Despite its moniker as “reality” television, Survivor is rarely a reflection of reality. The long-running series is popcorn entertainment: A handful of contestants, most of them young and attractive, compete in challenges and navigate a social game on a tropical island. It’s not scripted, but it also rarely feels real.
Wednesday’s episode, the eighth of the season, was a departure from Survivor’s typical form. The double episode showed a complicated intersection of power dynamics and sexual harassment, as one contestant’s tendency to inappropriately touch the women in his tribes finally came to a head. One woman brought it up to another, and what followed was an explosion of tears, lies, denial, and a bleak representation of how instances of sexual impropriety can play out in real life.
All season long, a contestant named Dan had been handsy with the women on his tribe. Survivor had showed multiple clips of him touching women: wrapping his arms around them as the tribe slept in its shelter, wiggling their toes, rubbing their scalps, grabbing their hips, etc. One woman, Kellee, had been extremely uncomfortable with Dan since the very first episode of the season, when she asked him to stop touching her. At the time, he seemed to take to that suggestion—though his behavior continued with other women. Kellee and Dan were separated for most of the past few episodes after a tribe swap, but were reunited in this latest episode after the merge.
In the episode, Kellee immediately bonded with Missy, a contestant whom she had never met before, over their shared experiences with Dan.
“The hands were wandering,” Missy said as the two walked down the beach together. Missy brought up more instances of Dan’s inappropriate touching, and added “for my mental health, he can go.” As this unfolded, Kellee gave a tearful confessional, the majority of which is worth posting here because of her clarity in diagnosing an increasingly complex situation:
It’s super upsetting because it’s like you can’t do anything about it. There are always consequences for standing up. This happens in real life, in work settings, in school. You can’t say anything because it’s going to affect your upward trajectory. It’s going to affect how people look at you.
The fact that it makes me, Lauren, Elizabeth, Missy, Molly—it made all of us uncomfortable. This isn’t just one person. It’s a pattern. It takes five people to be like, ‘Man, the way I’m feeling about this is actually real. It’s not in my head. I’m not overreacting to it.’ He’s literally done these things to five different women in this game. That sucks. That totally, totally sucks.
A producer interrupted Kellee’s confessional—a virtually unprecedented breaking of the fourth wall—and asked whether she wanted action to be taken. Kellee said she felt things could get better and the tribe could resolve it themselves. After Kellee’s confessional, the producers of the show had a meeting with all the castmates to remind them about appropriate behavior and touching. They issued Dan a private and formal warning.
It seemed like Missy and Kellee, who hadn’t met before this episode, were finding an immediate common experience to bond over. Kellee spoke to Janet about her feelings as well, and Janet, who was previously an ally of Dan’s, promised her that if she saw anything, she would confront him. A plan was forming: The women could band together and vote Dan out and make life easier on all of them. Then, all hell broke loose.
Elizabeth and Missy, who had previously complained about Dan’s touching on camera, admitted to each other that they didn’t find his behavior all that problematic. The game—and the $1 million that is on the line for the winner—often reigns supreme on Survivor. Players often go against their friends if it’s in their interest to do so, and they often remain friends after it’s all over. Missy and Elizabeth embodied that ethos when they then decided to use Kellee’s feelings to help their own games. They knew they could put a target on Dan if they exaggerated their discomfort with his actions. Missy asked Elizabeth to work on Janet and Kellee:
“You tell her how uncomfortable you are,” Missy told Elizabeth, referring to Kellee. “Like, you have a very open mom-daughter moment about how uncomfortable you are. Right now, that’s our only play.”
In a confessional, Elizabeth admitted she would “play up that card in whatever way possible.” Later, in regards to Dan’s touching, she said, “I know what people are talking about, but it’s more in a joking way.” Still, Elizabeth used the story to her advantage, going to Kellee and Janet separately and talking about how Dan had touched her inappropriately and assuring them that she wanted to vote Dan out. Elizabeth’s comments seemed to imply that because she never felt too uncomfortable, things must not have been very bad for Kellee.
"It isn't happening to me so it must not be a problem" is pretty much everything that is wrong with the entire world today. Just saying.— Jessica Liese (@HaymakerHattie) November 14, 2019
Missy and Elizabeth’s plan worked. Janet, who characterizes herself as somewhat of a mother hen to the younger women in the tribe, flipped on Dan, explaining in a confessional that she thought “anything that has to do with sexual uncomfortability has no place in a game environment.”
Here’s where it gets complicated. Kellee wasn’t initially planning to vote out Dan, because she recognized that he wasn’t the biggest threat to her game. She wanted to keep the target on Missy because she didn’t want to make an emotional decision. Her alliance—which included Jamal, Janet, and a number of other contestants—was on board. But when word of this plan reached Missy and Elizabeth, they saw Kellee as being shifty and untrustworthy—they thought she was using the Dan story as a distraction, just like the two of them had. So while they played up their interactions with Dan to Kellee and Janet, they worked to put the votes on Kellee.
