From "Survivor" to D.C., women are showing up strong on TV, but does patriarchal America care?

The recent collision of political theater & unscripted reality showbiz adds a new anxiety to what we see every day

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 23, 2019 3:30PM (EST)

Kellee Kim from "Survivor," Kamala Harris at the Democratic Debates, and Fiona Hill at the Impeachment Hearings (AP Photo/John Bazemore/Jeff Malet Photography/CBS/Salon)
Kellee Kim from "Survivor," Kamala Harris at the Democratic Debates, and Fiona Hill at the Impeachment Hearings (AP Photo/John Bazemore/Jeff Malet Photography/CBS/Salon)

Taking the broadest cultural and political view, the past two weeks or so have provided a solid, sobering representation of where women stand in America right now.

All of us are passing through a time of triumph and trial, obviously. Proof of this is playing out across TV in examples ranging from moving to enraging to outright depressing.

But in this context I'm mostly speaking about watching women in three different settings playing out within the same general time frame: the public hearings portion of Congress' impeachment inquiry, Wednesday's Democratic debates in Atlanta, and a disheartening parable dispatched from the Mamanuca Islands of Fiji.

That third mention refers to CBS' "Survivor: Island of the Idols," unscripted entertainment edited to fit whatever narrative producers deem to be most provocative. The 39th season is embroiled in a controversy involving several women being subjected to unwanted touching by castaway Dan Spilo, a Hollywood talent manager .

Dan is still part of the game whereas Kellee Kim, the contestant who raised her voice about Spilo's groping both directly to him and to other women, ended up being voted off the island. Kim's confessionals about the experience are raw and charged; at one point she visibly tears up, and a producer, speaking off camera, lets her know that if she's says the word they'll step in.

With $1 million on the line, however, taking such action would not have been without penalty. Then again, her trust that the tribe's other women would stand with her was misplaced. Several of them used her candor against her to blindside her, saying "me too" to her face and then putting her on the chopping block at Tribal Council.

"Survivor" executive producer and host Jeff Probst likes to remind people that the game plays out as a microcosm of society. It's also a program run by producers who have an obligation to ensure the people in their charge feel safe. The first half of the Nov. 13 back-to-back episodes actually includes an onscreen message that Spilo received an official warning from producers.

Given everything Probst and "Survivor" producers knew about Spilo's behavior before Kim and the man who defended her, Jamal Shipman, were voted off, the general consensus from passionate fans is that Spilo should have been ousted from the game instead of Kim, the woman whose boundaries he violated. (Shipman, it must be said, made an unrelated strategic mistake that doomed him. His eloquent, empathetic defense of Kim still stands.)

But this is "Survivor"; this is television. As Shipman told Entertainment Weekly in his exit interview, the understanding is that once you set foot on the island, the game is in play and barring a medical emergency – of which the show has had its share – there is no pause or reset button aside from the ones producers toss in as part of the game.

"The consequences for a player asking for production to get involved are monumental," Shipman said. ". . . Therefore, I think it is a judgment call that only the producers can make. They are monitoring the camp 24/7. They need to be the ones to decide when to prioritize the safety of the players. They should recognize that we are in a situation where we cannot advocate for ourselves without the fear of compromising our endgame."

I am not a regular "Survivor" viewer. In fact, it only occurred to me to watch the Nov. 13 and 20 episodes when it came up in a number of conversations. My friend and colleague Andy Dehnart's rapier-pointed critique of the situation, by the way, is a must-read for anyone seeking a concise breakdown of the ethical quandaries this development presents.

And he concisely spells out one of the main reasons for the general outcry among viewers sensitive to a woman's right to have her personal and physical boundaries respected:

At Tribal Council, Probst was more concerned about making a Survivor Cultural Touchstone Moment than just being honest and open about what he already knew. For Probst to get irritated with Dan while simultaneously pretending like he had no idea what was going on was quite the choice.

The Nov. 13 "Survivor" is fascinating to watch now, in the wake of five days' worth of impeachment inquiry testimony and Wednesday's debate, because of what events of the day prove about the "Survivor" theory of human behavior and society.

The common denominators in all three events – the reality show, the hearings and to some degree, the debate – stem from our feelings concerning right or wrong, and consequence, with women playing key roles at each juncture.

Even more starkly, it shows why movements like #MeToo and the struggle for gender inequality are not blown out of proportion or the latest social justice fever to hit the entertainment industry. And they also remind us that our problems are far from solved.

