Survivor contestants endure hunger, parasites, water holes brimming with exotic animal dung and unfortunate re-editing during their stints on the show that sparked a new wave of commercially viable reality TV in the early 2000s. Yet three of the six contestants who attended RTVF Assistant Professor Max Dawson’s reality TV class on Thursday said they’d compete again if given the chance.
That is the paradox of Survivor. The show is often cited as an example of quality reality TV, selecting participants based on looks and encouraging drama between them, arguably furthering reality TV’s reputation for sleaze. The contestants do play a real game, with its own unique and real physical and psychological challenges but at the same time are often asked to play a character, (the nerd, the playboy, the slutty dumb girl, etc.) or change their role in the game based.
Dawson’s 55-person class, “The Tribe Has Spoken: Surviving TV’s New Reality,” analyzes reality TV through a Survivor-tinted lens. The contestants’ distinct insider perspectives on this provocative genre were meant to provide a unique angle for the class and a fuller understanding of the workings within reality TV, according to Dawson.
“One of the ways that [reality TV] impacts the entertainment industry is by replacing actors with contestants, replacing writers with story consultants or editors,” Dawson says. “There’s a labor component to reality TV, with different people carrying out those jobs and that’s part of what has allowed it to be economically attractive from the perspective of media companies.”
The guests, representing seasons three to 23, were Erinn Lobdell (Season 18), Harvard Law School student and self-proclaimed Survivor obsessee John Cochran (Season 23), Assistant Professor of Marketing at Kellogg School of Management Kelly Goldsmith (Season 3), Season 18 runner-up and People columnist Stephen Fishbach, Mookie Lee (Season 14) and Jenny Guzon-Bae, a competitor in the racially divided and controversial Season 13.
Goldsmith, who has worked at Northwestern for about two and a half years, had no idea Dawson’s class existed. But after years of being “asked to do a lot of weird things having been on Survivor” like getting letters from prisoners, she says she is not surprised a course at Northwestern focuses on the very show she worked both in front of and behind the scenes on as a contestant and with the casting department.
“It was neat that it was so close to home, and hopefully I can give back to campus a little bit,” she says.
Beyond the screen
The idea for a Survivor guest panel began with a tweet from Dawson mentioning Fishbach, Dawson’s first choice for a Survivor guest to come to his class. The idea took off when Fishbach responded within a few minutes, intrigued and willing to help. Using Facebook, Twitter and Fishbach’s connections, Dawson’s panel event came together.
Then, contestants both from across the country and local to the Chicago area gathered in a classroom in John J. Louis Hall during an RTVF 330 lecture. They answered questions from Dawson and from students taking the course, telling candid stories about their time on the show along the way.
According to Lee, a specific clause in the official Survivor participant contract says the producers of the show can justifiably “make you look stupid.” Although everything shown on the program is factual, the clause does allow for some heavy editing that can blatantly change the meaning of what contestants say. One contestant recalled how one of his quotes had been edited to completely change his meaning, mentioning that he wasn’t supposed to talk about this sort of thing.
Female contestants Lobdell and Goldsmith shared similar tales of going to the gym in Los Angeles in preparation for Survivor, where producers would critique their work-out methods. They even told Goldsmith her butt was bigger than they’d imagined. Still, half of Dawson’s visitors would go back to the show if they could. While Guzon-Bae admitted there was a “trashy side” of reality TV, she defended that Survivor, while still acting like a reality show, was separate from that stereotype.
“In [class] we’ve been learning a lot about the not-so-glorious parts of reality TV, but the talk confirmed for me that not all shows are like that,” Weinberg senior Jonathan Forman says. “I see Survivor as one of the more pure reality shows, in terms of production and characters, so it was nice to see the contestants justify my line of thinking.”
Forman, a political science and history double major known by other students in the class for his Survivor trivia prowess, took “The Tribe Has Spoken” out of a love for reality TV, and specifically Survivor.
The contestants, some of whom had been recruited for Survivor through online means, stressed the use of social media as an instrument for networking, particularly when looking to break into competitive industries like film or television. Social media can break down boundaries between average people and celebrities or media members.
“Social networking, all the way, was what made that event possible,” Dawson says.
Cochran, staying in the Hilton Orrington along with some of the other guests, tweeted at the class asking for a recommendation of “a place to go, what’s cool?” in Evanston Thursday night after the event. Also, several of the Survivors tweeted at the class thanking them. Cochran told them to keep in touch.
“I thought [RTVF 330] was great because, you know, during my time on the show I sort of presented myself as a student of the game, so to see that there are literally students of the game is awesome,” Cochran says. “I wish I had this kind of class in undergrad.”