TV Reaction: An outing on Survivor

Pardon me while I amble away from books (shocking!) for a moment while I ponder one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen on TV.

If you follow TV news at all, then you’ve probably seen the headlines all over social media last night and this morning. In a nutshell, on last night’s episode of Survivor, one contestant outed another as transgender at tribal council, in a desperate and despicable attempt to show to their tribe mates how “deceptive” the other player was.

It’s been over 12 hours since I watched the episode and I still can’t stop thinking about it. This was truly stunning TV.

The stupidity of Jeff Varner, and his lame attempt to link the other contestant’s personal history to somehow being an untrustworthy alliance member, is astonishing. And I think he realized it within minutes of it all coming out of his mouth — but again, perhaps he was simply unprepared for the outrage he’d stirred up and was operating in CYA mode.

On the positive side, it was uplifting and gratifying to see the other players’ uniformly harsh reaction to Varner. Zeke, who was outed, was absolutely supported, and all the others basically tore Varner apart. Host Jeff Probst did a great job of letting the drama play out, giving Zeke time to compose himself, and refusing to let Varner off the hook by accepting his ridiculous excuse of being desperate to stay in the game.

In the end, in what really seemed like an unprecedented situation, Varner was shown the door and kicked out without the usual ritual of a vote. As Probst noted, a vote was unnecessary. They all wanted Varner gone.

There are some astute and well-written pieces out there already about what happened and what it meant. I have nothing but admiration for Zeke, who managed to show grace toward Varner, who didn’t deserve Zeke’s kindness.

It should be noted that this round of Survivor was filmed last summer, so that all involved had time to prepare for last night’s episode. Zeke wrote a thoughtful and moving piece about his life and his determination to compete on Survivor, and I recommend checking it out, here.

I do wonder, though, why the producers didn’t either a) cut the outing from the episode or b) explain why it was included. I can envision a few different scenarios. Did this tribal have a huge impact on game play going forward? I’d imagine that Zeke’s teammates’ loyalty and support of him was magnified by Varner’s behavior, and might be an important part of the storytelling going forward. If future episodes have the outing and the impact on Zeke as a storyline, then the tribal is highly relevant. Likewise, if Zeke makes the finals (as I’m now really hoping he does), surely the events from last night will be a big piece of his Survivor story — the narrative that finalists pitch to the jury in a bid for the $1 million prize. Further, Zeke and the producers may have discussed the tribal together and reached an agreement, with Zeke’s full cooperation, in terms of what they chose to air.

I’m not pointing fingers at the producers at this point, but I do feel they do their viewers a disservice by simply airing the episode without including any explanation of why those chose to do so and whether Zeke had a say in the decision. Yes, Varner is the one who outed Zeke — but the Survivor production team decided to put it on the air. I’d just like to know why, and I hope with all my heart that Zeke will confirm that he was a part of the decision-making process and gave it his blessing.

In any case, that was a shocking moment, unlike anything I’d seen previously on TV. For my household, it was also a great catalyst for discussion. I watch Survivor each week with my 14-year-old son, and we have fun speculating on strategy, mocking ridiculousness, and cheering for our favorites. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that an episode of a reality competition show would spark a discussion of transgender rights and identity, but it did. The kiddo and I talked about Zeke, what his life must have been like, his courage, and why the outing was such a travesty and betrayal. And the kiddo really gets it, which was gratifying for me to see.

As the day progresses and I read more pieces about this Survivor episode and the fallout, it does seem as though Zeke was deeply involved in the process of bringing this episode to the air, with the Survivor production giving him support and agency in determining how his story was told. I certainly hope that’s the case, and I applaud Survivor overall for its sensitivity to key social issues and flashpoints. (I can’t help but wish that this had been made clearer during the episode itself — even via a text screen at the end — rather than leaving viewers hanging until more statements dribbled out.)

More than anything, I’m filled with awe and admiration for Zeke’s humanity and decency in a moment of shock and betrayal, and for his bravery in sharing his feelings over a matter he had the right to choose to keep private. Prior to watching yesterday’s episode, I was kind of “meh” about Zeke — he’s a fun player to watch, but I wasn’t necessarily rooting for him to win. But now? Team Zeke, all the way! And I suspect I’m far from alone.

For more on the events on yesterday’s Survivor, here are a few thoughtful pieces:

New York Times:
New York Times:
E Online:


7 thoughts on “TV Reaction: An outing on Survivor

  1. I didn’t catch the episode but I imagine the producers have Carte Blanche on what they can air, and that all players sign away those rights at the onset. Glad it “outed” a bigger picture story about transphobia and that it worked against Varner.

    • Yes, from what I understand, players sign away pretty much all rights when they agree to be on the show. I’m just glad that this topic was handled with sensitivity. The more I’ve read about it, the more it seems that the producers worked with Zeke and that they’ve been supportive throughout.

  2. I didn’t see the episode when it aired on cable, but was informed via my fiance’s mom that something unusual and potentially upsetting occurred – and I’m so glad I knew going in that something was going to shock/upset me. Had I been completely unwarned, I may have set fire to something. It was an incredibly emotional moment, and I was grateful that other members of Zeke’s tribe were supportive.

    I’ve also been wondering about the reasons for airing that particular moment in the episode. I’m guessing Zeke being outed because a big part of the story – and I really hope he makes it to the final 3 – I was rooting for him on last season as well, purely because he’s from my home state of Oklahoma. I hope that Zeke had some say in how the episode was produced, but I’m fairly certain he didn’t have much choice. Maybe I’m a cynic, but I feel like CBS is just using the whole thing as a “SEE HOW LIBERAL WE ARE?! SEE!” type moment to boost their ratings.

    That being said, I hope that the episode sparks discussions around the country in a helpful way, the way it did with you and your kid. It’s interesting to note Varner’s attempt to cover his own mistake, the way he claimed his role in the LGBT+ community and his trans friends, etc. It’s a pretty classic scenario and it’s interesting to note that Varner is a cis gay man (of a certain generation) and that his treatment of Zeke didn’t necessarily surprise me. It just shows the rifts that still exist within the larger queer community.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Thank you for your comments! I’ve been reading more of the coverage since I posted this, and it does seem as though Zeke was very involved with the producers in preparing for the episode to air. I wonder what might have happened if he’d objected, though. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out and if this ends up helping Zeke’s standing in the game. I think you’re right about Varner — but he’s certainly suffering the consequences of his actions now, and I can only hope that he comes out of it a better (and more enlightened) person.

      • I would really like to see Zeke succeed, but it’s definitely going to be interesting to see how people interact with him now that this info is out there.

        • Yes, especially as the merge is about to happen. I wonder if this is something that will be kept private between Zeke and his current tribemates, or if it will become common knowledge for all the remaining players, and how that will affect Zeke’s experience.

  3. Pingback: April Wrap-Up – the story salve

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