The fifth Democratic primary face-off, held at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, was moderated by four women, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and Andrea Mitchell, NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker, and Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post, which co-hosted the event along with MSNBC.

Among the topics candidates fielded on Wednesday were substantive exchanges about abortion rights, family leave, and gender inequity– lines of questioning underrepresented or completely omitted in previous debates.

Out of the 10 contenders on the stage, three out of the four women shone brightest. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the popular winner in post-debate assessments, but Sen. Kamala Harris also received her share of upvotes.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar performed better than she ever has, while also distinguishing herself by making a reasonable and fair stand for gender equality. Referring to a comment Klobuchar previously made about the double standard of Mayor Pete Buttigieg being taken seriously as a candidate given his youth and experience relative to her own, Mitchell asked her to clarify what she meant.

"Pete is qualified to be up on this stage, and I am honored to be standing next to him. But what I said is true: Women are held to a higher standard," she told Mitchell "Otherwise we could play a game called name your favorite woman president, which we can't do because it has all been men."

On the other hand, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard attempted to reprise her attack on Harris and was smacked down badly, and Vice President Joe Biden's second greatest gaffe of the night involved erasing Harris' career achievements in attempting to burnish his own by claiming that his strong support among black voters is  "because they know me, they know who I am. Three former chairs of the black caucus, the only African-American woman that's ever been elected to the United States Senate…"

"No, that's not true," Harris said, stepping in along with Cory Booker. "The other one is here."

At the end of the night, the general if unscientific consensus is that Maddow, Mitchell, Welker, and Parker kept the debate running smoothly, allowing candidates to fully deliver their answers while keeping them within their allotted time limits. Maddow, in the post-show, cited the flawless set-up at Tyler Perry Studios, which she says ensured that everyone heard one another and reduced the frequency of outburst and cross-talk

She also opined that the perceived toughness of her fellow moderators may have had influenced the better behavior this time around, jokingly referring to her NBC co-workers Welker and Mitchell as people you don't want to cross "in a dark alley, with no one around you."

The candidates, in turn, refrained from squabbling over one another. For the most part.

The presumption that women would simply run things better is lovely, and I support it. It's also facile. To wit: on "Survivor," two of the other women on the island with Kim played their discomfort with Spilo as a strategy, which paints a repulsive picture in several respects.

At the debate, Welker tried some gamesmanship of her own when she set up Harris to take a shot at Buttigieg for his bungled attempts to inflate his support among African Americans. But the moderator didn't go into specifics of what those missteps are – basically putting the weight on Harris to do the work for her and viewers at home and somehow not look like a heel.

Harris strategically pivoted away from the trap, likely aware of the potential optics of a black woman going on the offensive against nice Mayor Pete.

And while debate moved quickly and covered a lot of ground, it still fell short on depth and substance. LGBTQ issues were barely discussed; the topic of violence and discrimination against transgender Americans did not come up at all.

And yet, taking into account that it came at the end of 10 hours of live political coverage, women got the job done and did it well.

Women, too, put their careers on the line in service of the impeachment inquiry. A week before Wednesday's debates, Former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch appeared before the House Intelligence Committee, and I imagine her testimony might have hit anyone smarting from the events of that Nov. 13 "Survivor" episode differently than other viewers.

Yovanovitch is a story of a career diplomat who did her job well and was fully versed in the players behind corruption in the Ukraine, and as a reward for doing her job, was pushed out of her position and smeared by her former boss as she testified. (She was sidelined and silenced, in other words. You know, like one of those jurors made to silently witness Tribal Council from the sidelines.)

The unblinking cameras showed America a composed, capable witness who remained even-keeled throughout her testimony, as did Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence who listened in on Trump's July 25 phone call to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and testified on Day Three, or Tuesday of this week, that she found it unusual.

But two other women who appeared as witnesses this week packed more perceptual punch, in part due to how they were scheduled. From most accounts the inquiry's climax arrived on Wednesday of this week when EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland sauntered into the Capitol in the way of all entitled rich men who pay their way into positions they're not qualified to perform.

Sondland, who bought his diplomatic position by writing a $1 million check to Trump's presidential inaugural committee,  joked and smiled his way through many hours of questions by Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee after kicking off the proceedings with this bombshell:

"I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a `quid pro quo?' As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes."

