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Scott D. Pierce: 'Survivor' accidentally does something important

Published April 18, 2017 9:15 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After 17 years on the air, "Survivor" remains a highly entertaining and highly successful TV show. On Wednesday, it crossed over into Important Television territory because of the astonishingly bad behavior by a contestant.

In the April 12 episode, Jeff Varner, in danger of being voted out, turned to fellow contestant Zeke Smith and asked, "Why haven't you told anyone here you're transgender?"

Worse still, Varner said, "It reveals the ability to deceive."

That's indefensible. It's an old, offensive stereotype that, by being true to themselves, trans people are deceitful.

That's appalling on a level that had nothing to do with the show. Yes, "Survivor" requires contestants to connive, backstab and betray others to "outwit, outplay and outlast" and win a million dollars. But this had nothing to do with the game. And Varner outed Smith to millions of viewers.

It's no one's business, and Smith said, "I didn't want to be, like, the trans 'Survivor' player. I wanted to be Zeke the 'Survivor' player."

Given that transgender people are assaulted at a higher rate than the general population, Varner actually put Smith at risk.

Contestant Ozzie Lusth was right when he said, "It's like you're playing with people's lives at this point."

Much to their credit, the other contestants immediately went after Varner for crossing a line. And they expressed support for Smith.

Ironically, Varner kept his sexuality private the first two seasons he was on "Survivor," even refusing to answer direct questions. The first time he acknowledged that he's gay on air was in the April 5 episode.

He apologized profusely on the show, taped 10 months ago, and on social media and in interviews after the episode aired. But what makes "Survivor" compelling is that under the stress of hunger, exhaustion and paranoia, we see contestants for who they really are.

Varner's apologies come across as damage control. And he's still making excuses, blaming the editing and telling Parade magazine, "I wasn't in control in that moment. I didn't even hear it come out of my mouth."

Right. …

The better bit of irony is that Smith didn't go on "Survivor" (Wednesdays, 7 p.m., CBS/Ch. 2) waving the transgender banner and, as a result, he did a lot of good.

Caitlyn Jenner's ill-fated reality show, "I Am Cait," was all about trying to change minds. It's hard to imagine that many who weren't sympathetic to Jenner tuned in.

But viewers got to know Smith for who he is in his two seasons on "Survivor." Fellow contestant Sarah Lacina said that while she comes "from a very conservative" background that's "not very diverse," she grew to "love [Zeke] so much" — and that won't change.

Clearly stunned into silence by Varner's actions — and given time by host Jeff Probst to collect his thoughts — Smith came across as a calm, mature guy who actually told Varner he forgave him.

(That didn't help Varner in the game. After quickly polling the contestants, Probst sent him home without holding a formal vote.)

That "Survivor" might be a step forward for transgender Americans in no way excuses Varner, who did the single worst thing any "Survivor" contestant has done in 34 seasons and 504 episodes. "I don't want the perception to be that I'm this evil hateful person," he pleaded.

Of course he doesn't. But if you behave in an evil, hateful way … that's going to happen.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune . Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.






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