Monday, December 21, 2009

The Morality of Survivor

Russell Hantz was one of the biggest scoundrels in the 19 seasons of Survivor. He lied, cheated, stole, sabotaged, and manipulated his way to the top three, where he lost to Natalie, a Southern belle who smiled her way through most of the game and claimed her presence in the top trio as a moral victory. It was one of the worst travesties in Survivor history, along with Boston Rob losing All-Stars to Amber; Russell played one of the best games ever on Survivor, and was never in a position in which he did not control the game for more than a few hours. But what I found very intersting about this whole season of Survivor is that Russell was cast as a "villain", which seemed to be primarily because he was unscrupulous in his methods of keeping control. He did not allow any moral or ethical expectations to govern his behaviour; at any point, his mind was on doing whatever it took to win. He took his case boldly to the jury, who denied him the prize seemingly based on his lack of ethics. On the other hand, the finalist who attempted to achieve some sort of moral redemption - Mick - was shut out of the voting, a clear indication that the jury felt that Mick's attempts to cast himself as a moral player were even more misguided than Russell's outright bravado. The winner - Natlie - positioned herself as a player who made the best decisions she could, but who tried to play as honest a game as she could, and her combination of gameplay and morality won her a million dollars, despite the fact that she was not in the running for one of the best three players of the season according to the fans' votes. So although there is no morality inherently present in the game, Russell lost because of the moral and ethical wrongs perceived by the members of the jury - an external construct of morality applied to the game. It could, of course, be argued that said morality is part of being human, and that it is more unnatural to shed a moral code, as Russell did, than to adhere to one, but it seems to be fallacious to enter into a game and to decide the game based on "rules" that exist outside the game - just not outside the contestants. Russell is pissed off, and I do not blame him - he is now arguably the best player not to win Survivor. But what will really be an interesting twist on this discussion of Survivor and morality is the upcoming "Heroes vs. Villains" season: 10 of the most altruistic contestants taking on 10 of the most devious. But the question, of course, is how the villains are decided, and whether it is true that there can be such a construct as a "villain" in Survivor; these are people who take a certain perspective to the game, and they are held in moral judgment for their actions. Russell will almost certainly come back as a "villain", as will some of the memorable participants from years past: Jerri, Jonny Fairplay, Ace; but the only facet that makes them villains is their willingness to abandon a moral code that arguably should not have applied in the first place. It's going to be a fun season.


  1. I don't watch survivor, but my sister debriefed me in the car this morning, so I read this post to her... she completely agreed with everything you said, told me she could not have written anything better herself, and asked me to suggest that you send this in for publication! thought I'd share :)

  2. I totally agree, Derek! He was robbed.

    It drove me nuts that the jury acted as though Natalie was so much more "moral" than Russell. She stood with him (and more importantly behind him) and was fully aware of his decisions. She is no more ethical than he is.

    To say that her strategy was better would be a little more accurate (although I don't agree...I really think she just rode his coattails) because she was able to be as ruthless as him while maintaining good relationships with people. But for them to say she's more ethical than him, well that's just irritating.

    As for the next season...I'm definitely looking forward to it! Do you think Russell will go again, though? I kind of think he wouldn't want to risk losing again. Although, I'm sure they'll offer him a lot of money to do it. When they did all-stars they offered Elizabeth Hasselback $2 million.

  3. I think Russell is the kind of guy who would just play it to play. He loves the limelight, and he'd get another chance to prove himself against some of the best. If they asked, he's there, and we'll really see what he's made of.



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