Certainly it was a tremendous performance designed for the cameras. His resting grin, in particular, spoke volumes:  it was that of a man who knew he could say or do anything without suffering any significant penalty or alteration to his lifestyle because of it. But his role was mainly that of ending a flimsy argument; the rest was artful dodging and schtick.

The more thankless duty fell to the woman who followed Sondland on the schedule, deputy assistant secretary of Defense Laura Cooper, who dispelled the notion that Ukraine didn't know that funds for military assistance were being held up. She confirmed that, indeed, government workers asked about it on the same day as Trump's famous phone call.

In contrast to Sondland, Cooper was not afforded the luxury of engaging in performative hamminess, because she is a career servant; as far as we know she doesn't have a cushion of millions to fall back on if she's fired. The viewer saw a serious woman who chose her words very carefully and let GOP attacks roll off on her when they came her way.

Besides, it was not she who reminded viewers of the inequalities that exist within government, or this situation, or workplaces in general. That fell to Thursday's fact witness, Dr. Fiona Hill, the former top National Security Council official for Europe and Russia.

Questioned about her reaction to Sondland cutting her and her department out of the loop (which includes John Bolton) in terms of their dealings with Ukraine, she admitted having  a couple of testy encounters with him.

"One of those was in June '18 when I actually said to him, 'Who put you in charge of Ukraine?' I'll admit I was a bit rude, but that's when he told me the president, which shut me up," she said. What she said next speaks to something women face in every setting.

"I was actually, to be honest, angry with him," she said. "And you know, I hate to say it, but often when women show anger it's not fully appreciated. It's often pushed onto emotional issues, perhaps, or deflected onto other people."

She continued, "And what I was angry about was that he wasn't coordinating with us. I now actually realize, having listened to his deposition, that he was absolutely right. That he wasn't coordinating with us because we weren't doing the same thing that he was doing."

With this, she calmly delivered the coup de grace by characterizing Sondland's actions as "being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged. So he was correct . . . And I did say to him, 'Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up.' And here we are."

Recency bias, that phenomenon of easily recalling the latest events in a timeline with most accuracy, can be a wonderful thing . . . when and if it works in your favor, that is. The problem always is that the latest chapter in a saga doesn't tell the whole tale, which is why researchers and other types of chroniclers caution us about its influence.

Hill, though, gave a hell of a finale, coming across as unshakable even in the face of attempts to besmirch her reputation, even chastising members of the GOP without calling them out by name or party for perpetuating the debunked conspiracy that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 elections, not Russia.

Yet I am left to wonder, at the end of it all, what will happen to this steely survivor and others like her.

If the Senate embarks upon the trial portion of the impeachment, the focus will not be on weighing the evidence but tearing apart the people who submitted it to the public. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republicans got quite a preview of what to expect from Hill, Cooper, Williams, and Yovanovitch.

On the other hand, the hearing also served as a coming-out party for  Republican New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who tag teamed with Ohio GOP Congressman Jim Jordan in attacking witnesses.

Politics is a messy, bloody business, even more so when our diplomatic efforts become overtly politicized. Typically, though, what alarms people who consume current events mainly through TV news are acts that have already happened, actions that have been discussed in the halls of Congress or occur in places far away.

The real-time collision of political theater and unscripted reality showbiz adds a new kind of anxiety to what we're seeing, in that the manufactured product has the misfortune of auguring the truth of how things are. Four women did a better job of moderating the latest presidential debate than any of the predecessors, yet the debate was the least watched so far, with only 6.6 million viewers tuning in.

Hill's testimony was strong, and her unflappable comportment read brilliantly on live TV. A few hours later, Sean Hannity got an early start on the campaign to discredit Hill on Thursday's installment of his Fox News primetime program.

And some "Survivor" viewers are upset because they expected an artificial society formed and endured for 39 days, overseen by multiple witnesses behind many cameras, would mete out justice in ways the real world rarely does. The producers saw everything, and we saw enough. Even so, the alleged perpetrator is still on the road to a $1 million payday.

"It's super upsetting because it's like you can't do anything about it," Kim says on the show. "There are always consequences for standing up. This happens in real life, in work settings, in school. You can't say anything because it's going to affect your upward trajectory. It's going to affect how people look at you."

Her anger, I think, has not been fully appreciated it. But I do hope what happened to her serves as a warning, perhaps,  to prepare for whatever obfuscating storm is coming after these weeks of hard transparency, transmitted via live television.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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