Another Feature Article is coming your way today, as Ozlet Clay Shirley, takes a look at the role gay Survivor contestants have on the game. In his article, Clay argues that gay contestants are less prominent in Survivor’s current era, that they are not used to their full potential in terms of storylines and that this is a determent of the show. As always, feel free to get involved in the conversation, by leaving yor thoughts in a comment below!
When Survivor first aired in 2000, it changed the landscape of television forever. It was a show that combined multiple concepts that were unlike anything audiences had seen before. Watching people survive in the wild while also playing a game in which they voted each other out was astounding. A lot of viewers couldn’t believe what they were watching. The show was an enormous hit and by the end of it, it had become a cultural phenomenon. What makes all of this more interesting than it already was, that right smack dab in the middle of everything, was Richard Hatch.
In casting Richard Hatch as one of their castaways, Survivor gave America a look at something it had rarely, if ever, seen before: a depiction of a real gay man. Sure there had been gay characters on television, but the climate of gay culture in 2000 was remarkably different from what it is today and at the time, seeing a real gay man simply being depicted as he was drove us into new territory. While it is true there had been previous reality-based shows with gay participants, they weren’t on national television and they weren’t getting the astounding ratings that Survivor was getting. An enormous portion of America was sitting down every week to watch a show in which one of the central “characters” was a gay man.
To make matters more interesting, Richard Hatch completely defied cultural expectations to what it meant to be a gay man. Hatch wasn’t flamboyant or feminine. He wasn’t thin, he wasn’t weak, he wasn’t pretty, he wasn’t bitchy, he didn’t speak with an affectation. Years of televised stereotyping were countered with Richard Hatch simply being himself. As if all of this wasn’t enough. Hatch went on to win the damn thing, launching him beyond mere contestant and into another realm of television history. Richard Hatch became the figurehead of Survivor and was the first of many strong gay contestants to compete on the show; a trend which had a terrific run that has fallen short in the past few years.
As Survivor continued to air new seasons, they also continued to cast strong and interesting gay contestants. Brandon from Africa was more of a stereotype, but he was also a depiction of a young, independent gay man who had no qualms about who he was. John Carroll, who was both very intelligent and overly confident, proved on Marquesas to be yet another gay power player who, for a while, was controlling the game. After Marquesas, gay contestants seem to disappear for a bit on Survivor up until Vanuatu, which featured two lesbian constants. Ami Cusack and Scout Cloud Lee were the first openly gay women on the show and both of them offered a different perspective. Ami was a sexy, cutthroat player who also controlled the game for a time, while Scout offered us a rare depiction of an older lesbian. Palau brought us Coby, a big personality who proved to be an excellent foil for Tom Westman. Guatemala had Rafe, who was both a terrific player and a very likable contestant who almost won the game. The only out gay contestant from seasons thirteen and fourteen was Brad Virata, who’s screen time was limited. Then came Todd Herzog in China, who I believe presented the best image of a gay contestant since Hatch. Todd was small, but he was unmovable in his mastery of the game, showing intelligence and cunning while still being a likable character that towed the line of villainy. However, Todd’s victory in the fifteenth season would mark the end of Survivor’s run of strong gay casting.
After Survivor: China, something changed. The show stopped surprising us with interesting and unique gay characters and began to cast a line of gay contestants who came off more like punch lines than players. Chet was a disaster of a contestant in Micronesia whose legacy consists of being knocked around an obstacle course while literally being dragged around by Joel. Charlie Herschel proved to be both forgettable and irrelevant in Gabon, while Spencer in Tocantins was largely ignored before being unceremoniously voted out. And while Nicaragua didn’t feature any out gay constants, it did feature the homophobic Shannon, whose exchange with Sash was highly uncomfortable and left a bad taste in the mouth, a taste worsened by his reprise at the Reunion Show. Then came Papa Bear, an older gay man who thought straight men could lure women by gushing over their jewelry.
Then there’s Colton. Colton Cumbie is, without question, the absolute low point in Survivor‘s casting of gay contestants, (or any contestants, really). A spoiled, shrill, whiny, bitchy, hateful creature, Colton just about single handedly reversed all of the commendable depictions of gay contestants up to that point. At a time when gay rights have been in the forefront more than ever before, Colton was an embarrassment in every sense of the word. This is a shame on casting just as much as it is on Colton himself, if not more. Casting knew who Colton was and yet they decided to put him out there anyway. The fact that casting then went on to put him back on the show for a second time is inexcusable.
While gay culture continues to grow and the world slowly begins to come around on social progress, Survivor begun to marginalise their gay contestants, utilising them for controversy or not utilising them at all. In Caramoan, Michael Snow, smart and funny, looked to be the best gay contestant in years, only to be given a mediocre edit and reduced to “Corinne’s gay.” The same goes for Caleb Bankston, who despite being the saving grace of Colton, received an invisible edit past his move to eliminate Brad Culpepper. At least with the Colton situation, some blame lay with Colton. The coming season of Cagayan features Brice, the shows first openly black gay contestant. While this should be a terrific opportunity, Survivor‘s recent track record has me nervous. I hope Brice proves to be a turn around for the shows gay casting and that he defies expectations and proves to be a great player; but given the players we’ve been served up lately, I’m not holding my breath.
Do you agree or disagree with Clay? Has the portrayal of gay contestants declined over the years? Comment below to let us know your thoughts!