"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice -- but in practice, there is."
-- Jan L.A. van de Snepscheut
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Survivor -- Burbank Boardroom
Did someone forget to tell Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett that The Office is not in fact a documentary, and that Michael Scott is not a model of how to address diversity issues? Because this week Burnett announced that, in order to address complaints that his game show’s previous contestants haven’t been racially diverse enough, the next season of Survivor would be dividing its contestants into four teams based on race.
I never see these things coming, but in a country that allows the sale of an asthma drug that increases your chances of dying of asthma, where cigarette taxes pay for anti-smoking campaigns and state lottery funds go to education, I should’ve expected this. That a year after Katrina left whites and blacks with vastly differing opinions of this administration’s compassion for all of its citizens; a few weeks after some bomb scares turn every Middle-Eastern or Indian (most Americans can’t tell the difference – sorry, but true) person with a cell phone into a potential bomber; a few weeks after senatorial candidate George Allen calls a native Virginian an obscure racial epithet and welcomes him to America; and Andrew Young resigns for channelling Archie Bunker, Burnett (who, by the sheerest coincidence turns out to be a rich white guy) decides to apply his great wisdom to the racial divide by following the example set by South Africa.
I can just imagine how this went down at the producers meeting. Burnett’s stocky frame faces his team of producers. Arrayed around the table facing him are a gaggle of identical white men wearing pinstriped jackets and black muscle shirts. A few of them are jacked up from the pre-meeting lines of coke and primal scream therapy they like to call “The Fight Club.” Burnett announces his plan in a macho, burly presentation accompanied by a dazzling video set to the Survivor theme song, the national anthem of bland multiculturalism. As the lights come on, Burnett’s toadies rise as one, applauding his cultural genius. Later that evening as they drive their Ferraris back to their gated communities in the Hollywood Hills, they feel a renewed touch with the common people. Maybe tonight they’ll have the maid order Thai.
So there’s no way this could possibly go wrong – unless they give the blacks the crappiest island. Or everyone else gangs up on whitey. Or the races stick together. Or they don’t. Actually, in a few short minutes of examining the possibilities, the only way it can turn out well is if the show is so bland that viewers forget the apartheid aspect of the program straightaway.
And that might be the way to bet, because for such a diverse cast, the Survivor crew has managed to select a remarkably un-diverse group of people. More than half have show business credits, including one Emmy award and one Oscar nomination. The gritty working-class representatives include a heavy-metal guitarist who professionally wrestles under the name “Spanish Fly” and a police officer who’s done consulting work for movies and made several television appearances.
Not that this denigrates the contestants’ achievements – but it calls in to question the insularity of a group of people who, when called upon to scour the nation for people who look like America, come up with a bunch of actors, musicians, make-up artists and lawyers. If you’re losing ratings because you’re not appealing to the masses, maybe it’s not the racial component that’s the issue. Maybe a show that requires you to have the know-how to produce a video and the freedom to spend more than a month on a desert island isn’t going to come up with a contestant base that most of us can identify with.
And that’s the sad and wonderful thing about seeing only racism in a society that has been balkanized in so many other ways too. When George Bush wants to show people he’s not insensitive, he points to John Yoo, Condi Rice and Alberto Gonzalez. Bush and Burnett have managed to get the skin color thing down without having to travel too far afield of their own set of beliefs. I guess we should congratulate ourselves on how diverse we’ve beome when racial minorities can be found among every insular cultural demographic. Or maybe we’ve just outwitted our better selves by finding new ways to stay apart.
And what’s sad is that while one doltish rich white guy thinks he’s heroically addressing a problem (while cynically exploiting it as well, but that’s what executive producers do), everyone who’s ever been discriminated against is thinking, “here we go again.” Here we go again with the “where is that name from,” the “what do your people think of that,” and the “what are you going to do with that chicken” questions that, for all our cultural diversity, never seem to go away.
Maybe in the future we’ll live in a world where each of us enjoys the same opportunities, rights and privileges whether we’re standing in front of a judge, an ice cream vendor or a real estate agent. Maybe someday we won’t look at a crowd of multicultural show-biz types from New York and California and mistake it for diversity. And maybe someday rich white boys from the suburbs won’t describe themselves as ghetto. That day may or may not arrive, but if it does, there’s one thing I know about it for sure – the Mark Burnetts of this world will not be in charge.