Like millions of others, on Sunday I tuned in for the season finale of survivor. This is the first season that I did not actively follow, as the routine format has begun to bore me. The petty fighting, and the false relationships have become a standard affair. I watched hardly breathless, as Probes promoted yet another season of constructed drama. Survivor is returning to Africa. Gabon to be precise.
Probes finally had my undivided attention. I watched the juxtaposition of America and Gabon and could not help but notice the civilized/uncivilized binary. America is represented in the opening montage by a suburban neighborhood. Perfectly manicured lawns, and a kid with a paper route, represent the safe, and ordinary world of America. This is what the next group of survivors is risking to confront the savagery of Gabon. In the colonial imagination Africa is always represented as untamed and somehow exotic. Notice the tribal imagery and the spears. This is presented as a “traditional” land constantly threatened by wild animals. Cue…the dark threat of Gabon….hmmm
To unthinkingly consume this promotional spot, is to internalize the US as a perfect state of harmony, and Gabon as a land of limited structure inhabited by “others”. Watching this we can pretend that there are no inner cities, racial divides, rampant violence against women and children, and extreme economic disparity. The land of milk and honey is perfect in every way. The US is not involved in an illegal aggressive war, no it is populated by peaceful advanced people. It is safe and pure, despite the unprecedented rate of incarceration.
Not to worry though, this time Americans do not come as colonizers, oh no, they are arriving to enact their own “tribal ritual”. Suburbia is no place for this sort of confrontation. Man can only truly be tested on the dark continent. Africa is where one must go to confront the baser elements of social interaction. A place without the rule of law, a place far from the ideals of the enlightenment, is what is sought after. In this Lord of The Flies like adventure, the location provides permission for regression.
This is permissible because we can pretend that Gabon does not have a government, that people are not literate, and that no thriving economy exists. Such things are the purview of civilized states. Is it even possible that the legal system is based on French civil law system and customary law? Would you believe that the backward Gabonese have a legislative branch, judicial branch and executive branch of government? Even more surprising, they have railroads, paved roads, a functioning military, universal suffrage at the age of 21, and a telephone system? Huge Gasp…how uncivilized is that. Those courageous American survivors are risking life and limb to experience something unique.
Survivor tries to pass itself off as just another pop culture diversion,however the basis of the show is creating and supporting the idea of otherness. Naming distant land as different (read:backward) necessarily asserts privilege. It is ultimately an exercise in power dynamics on a global stage, for not only does the power to label exist, but the right to use another’s space as a playground. In HD TV one becomes witness to a time honored tradition of the whites mans burden, set to a post colonial imagination. Cue drum beat and spear throwing…