TL;DR – They should have done better, and we know they could have.
Last night the first episode of the new season of Australian Survivor aired down here and there is a lot we need to talk about it. Indeed, there are some really fascinating things, like how a lot of the framing of the show is clearly tapping into the female gaze, the fact that someone acting like a complete ass actually got them booted off the show by the contestants, the Champions v Contender dichotomy that just exists to force more c-list celebrities onto our screens, or how they continue the Australian tradition of taking a format that works in an hour and pad it out to fill in as much runtime as possible. However, the area that we will be focusing on today is the representation and the complete failure of the show on multiple fronts.
Representation on Australian TV screens has always been a prickly topic, as any mention of it has a way of inciting the ire of powerful cultural forces, which can become an avalanche if you happen to be commenting on diversity in Australia and are not part of the cultural mainstream. However, even within that space, there have been improvements with regards to representation on Australian screens, though unfortunately, that tends to be restricted to the national broadcasters and cable channels with shows like Cleverman, Wentworth, Mystery Road, and others. One area where there has been significant resistance is in the reality TV genre, so-called event-TV that many of the commercial stations have put a lot of focus on due to their low cost and generally high viewership. It is within this space that we come to Australian Survivor.
So Australian Survivor, not to be confused with that one season of Survivor that came to Australia, is an odd duck in Australian TV history. It has the distinction being one of the few shows to have existed in some form across all three of the main commercial TV stations here in Australia and took three tries until it found a formula that worked. It follows the similar plan to its parent show as a bunch of people are stuck on an island in teams, destined to battle it out until only one has outwitted, outplayed and outlasted all opposition.
Now I opened this article with the premise that Australian Survivor has a representation problem, so let’s explore that. For my non-Australian readers, to give a snapshot of Australia, using the last census data about a quarter of Australians were born overseas, we speak hundreds of languages, and have ancestry to over 200 countries. However, you would not think that when the line-up for the new season of Australian Survivor was shown on Australian TV. Of the 24 contestants, there is only one person of colour in the show.
Okay, this is a problem and not the only one that exists with the show, and there is a lot to unpack. The theme of this show is ‘Champions’ verse ‘Challengers’ and the show is making the claim that there are no Indigenous champions out there, or Islamic champions, African champions, Asian champions, Pacific Islander champions, look you name it. This is all compounded by the fact that the one person of colour Steve became one of the targets in the very first episode with comments like “He’s not part of the team” and we are getting rid of him because of “Tribal Unity”. Which would not have been as clearly loaded if he was not the only non-white contestant on the show.
This is added to by some deeply problematic framing for the entire show. In the opening of the show, we are told that this season is set on “an island rooted in ancient tribal warfare”. We then proceed to drive past people from the island that have been dressed up in ‘traditional’ costumes and supplied with machetes to wave at the people as they drive past, yikes. Look if I was being charitable I would call this deeply tone deaf, if I was not I would say this is a colonialist power playing on outdated stereotypes to promote a cooperate interest. The original show Survivor was not immune from engaging in similar practices in the early seasons, but over time it has got much better when engaging with the cultures of the places that host them, and that is simply not the case here.
Now to be fair to Australian Survivor they are not the only reality show in Australia that has a poor track record when it comes to representation. Recently Love Island Australia on the rival Channel Nine network had a similar monochrome starting line-up. However, to be not in any way fair, other shows in Australia have shown you can integrate representation very easily with notable highlights in MasterChef Australia and Australian Ninja Warrior showing it can be done. Those last two examples are important because they have the same production company Endemol Shine Australia, the same production company of Australian Survivor.
In the end, does all of this mean that Australian Survivor is not going to be an entertaining show, no of course not. What it means is that in 2018 you should be doing better and it is just disappointing that a prominent TV show decided at best not to bother.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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