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'Survivor' Is a Damning Illustration of America’s Distorted Class Politics

Robert Voets/CBS

Next week, the reality TV behemoth “Survivor” will air the final episode of its thirtieth season, capping off one of its more socially charged themes—“Worlds Apart: White Collar, Blue Collar, No Collar.” As its title suggests, contestants are divided into tribes based on “occupation and approach to life.” A media consultant wages war against a Boston-based furniture mover. A prosperous Yahoo exec is pitted against a single mom who’s a hairdresser. A corporate V.P. scuffles with a state trooper. The tagline is “Survivor Warfare,” and almost despite itself, the show has offered a damning illustration of America’s distorted class politics.   

During the first episode, the show’s emcee, Jeff Probst, explained the differences between these tribes. But instead of defining them by their income levels, he discussed how each collar’s professional disposition might benefit them on the island. The White Collar tribe feels at home in the jungle of the market, having no qualms about stepping on others to get what they want. By contrast, the Blue Collar tribe routinely invokes the bromides of Chevy Truck commercials to establish their working-class bona fides. As Dan, a retired postal worker, says, “We built the heart of America. Blood, sweat, and tears. Callouses on our hands. Sore at the end of the day. But a smile on our face knowing that we accomplished a good day’s work.” Just in case viewers need help with parsing the argot of the proletariat, Probst (whose net worth is $40 million) translates this sentiment for us: “They’re used to hard work and physical labor, and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.” Perhaps the Blue Collar tribe, inured to manual labor and intense working conditions, is better equipped to endure the privations of San Juan del Sur island.

Most baffling about this season’s arrangement is the “No Collar” tribe, which eschews labels and categories. During the opening moments of episode one, we meet a contestant named Vince Sly, a coconut vendor from Santa Monica who sports feather-strewn Fabio hair and a chiseled jawline. In typical No-Collar fashion, he identifies as a “free spirit” and tends to make unbelievably vapid observations about life. “As a coconut vendor, I seek truth. I’m a seer of real,” he says. “My personality is a lot like surfing a wave.”

In the end, Probst leaves us to wonder, “Which way of life will prove most valuable?”

Since its nativity in 2000, “Survivor” has been a mainstay of network programming. Each season, roughly 18 castaways are marooned on a remote island and must fend for themselves, finding shelter and vital resources while vying for cash prizes.Episodes often feature intra-tribe squabbling, quickly fizzling romances, puckish banter, and Shakespearean betrayal. 

But over its 30 seasons, “Survivor” has also dramatized the Janus-faced nature of America’s neoliberal system—its knotty combination of democracy and capitalism. Stripped of the tiki torches and indigenous totems, the tribal council, where contestants are “voted off the island,” ends up mirroring our electoral procedure and works to preserve our faith in America’s founding myth: the purity of the democratic process. As Mark Grief noted in an n+1 essay ten years ago, the format of “Survivor” resembles “the old idea of a republic of political equals, who despite unequal skills and endowments one by one would recuse themselves from activity to leave a single best representative behind to speak in public for their interests.” Even Probst’s ceremonial adieu to the booted contestant—“The tribe has spoken”—is only a slight modification of the trademark phrase used by politicians who’ve handily won an election and now claim legislative carte blanche: “The people have spoken.”

Of course, the vicious feuding on the island, embodying the merciless ethos of the free market system, swiftly deflates this lofty vision of democracy. Unbridled greed and simpering deceit are rampant on the show and promptly rewarded with admission into the next round. Carolyn Rivera, one of this season’s White Collar contestants, made the parallels between capitalism and island life explicit: “In corporate America, everybody wants your job,” she said. “And it’s the same on ‘Survivor.’”

But this season of “Survivor” doesn’t merely rehearse these age-old frictions between democracy and the free enterprise. It goes a step further by dramatizing the ways in which we obscure the gross inequalities of capitalism by presenting class not as an economic station but as a cultural identity. Hence the show’s tendency to compare the tribes by their different “ways of life” when what it really means is “tax brackets.”

Nowhere is this obfuscation more apparent than in the “No Collar” tribe, made up of those bohemians and nonconformists who refuse to be hampered by such labels. Because these freethinking individuals can supposedly exempt themselves from the class system via self-identification—“When people hear that I’m in law school, they assume that I’m a corporate dog-eat-dog girl, but that’s not who I am”—it suggests that the other contestants (those postal workers, hairdressers, and industrial laborers) are only choosing their income levels. 

