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How Gender Roles Relate to Technology on CBS’ Survivor

Author’s Note: For the purposes of this essay, there is essentially no value added to the discussion by distinguishing between the sex and gender of the contestants.  Perhaps in a longer format, a separation of the two concepts would be useful, but in three pages, it would merely cloud the argument and confuse the reader.

I have been an avid Survivor fan for about three years now, but I only recently started noticing how disparate the gender roles on the show can be.  I was struck by the scene in the current season in which two men bonded over their use of the fishing equipment the tribe had just won.  It occurred to me that I couldn’t remember seeing a woman seriously using fishing equipment in any previous season that I had watched.  At the time, it was a passing thought, but as we began choosing groups to study anthropologically for our panel discussions, this simple observation came back to me and I soon realized I had stumbled upon a goldmine.

Survivor is ultimately a social experiment in which we examine how members of a small tribe interact with each other when the technologies they use in everyday life are no longer available to them.  In one sense, this technology can be computers, cars, cosmetic surgery and all other manner of things that humankind invents.  In this exploration of gender and technology, I will instead be defining technology as those advances necessary to a person’s basic survival: fire, basic tools (machetes, pots, bags), fishing gear, etc.  As they win challenges, tribes are gradually awarded these technologies.  Hence, as viewers, we are able to see how tribes function with and without technology.

In her introductory post, Rebecca wondered if we could ever move beyond gender labels and resolved that if we were to do so, it would most likely occur on the internet before it occurred in our ‘real’ lives.  In class, we’ve often discussed the power modern technology, like the internet, has to encourage us move beyond a simplistic gender system.  Consider what’s happening to gender roles in our virtual culture in comparison with what happens to gender roles on Survivor, where the only human interaction is face-to-face.  On Survivor, we see that if you take all technology away from a group of Americans, gender becomes a prominent factor in how the tribe members perceive each other.  So perhaps we can conclude that modern technology is beginning to blur the lines of our culture’s gender system.  To test our theory, let’s explore gender roles on Survivor and how they relate to technology or lack of it.

The biggest factor in constructing a tribe member’s gender is physical strength or ability.  Physical ability is the most valuable commodity on Survivor, whether a tribe has technology or not since physical strength can, in a sense, replace technological advances.  For example, the ability to hold your breath underwater for longer than someone else means you are more capable of swimming down to pick up a huge clam off the ocean floor for dinner.  Or if you have more upper body strength than someone else, you are more capable of using an enormous bamboo pole to knock coconuts down from a tree.  Physical strength and ability are also necessary for winning the challenges that will reward your tribe with technology and immunity.  Hence, being a physically strong competitor sends a certain message: Don’t vote me off the tribe, because if you do, there will be no one around to supply you with food and immunity.  This is in line with deLauretis’ argument that “a sex-gender system is always intimately interconnected with political and economic factors” (deLauretis, 5).

In the game of Survivor most of these physical competitors are men, but why?  It turns out that, female gender roles are much more complex and therefore, more fascinating, though also more difficult, to explore.  There have occasionally been physically dominant, female competitors on the show, though I haven’t actually seen a season in which there was one.  After a little research, it seems that most strong women are seen as too threatening to the masculine dominance or have abrasive personalities.  Having or being perceived as having these qualities, physically dominant women are generally voted off the tribe very early because those controlling early votes in the game are always the physically dominant, leader-like men.  On the other hand, physically weak players (regardless of gender) are voted off just as early as physically dominant women.  Perhaps this explains why, early in the game, female tribe members must often attempt to do the impossible: be capable of performing in challenges and contributing to camp life without being strong enough or smart enough to threaten the status quo.

In class we discussed the parallels between a NY Times article on hymenoplasty and Bañales’ “The Face Value of Dreams.”  My small group concluded that women in both situations were using technology to take on specific gender roles that helped protect them in some way.  In the game of Survivor, women protect themselves from being perceived as too threatening by not using much of the technology the tribe has.  For instance, if a woman can provide food for the tribe as well as a man, the tribe may be persuaded that she is better to keep on the tribe since she’s probably not strong enough to beat individual tribe members later in the game.  This possibility is threatening enough to those in power early in the game, namely the physically dominant men, that they will move to vote such a woman off the tribe.  Hence, female tribe members work to ensure that they do not seem threatening by allowing the men, early in the game, to use technology for food gathering.  Here, the use and non-use of technology by women has the same effect: to reinforce gender roles.  What does that mean for our earlier conclusion that modern technology is helping us blur the lines of our gender system?

It seems that whether or not tribes on Survivor have all the technology they need for survival or not, gender roles are extremely important.  This may, however, be a result of the lack of specific technologies, i.e. the internet and individual shelters, rather than the lack of all modern technology.  Outside of Survivor, we see modern technology both building barriers between genders and breaking down barriers between genders.  As usual, then, we are left with the conclusion that technology rarely does one thing or another; it does both.  For the purposes of this discussion, I believe the definitions of technology we used were either too narrow or too broad: the definition of technology on Survivor as basic survival needs was too narrow whereas the definition of technology in the rest of the world as pretty much anything was too broad.  I think, however, the relationship between gender and technology on Survivor can still be used as a lens through which we can understand the extremely complex relationship between gender and technology on the real world.

Works Cited
1. Bañales, Victoria. “The Face Value of Dreams”: Gender, Race, Class, and the Politics of Cosmetic Surgery.” Beyond the Frame: Women of color and Visual Representation. Ed. Neferti X.M. Tadiar and Angela Y. Davis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 131-152.
2. Church, Rebecca, “Comments, Posts, and an easy-to-find “hello world”.” Gender and Technology Spring 2009. January 26, 2009. March 5, 2009.
3. deLauretis, Teresa. “The Technology of Gender.” Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction. Indiana University, 1987. 1-30.
4. Episode 2. Survivor: Tocantins. By Mark Burnett. CBS. Watch Full Episodes
5. Episodes 1-4. Survivor: Gabon. By Mark Burnett. CBS.
6. Episodes 1-5. Survivor: Micronesia. By Mark Burnett. CBS.
7. Mekhennet, Souad and Sciolino, Elaine, “In Europe, Debate Over Islam and Virginity,” New York Times, June 11, 2008.

One Response
  1. March 23, 2009

    I’m interested in what gender roles the women took on. Did they become gatherers as opposed to hunters? Were they typically nurturing, etc.? You say that they had to downplay their physical capabilities in order to not appear threatening, but how, besides not using fishing gear did they do this? I’m also interested in the fact that “strong women” get voted off. I’d love to see clips of explanations from people that indicate their thinking along these lines. Finally, I’m interested in your suggestion that modern technology breaks down some gender roles while it reinforces others. I’d like to see more of a comparison between Survivor world’s gender roles and our own and the role technology plays in delineating those roles.

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