Meanwhile, Kellee’s alliance did switch their target. Instead of going for Missy, Jamal and Janet urged the tribe to target Dan. They thought Missy and Elizabeth (as well as a handful of others) would be with them for a straightforward vote to get rid of a sexual harasser. They weren’t. At the ensuing tribal council, Kellee was blindsided and voted off (with two immunity idols in her pocket).
Cut through the many layers, and the bottom line is this: Missy and Elizabeth embellished claims of sexual harassment to further their place in Survivor, a move that they are rightfully getting blasted for on the internet right now. But make no mistake, though Missy and Elizabeth falsely exaggerated their own tales to their tribemates, Dan is not a falsely accused martyr. He was inappropriately touching women, and there is video evidence to back it up. In addition, Kellee’s feelings were real. She was uncomfortable and looking for someone to reassure her. She thought she found that in Missy and Elizabeth—and then they betrayed her. As previous contestant Zeke Smith pointed out, the contestants weren’t able to lift the burden off Kellee’s shoulders:
Allyship means institutions and bystanders lifting the burden of outrage, education, and justice off the shoulder’s of the marginalized party.— Zeke Smith (@zekerchief) November 14, 2019
I am shocked and horrified by its absence at all levels in last night’s Survivor episode.
It was a horribly upsetting episode, and the situation got uglier after Kellee was sent home. Janet was left wondering how the women she had thought would help ended up voting out Kellee. She confronted Dan about what happened—but when Dan went to Missy and Elizabeth, the two said that Janet was making everything up and was trying to play him. Janet believed the stories about Dan—the subsequent denials from Missy and Elizabeth felt like gaslighting. In the ensuing chaos, Janet ended up virtually exiled from the tribe, sleeping in the sand on the beach for the crime of trying to do the right thing.
Fast-forward to the next tribal council, and all of this was aired out in the open for the first time. Dan was, at least initially, very defensive, asking host Jeff Probst to “let it go” multiple times. He finally issued an apology, though he stopped just short of unequivocally acknowledging his wrongdoing by wrapping it in a bow of only being sorry “if” Kellee had been hurt:
If that person was Kellee—if Kellee ever felt that in the freezing cold rain, or in tight shelters … or in all the ways we have to crawl around and through each other in this game—if I ever did anything that ever even remotely made her feel uncomfortable, it horrifies me, and I am terribly sorry.
True, untrue, it doesn’t matter what I feel. It doesn’t matter whether I’m aware of it. It doesn’t matter whether I ever sensed it. It doesn’t matter whether I knew it happened or it didn’t happen. If someone feels it, it’s their truth. I couldn’t be more sorry. I couldn’t be more confident in that I’m one of the kindest, gentlest people I know. I have a wife, I have been married for 21 years, I have two boys, I have a big business, I have lots of employees. I think what upset everybody here is that this has somehow turned into gameplay.
Aaron, a contestant who voted out Kellee, gave a classic “I have a mother who is a woman” type of speech in which he concluded that nothing could have happened because no one had told him about it, and said that Janet was playing the “victim role.” (He apologized on Twitter after the episode.) Meanwhile Janet revealed she was considering quitting the game, saying she felt “so alone.” Kellee, who at this point was on the jury, was not able to speak and tell her side at the tribal council. The voices of Missy and Elizabeth were nearly absent at the tribal as well. At this tribal, Jamal—another ally of Kellee, Janet, and Co. and the one male player who was able to articulate the horrible dynamics at play—was voted out.
As Kellee noted in her clear-eyed confessional, the episode parallels with how these situations often play out in real life. Kellee experienced behavior that made her uncomfortable—perhaps even unsafe—but didn’t feel empowered to act on it until she heard the same from others around her. Even then, she feared that if she spoke out, it would impact her status in the game. When the situation boiled over, Kellee’s concerns were weaponized by bad-faith actors and minimized by others. Many of the men in the situation were hopelessly ignorant of their own roles or that of those around them. And above all, the true victim ended up suffering the largest consequences—and the wrongdoers moved ahead mostly unscathed. It was a depressing glimpse at the dynamics of sexual harassment—and how so few people can follow their moral compasses in such situations.
There’s no overstating how damaging Missy and Elizabeth’s actions were. A Fox News headline blares: “Survivor Contestants Admit They Exaggerated Claims of ‘Inappropriate Touching’ to Win the Game.” False sexual assault accusations are exceedingly rare, but every time something like this happens it discourages others from coming forward and is used to muddy the waters by those who wish to undermine overdue movements like #MeToo. Never mind that Dan was guilty—very few women who face these situations have the benefit of video evidence that Kellee did, and even she was reluctant to say anything. Late Thursday, both Elizabeth and Missy issued apologies on Twitter:
It was arguably the most upsetting episode of Survivor history, instantly reminiscent of the episode two years ago in which a contestant outed a transgender man at a tribal council. Many fans and prior contestants are saying they won’t watch the rest of this season. This episode—and indeed this entire season—won’t deliver the type of pulpy entertainment Survivor is known for, and for that it will be seen as a failure. But the legacy of this episode is also that it provided a clear look at how sexual harassment can be so difficult for groups of people to reckon with and address. No matter how uncomfortable and depressing Wednesday’s episode of Survivor was, it was also as real as television gets.