Pretending that class isn’t about economics is the great American “fable of equality,” to borrow Frances Trollope’s term. And once you suppose that income doesn’t matter and that class is nothing more than culture, then all descriptions of social status begin to sound like Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck” routine. In Class: A Guide through the American Status System, Paul Fussell explains that you might be a member of the middle-class if you obsess over lawn care, wear baseball caps during leisure hours, and vigilantly monitor your bowel movements. He explains that proletariats say “tux,” middle-income folks say “tuxedo,” and the tweedy, uptown gentry will say “dinner jacket” or “black tie.” At a certain point, Fussell’s book becomes less an exegesis of these socioeconomic cultures than a handbook for aspirants hoping to transcend their economic status through behavior alone.

CBS is hardly the first network to present class as a “way of life.” In 2013, MTV premiered “Buckwild,” a reality TV show about rural Appalachians getting drunk, hooking up, and seeking other cheap amusements ("muddin," squirrel hunting, eating raw deer meat). In the first episode, members of the cast convert a dump truck into a swimming pool and cannonball into its brothy water. Critics argued that MTV obscured the poverty of West Virginia by presenting the cast as imaginative, resourceful types who didn’t need money to have a good time. When we laugh at their shenanigans, we can ignore the fact that nearly one-fifth of West Virginia lives below the poverty line.

As Walter Benn Michaels notes in The Trouble with Diversity, the inertia of the political left stems, in part, from this misguided tendency “to treat economic difference as if it were cultural difference.” He writes:

If we can stop thinking of the poor as people who have too little money and start thinking of them instead as people who have too little respect, then it’s our attitude toward the poor, not their poverty, that becomes the problem to be solved, and we can focus our efforts of reform not on getting rid of classes but on getting rid of what we like to call classism. The trick, in other words, is to stop thinking of poverty as a disadvantage, and once you stop thinking of it as a disadvantage then, of course, you no longer need to worry about getting rid of it.

But “Survivor” pushes the envelope even further: It doesn’t merely suggest that poverty isn’t a disadvantage. Instead, it would have us believe that economic hardship and the Blue Collar “way of life” might actually be an advantage, that years of manual labor and coupon-cutting will benefit them on the island.

Once “Survivor” converts class into culture, every conflict among the castaways becomes a farcical reenactment of the prevailing anxieties surrounding identity politics. Dust-ups arise from poor etiquette. Quarrels hinge upon incidents of disrespect. The same way we might agonize about authenticity and cooptation when it comes to race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender, so too do the various tribes begin fretting about fidelity to their respective cultures. When one White Collar contestant strips off his skivvies and struts around the island in the buff, his teammates start to wonder whether his oddball deportment means he actually belongs in the No Collar camp. When a Blue Collar contestant doesn’t assist the others in fetching firewood, his indolence is interpreted less as a personal defect than an act of cultural betrayal—such delinquency reflects poorly on blue-collar folks for whom hard work and accountability are sources of pride. But if class is simply a demeanor, a way of carrying oneself in the world, then we can fool ourselves into thinking that what’s required for improved social mobility is not better policy, but a better attitude.

If this season of “Survivor” serves as a proxy for class warfare—pixelated entertainment as political catharsis—it’s one where the terms of the dispute revolve around lifestyle rather than money. The producers don’t want us to think about the fact that a vice president of development at H&R Block rakes in a significantly higher income than does a hairdresser. True, the Elysian splendors of the island, its coconuts and crabs, its limpid waters and trippy sunsets, are available to all contestants when they are on the show. But once they are voted off the island, we can assume that the fruits of the world won’t be so equally enjoyed. 

If class were truly a culture, each with its own unique customs and mores, then you’d expect that in the world of “Survivor,” the sniffy aristocrats, the rugged proletariat, and the surfery free-spirits would compete in diverse ways. The truth is that they don’t. They all know what it takes to win on the island: deceit, opportunism, and an eye on the bottom line. Even the No Collar folks become callous during competition. When one of their tribeswomen confesses to feeling ostracized for being deaf, they don’t coddle her with soothing assurances. Instead, they remind her that she must toughen up. Why? Because, just like in the market, where you alone are responsible for tugging on those bootstraps, that’s how you win the game.