Surviving Survivor: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Includes Reality TV

Kellee Kim from Survivor
Kellee Kim from Survivor
Photo credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Whenever I bring up the fact that I watch Survivor, the first response is some variation of “that’s still on?” — which… fair. But after almost 20 years, Survivor has, ahem, survived the fate of so many other reality shows by staying true to its original compelling premise — remember “outwit, outlast, outplay”? — but also by evolving too, especially by showing how its contestants are impacted by cultural conversations and social change.

That Survivor is a mirror to society is certainly part of why I watch it — though it’s often an incredibly painful mirror. My work focuses on how to tell women’s stories, and Survivor, through both editing and game play, often does so terribly. It’s a TV show about power and strength, but time and again, women on Survivor must walk an incredibly delicate gender-stereotype tightrope by wielding their power without showing it, then somehow get credit for doing so by courting a jury to award them the million-dollar prize. In its last 14 seasons, 11 men have won compared to just three women. (Another man won last night.)

Which brings us to right now — Survivor just aired the finale of its 39th season, which is apparently how long it took for the show to finally have to confront (or acknowledge) #MeToo. In early episodes this season, a contestant, Kellee Kim, complained on camera about how uncomfortable another contestant, Dan Spilo, was making her because of his unwanted touching, but it came to a breaking point as Kim discussed with producers if they should intervene. She mused that those who speak up always face consequences. And that’s precisely what happened — she was promptly voted off. Kim’s fears are what all workers worry about before complaining about harassment — is it worth it to risk your livelihood by saying something?

Eventually, Spilo was removed from the show, which seems right at first glance (again, his harassment was shown starting early in the season and continued throughout!), but it’s how — and how long it took to get to that point — that has enraged so many Survivor fans, including me.

It didn’t help that the episode when Kim was voted out featured every trope of what happens when women come forward about being sexually harassed. We had a male contestant proclaim that it couldn’t have been happening if he didn’t know about it. And at first, other female contestants shared their own experiences with Spilo, which also featured inappropriate touching. But then, those same women used Kim’s vulnerability after complaining about Spilo to gather support to get her out of the game, which felt wildly treacherous and disappointing as it happened. Kim had a great response to this — rather than blaming the other women, she put the responsibility where it belonged: “If Dan had respected boundaries, none of this would have been an issue.”

In addition to Spilo though, we should be looking at the producers and CBS — who were the actual parties responsible for enabling Spilo’s continued harassment. The contestants were playing a game, but CBS is running a business. And its job is to protect those contestants — people it pays — from harm. Spilo wasn’t removed from Survivor until last week’s episode and only after he apparently was part of “another incident,” this time with a member of the show’s staff off-camera. If producers had done their job in the first place by listening to the women who were (sometimes in tears) telling them how unsafe and uncomfortable they felt, Spilo wouldn’t have had the opportunity to harass a crew member. And CBS, a network that has faced numerous sexual harassment complaints already, should have already known better.

Kim reached out to the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, which is housed and administered by the National Women’s Law Center Fund. We helped her find an attorney and provided her with media assistance. Because of Kim’s brave advocacy, CBS and Survivor producers have since promised changes to prevent harassment in the future, including announcing new rules for contestants and procedures to handle complaints. “I felt like I spoke up, and I was not being supported or believed…. To not be supported, to not believed… it’s one of the hardest things,” Kim said during the Survivor finale last night. “Your voice should have been enough,” Survivor host Jeff Probst admitted in response, which was a gratifying moment in an otherwise terribly upsetting and frustrating season.

Kim added last night, “I have to fundamentally believe at the end of the day that individuals and institutions are capable of change.” It’s what we believe here at the National Women’s Law Center too. And we know that real changes always start by listening to survivors and centering their experiences. I’m grateful Survivor and CBS are finally listening — I just wish they had from the start.