but I didn’t.) That’s all fair enough.

The people at the real bottom of the situation, at least from a “crucified on Twitter” standpoint, are Missy and Elizabeth. These women have no problem with Dan’s behavior, and then lied and said they did in order to sway Kellee and Janet’s votes towards Dan, so they could blindside Kellee instead. Make no mistake, this is on Janet and Kellee. They took their heads out of the game and tried to play “real world” for a moment. They should have and did get the rug pulled out from under them.

But when I saw someone attacking the two of them as “gender traitors” this afternoon, I had to go on Survivor social media blackout. Whether Dan is a rapist or Kellee is a crybaby victim or whatever ridiculous extreme you want to fall on this issue, it’s still Survivor and I won’t fault a player for playing. They did the “right thing” by taking advantage of the situation and advancing their position, even though Janet and Kellee and ten million woke Survivor fans will hate them forever. They did the “wrong thing” by betraying Kellee and Janet’s trust on an incredibly serious and complicated real-world social issue.

As of now, Dan is still in the game. I don’t know what the editors are going to do here. In a typical season I would expect them to ham up his “Dan the villain” role, but doing that here could have serious, actual consequences for Dan in real post-game life. You can edit someone to look like an asshole when they aren’t, that’s fine, that’s just TV. (Two such people sit in a secret little bungalow every Tribal Council!) You can’t edit someone to look like a sex offender when they aren’t. And Dan isn’t, according to everyone left on his tribe.

If Missy or Elizabeth win this season, they are going to be the most hated Survivor winner in history.

Wow, what an uncomfortable situation all around. I can’t deny it’s compelling TV, though.

Who’s gonna win?
The Dan Situation casts a shadow over the whole rest of the season. I don’t think anyone comes out of it unscathed. I think Janet is gone soon; she found an idol and played it, and it didn’t matter, but she’s still the last holdout on a pro-Dan tribe. Once she’s on the jury, alongside Jamal (who has given some very woke speeches at these emotional Tribal Councils), and Kellee (who felt legitimately harrassed), and Jack (who is good friends with Jamal)… this is starting to look like a real tough win for Dan, Missy, or Elizabeth.

That said, Tommy and Lauren are still here, still playing together, and have kind of been in the background for most of The Dan Situation. They were crucial swing votes immediately after the merge and, though the waters are tumultuous and the immunity idols are flowing, I think they might be able to keep afloat. The question to my mind is whether Missy and Elizabeth are going to try and bus Lauren as one of the girls who lied to Janet re: Dan’s touchiness. If so, she’ll have a tough time with the jury for the same reason the two of them will. For that slight edge, I’m going with Tommy, and after all that’s happened in this crazy game, it feels good to bold his name again.

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